Maryland will open its football season in four days, like most teams in the country. But interim head coach Matt Canada, his staff and players are preparing to face Texas on Saturday while navigating a situation without compare.
“We’re helping each other,” Canada told reporters before practice Tuesday regarding program upheaval in the wake of offensive lineman Jordan McNair’s death in June from heatstroke suffered during a team workout. “When somebody’s having a tough day, we try to help each other out. I think everything that they’ve dealt with, they’ve done the best job they could possibly do. I think we’re as ready as we can be, given the situation that we’re in.”
Canada met with reporters for the second time since he took over the job on an interim basis Aug. 11, a day after reports broke alleging a toxic team culture. Canada answered — and in a couple of cases dodged — questions about separate investigations into McNair’s death and the program, and about his communication with Coach DJ Durkin, who remains on administrative leave.
The only topics that did not in some way point back to the recent tragedy and ensuing controversy were about Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger and the competition between Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome to start at quarterback for the Terrapins. Canada said Tuesday that he has chosen a starter but would not say who.
“I’m glad those two quarterbacks are back. I’ll say that,” Canada said of Hill and Pigrome, who suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments three weeks apart early last season. “I’m glad they’re back and healthy.”
During the period of practice that was open to the media, Hill rotated first during most quarterback drills. Pigrome, however, also had a few turns at the front of the line toward the end of the period.
The Terrapins have tried to separate their focus on the game from the loss of a teammate, Canada said, while recognizing that grief over McNair is “never going to go away and we’re not asking it to go away.” The game against No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field will feature a moment of silence, and players will wear helmet stickers with McNair’s No. 79.
Maryland players were not made available to comment Tuesday, and other than two instances have not been made available to reporters since the spring game more than four months ago. Offensive linemen Johnny Jordan and Ellis McKennie delivered a joint statement to reporters last week addressing how the team plans to honor McNair during the season, but they did not answer questions. The only other public comments made by players about McNair’s death or the upcoming season were when Derwin Gray, Darnell Savage Jr. and Taivon Jacobs answered questions at Big Ten media days in Chicago in late July.
Maryland’s preparations Tuesday stood in stark contrast to those addressed by Texas Coach Tom Herman during the Big 12 Conference’s weekly teleconference. Herman responded to a more typical array of questions — how the team has looked on the practice field, handling external expectations and the importance of an opener against a Power Five opponent.
Herman said Maryland’s offseason problems have had no effect on his team’s preparation. During preseason camp, Herman said his staff reminded Longhorns players that “this isn’t a team that thinks they can beat us. They know they can because they have,” alluding to Maryland’s 51-41 upset win at Texas to open last season.
In reference to Texas’s cycle of disappointing results — as well as changes in university presidents, athletic directors and head coaches — in recent years, Herman said: “Any time you have that much instability in such a short amount of time, that’s not usually a recipe for success. We’ve got stability.”
In College Park, Canada said his only choice is to take his role on a day-by-day basis. He is focusing primarily on his duties as offensive coordinator, the position he was originally hired to fill in January. Still, at Tuesday’s practice in the team’s indoor facility, Canada spent some time watching over the defense. He has never been a head coach during his extensive college career, but he said he doesn’t see his interim role as a chance to prove his abilities, simply because of the events that led the program to this point.
“It’s a challenging situation, and ultimately it’s still about Jordan and that’s why we’re here and all these things have occurred,” Canada said. “We’re sticking together as a staff. I want to do the best job I can. I certainly have pride in that.”