Elijah Brooks, the head football coach at DeMatha Catholic High School, had heard Anthony McFarland’s name. So had the coaches at other Washington area private schools. They all wanted the highly recruited eighth grader to be part of their teams.
Brooks had never seen the young running back play, but he found out McFarland would be participating in a youth championship game at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District. Just as Brooks walked into the stadium and toward the field, McFarland returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, making a few moves along the way.
“I immediately knew he was a kid we were going to go after,” Brooks said.
Brooks, who coached McFarland throughout high school, could see McFarland’s explosiveness and the fluidity of his movement long before he put on a college uniform. In a career that has been defined by waiting — first because of talent ahead of him on his high school team’s depth chart and then because of a serious injury — McFarland has emerged as a key contributor at Maryland, the college he chose over a handful of top programs.
Through Maryland’s first four games, the redshirt freshman has more yards from the line of scrimmage than any other Terp. Against Minnesota, McFarland scored his first career touchdown to kick off the Terrapins’ strong offensive showing and later had a 64-yard run, untouched by defenders, for another score. McFarland has recorded more than 100 rushing yards in consecutive games.
As part of a running backs group that’s loaded with ability — McFarland believes it’s the best unit in the country — he has accumulated 291 rushing yards, 10.8 per carry. McFarland watches his teammates the same way he would observe NFL players and finds ways to improve by looking at their film.
“It's just crazy to me how I'm learning from guys in my room,” McFarland said. “That lets you know how special those guys are, man. It's unbelievable.”
Maryland ranks 15th in the country, averaging more than 250 rushing yards per game. Senior Ty Johnson has 300 yards, just a few ahead of McFarland, while sophomore Tayon Fleet-Davis has 148.
“Competition is the greatest thing in the world,” interim coach Matt Canada said. “There's nothing like it. You have to be your best every day. . . . That room is pushing itself, and they're playing very, very well.”
McFarland, who’s from nearby Hyattsville, chose Maryland over Alabama, Georgia and Miami, deciding to stay close to home, where he still felt he could be part of winning big games.
“The day before my commitment, I was just sitting in bed really thinking: Why can’t I do what I want to do with my teammates where I’m from?” said McFarland, who plays alongside nine others who went to DeMatha. “Why do I have to go to another state and go over there just to think I’m going to go to this big school because they’re winning and I can contribute to that?”
During McFarland’s last high school season — when he was finally supposed to be the go-to running back after taking turns behind other future Division I players, including Maryland teammate Lorenzo Harrison III — a broken fibula kept him on the sideline. The college programs that had offered scholarships didn’t waver, but McFarland still missed out on what was meant to be a standout year.
“He was an emotional leader on game days, encouraging guys to make plays,” Brooks said. “His presence was still felt, but he didn't envision his senior year looking like that. No one did.”
After arriving in College Park, McFarland had to wait another year to be part of Maryland’s offensive attack. McFarland said he needed the redshirt season to “get my body right.”
McFarland traveled to every game and let the 2017 season serve as a course in College Football 101. He learned about preparation and how, at this level, players can’t skate by on talent alone like some can in high school. He came to appreciate the importance of watching film and understanding the opponent.
McFarland gained knowledge in that time, but he still hadn’t played a meaningful down in two years — a hurdle that can be more difficult mentally than physically, Brooks said.
In Maryland’s season opener against Texas, McFarland carried the ball only twice, but more importantly, he had finally returned. Ever since, he has continued to establish himself as a dynamic piece of Maryland’s offense.
“I just knew I was back,” McFarland said of his long-awaited college debut. “And I feel like I’m a different player than before.”
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