Had Maryland not suffered two long-term injuries in the third quarter of last Saturday’s 51-41 season-opening victory over Texas, no true freshmen would have played meaningful snaps for the Terrapins.
That would’ve been a departure from the 2016 youth movement brought on by Coach DJ Durkin, who in his first season at the helm started seven true freshmen — tied with South Carolina for the most in major college football — and played 17 rookies in consistent roles. Last weekend in Austin, Durkin began to see the early returns of using those players before they were truly ready a year ago: 13 sophomores played critical roles in Maryland’s first win over a ranked team in seven years.
But in what has become a central theme in the early tenure of Durkin’s rebuild, he again turned to two freshmen out of necessity. Quarterback Kasim Hill took over after sophomore starter Tyrrell Pigrome suffered a season-ending knee injury, and outside linebacker Bryce Brand stepped in for senior defensive end Jesse Aniebonam, who fractured his right ankle.
It paid off. Hill completed all three of his passes, including a 40-yard pass on third and 19 to set up his own decisive three-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Brand came up with his first career sack in the second half.
Though both of those players will be pressed into more prominent roles for the rest of the season, perhaps earlier than hoped, Saturday’s home opener against Towson could present Durkin a luxury typically afforded the type of deep, established teams he wants the Terrapins to become: a chance to let Hill and Brand ease into larger roles, and to give other first-year players experience, rather than fielding them out of necessity.
Not only will the prospect of playing a team from the lower Football Championship Subdivision give Hill a chance to settle in as the team’s new starter, it will also give Maryland a likely opportunity to rest starters and evaluate a crop of young players in all three phases.
“We will continue to play more. It’s a natural progression. I know last year we played a very large number, but a lot of those, we didn’t start playing until a couple games into the season. When guys are ready, and obviously sometimes injuries dictate things, but more than that, those guys are already into the plan,” Durkin said. “This week we’ll play a couple more, and keep moving on as we go. It’s just a process to get them ready and to execute at the level we need.”
There remain potentially worrisome similarities between this season and last at quarterback. Pigrome was forced to play before he was ready as a true freshman last season, appearing in 11 games and making one start. “It had to be done,” Durkin said.
Pigrome proved his capabilities at Texas, but his injury once again forces Durkin to ride a true freshman at the most important position on the field.
“The good news is, we did a great job in recruiting, and we’ve got a really special freshman” in the 19-year-old Hill, Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell said. “He’s got a big job to do.”
So does Brand, a talented 6-foot-3, 241-pound “Buck” linebacker who must now help patch over the loss of Aniebonam, the team’s best pass-rusher who could miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery on his fractured right ankle earlier this week.
While Durkin has vowed to be patient with the rest of his 2017 recruiting class — which included 28 players and is considered one of the best in school history — he is expected to begin working a core of other first-year players into the rotation much as he did a year ago. He could turn to freshman wide receiver Tahj Capeheart, a onetime Virginia Tech commit who is listed as a backup to senior (and former Towson transfer) Jacquille Veii and is one of five freshman receivers whom Bell has been “force-feeding” reps to.
Durkin could also use Saturday’s matchup against the Tigers to increase the workload of his talented rookie running backs, including North Carolina recruit Javon Leake and former DeMatha star Anthony McFarland, both of whom are in development in deep backfield led by junior Ty Johnson and sophomores Lorenzo Harrison and Jake Funk.
A year after grooming true freshman Terrance Davis — another former DeMatha standout who was the gem of the 2016 class — into a starter at right guard, Durkin has slotted three true freshmen as backups along the offensive line, all of whom starred at Baltimore-Washington area high school and would be thrust into starting roles in case of any attrition: center Johnny Jordan (Gonzaga), right tackle Marcus Minor (DeMatha) and left tackle Jordan McNair (McDonogh).
“We have a lot of very talented young offensive linemen. Knock on wood, that no one goes down, but if they were to go down, I don’t think that this offense would miss a beat with any of those guys,” junior right tackle Damian Prince said.
While Durkin readily admits that Pigrome was not ready to play a year ago, he has not echoed that sentiment with Hill. The other freshmen might be able to blend into Saturday’s game and continue to see increased roles throughout the season, which plays perfectly into Durkin’s plan, but Hill is in a position that could quickly overwhelm any first-year player.
“We’re going to put that on him. I know he’ll respond,” Durkin said. “There will certainly be freshman moments or whatever, but Kasim is the right guy you want to be in that spot.”
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