He waited almost two years for this moment, so C.J. Brown wanted to make it count. Twenty-one months removed from his last college snap and 12 months after a torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his junior season before it even began, the Maryland quarterback passed the pregame hours Saturday by listening to music and studying his notes, anything to prevent his mind from wandering.
At times, the past clouded Brown’s focus, especially memories of the noncontact drill in August 2012 when he cut and crumpled onto the Byrd Stadium turf. But he banished such thoughts once Saturday’s season opener against Florida International began, breezing through his first public examination in the Terrapins’ 43-10 rout.
“After the first series, all the nerves and cobwebs were off,” Brown said after the game, ice packs on his elbow and knee and a smile on his face. “I was definitely nervous to get back out there. It had been a year. From riding the bus and coming down and participating in pregame warmups and going out there and having fun and executing, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Questions lingered about Brown throughout his rehabilitation. Would he regain his trademark speed? Could his passing accuracy improve? But he slowly met each benchmark, participating in limited workouts last spring and returning in full once preseason camp opened. Only one true test remained.
Granted, a hapless Florida International team returning just five starters under first-year Coach Ron Turner might not provide the best barometer for Brown’s future success. Still, it was an impressive start. Brown completed 21 of 23 pass attempts, an 87 percent clip. He ran Maryland’s read-option offense perfectly, scoring on runs of 29 and 11 yards, and topped the 100-yard rushing mark for the fourth time in his career. By halftime, Brown had accounted for a career-high five touchdowns — the most for a Maryland quarterback since 2003 — and the Terps had scored on seven of eight drives.
“Your quarterback sets the tempo for who you are as a team,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “Not only his abilities, but how he handles himself. C.J. handles himself so beautifully as far as how he conducts his own life, the character and integrity and everything that’s about him. That just rubs off on other people.”
All offseason, the Terps preached health and stability as their newfound narratives entering Edsall’s third season. They returned all nine assistants, the only ACC team to do so. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart could install their respective systems without fear of naive, basic questions from wide-eyed freshmen. And unlike last season, they had Brown directing the offense.
“Man, I’ve been telling everybody, that’s my boy,” cornerback Dexter McDougle said. “He’s back.”
Early in the second quarter, Brown threw his first touchdown pass to transfer wide receiver Deon Long on an impeccably timed fly route from 25 yards. But FIU’s secondary also gave Brown plenty of help. Midway into the second quarter, fullback Kenneth Goins leaked free for a 17-yard touchdown reception, uncovered in the end zone. Stefon Diggs found similarly open real estate on Maryland’s next drive. The Panthers bit hard on an option, and the preseason all-ACC specialist found himself so open that not even several stumbles gave FIU enough time to catch up on a 66-yard touchdown catch.
As the game dragged on, the rout all but cemented, Edsall dipped into the depth chart at quarterback, not out of necessity but luxury. Because of injuries last season, the Terps were forced into playing two true-freshman quarterbacks, one wide receiver-turned-quarterback and a scout team linebacker as their fifth, desperate option. On Saturday, Brown again donned a headset and baseball cap, his familiar uniform of last season. Except now he was watching backup Caleb Rowe take snaps in a 30-point game, leading Maryland to its largest yardage output since 2005, helping ribbon-wrap the handiwork of Brown’s masterful return.