There’s youthful and untested, and then there’s the Maryland football team that will enter Saturday’s season opener against William & Mary with 22 players who have never taken a college snap on its two-deep depth chart.
Counting special teams, six freshmen are set to start against the Tribe at Byrd Stadium, including quarterback Perry Hills and safety Sean Davis, newcomers who ascended to first string following injuries to incumbents.
Others, such as promising wide receiver and kick returner Stefon Diggs, made the decision elementary for Coach Randy Edsall, who like the rest of the Terrapins marveled as the two-time All-Met from Good Counsel scored three touchdowns in a preseason scrimmage.
“It might be a short list to say the ones that won’t play,” Edsall quipped on Tuesday in reference to how many true freshmen he expects to contribute this season. Coming off a 2-10 record, Maryland has the third-most true freshmen — 14 — in Football Bowl Subdivision on its two-deep roster.
Edsall and his staff were certain at the start of training camp that first-timers would man a position or two. They just didn’t account for the rash of injuries that plagued the Terrapins and forced that number to swell from almost the opening of preseason practice on Aug. 6.
The next day, strong safety Matt Robinson hurt his left shoulder during morning drills at Byrd Stadium. The sophomore since has been wearing a brace on his arm to stabilize the joint, and the best-case prognosis is for Robinson to be back in time to play against Temple next weekend.
Edsall and first-year defensive coordinator Brian Stewart promoted Maret graduate Davis to starter after an impressive camp in which he began third on the depth chart behind Robinson and senior Clarence Claiborne.
“Just real nervous,” senior defensive end Joe Vellano, a second-team all-American, said of what he remembered most about his first game. “Just kind of wanted to make some plays, and I got a chance to make a play on my first drive, and after that you kind of settle down a little and start focusing.”
One week after Robinson’s injury, the Terrapins absorbed the disheartening news that starting quarterback C.J. Brown had torn an anterior cruciate ligament. The junior captain planted his right leg to cut in a non-contact drill but his knee buckled, and Maryland was without its offensive centerpiece for the season.
In conjunction with first-year offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, Edsall moved Hills to first-team quarterback after the Pennsylvania high school wrestling champion had distanced himself from classmate Caleb Rowe in the competition to be Brown’s backup.
Hills is in line to become the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Maryland since Latrez Harrision in 1999. He also would be the first freshman to start a season opener at quarterback since redshirt Calvin McCall on Sept. 2, 1999.
“If the freshmen are the best guys, then we’re going to play them,” Edsall said. “As far as how we prepare during the week, I’m not going to change how I want to practice. In terms of getting prepared, I mean pretty much the same kind of practices I’ve had wherever I’ve been.”
There’s been no doubt the most auspicious beginning for a freshman has come from Diggs, whose game-changing speed and dazzling footwork had Bowl Championship Series powers Ohio State and Florida, among others, courting his services.
In the only scrimmage open to reporters and the general public on Aug. 18, Diggs had touchdown returns covering 67 yards on a punt and 98 yards on a kickoff before catching an 11-yard touchdown pass from Hills shortly before halftime. Diggs is listed as the No. 2 slot receiver behind senior Kerry Boykins.
Place kicker Brad Craddock is another true freshman starting on special teams. Craddock, who also might punt (a decision that will be made at game time), won the job in training camp while senior Nick Ferrara nursed a sore hip that required offseason surgery. Craddock’s backup at place kicker is classmate Brendan Magistro.
Newcomers elsewhere on the roster are but one injury to a starter from being inserted into the lineup. The offensive line, for instance, has freshmen Mike Madaras as the No. 2 left tackle and Nick Brigham as the backup left guard.
The defensive line, meantime, includes Quinton Jefferson as Vellano’s backup. At outside linebacker, Avery Thompson is No. 2 behind sophomore Alex Twine, and cornerback Alvin Hill and safety Anthony Nixon are top reserves as well.
“We have a great freshman class this year,” Hills said. “A great group of guys. We all get along very well. Over the summer we got along. In the workouts we got to know each other really well, just like a family, like a brotherhood. That’s what you’re looking for in a team.”