Among the many questions looming over Maryland’s football program, one of the largest and most perplexing involves the quarterback quandary that has developed midway through Coach Randy Edsall’s first season.
Edsall could give sophomore C.J. Brown his first career start Saturday night against No. 8 Clemson. But Edsall has kept his feelings close to the vest throughout the week, and nothing will be official until the Terrapins’ first offensive snap is taken at Byrd Stadium.
The fact that the starting job is up for grabs in the sixth game of the season is a surprise to many who watched Danny O’Brien start the last 15 games. They saw O’Brien help lead Maryland to a 9-4 record last season, win the ACC’s rookie of the year award and steward an offense that ranked 29th nationally in averaging 32 points per game. Maryland’s weekly press notes state that O’Brien emerged as one of the nation’s best first-year quarterbacks.
But O’Brien has not performed as well as he did last season, and he has also not been able to match the success he had in Maryland’s season-opening victory against Miami, when he completed 31 of 44 passes for 348 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
He threw three interceptions in a failed comeback attempt against West Virginia and passed for just 153 yards the next week in Maryland’s all-around disheartening effort against Temple. The return of Ronnie Tyler and Quintin McCree, two of his best wide receivers who served two-game suspensions, did not dramatically help.
The offense looked sluggish against Towson, a Football Championship Subdivision team, in the first half on Oct. 1. And O’Brien was given just six passes — he completed just 1 of 6 for 17 yards — before Edsall benched him after a second-quarter interception last Saturday against Georgia Tech.
For Maryland fans, the question is why. Should the struggles be attributed more to a sophomore slump or growing pains in coordinator Gary Crowton’s spread offense? Neither O’Brien nor Brown was made available to speak to reporters this week, and Edsall does not permit assistants to speak to reporters during the regular season.
When asked specifically whether the struggles are because of a change in systems or O’Brien’s regression, Edsall said: “Again, we just evaluate every position, and the guys that are the best guys are going to play. It is all based on production in terms of how they do. Again, the quarterback position is no different than any other.”
Receivers have dropped several catchable passes, and Maryland’s offense sometimes looks as if it is still adjusting to the new system.
In recent weeks, Edsall has suggested that O’Brien, because of the immense confidence he has, may have been trying to do too much. Edsall also said that he has talked with O’Brien about simply worrying about executing the plays that the coaches call, and if they fail then the blame falls on coaches.
When pressed this week on what O’Brien is struggling with, Edsall said, “As I have stated before, he has just got to go out and play and relax and just do the things that the play calls for each and every play.”
O’Brien has praised Edsall in the past, calling Edsall a “great leader” who inspires confidence because he remains on message and displays poise during the ups and downs of a game.
O’Brien’s notable commitment to year-round film study and his knowledge of the game has been well chronicled. Before the start of preseason camp, Edsall described O’Brien as “another coach on the field.”
During that preseason news conference, Edsall added that O’Brien “commands the respect of his teammates, which is as important as anything. Those guys look him in the eye and believe in him. Some guys have it and some guys don’t. Danny O’Brien has it.”
Edsall said personnel decisions are “never anything personal” and that he is only “working to get the best guys on the field.” He called O’Brien and Brown two “very good quarterbacks.”
Brown played in only one series last season — four plays against Morgan State — before suffering a fracture in his right shoulder that caused him to miss the final 11 games.
More mobile than O’Brien, Brown rushed for 124 yards against Georgia Tech, including a 77-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run. Despite carrying the ball just 11 times this season, Brown ranks second in team rushing yards with 153.
But he completed just 4 of 17 passes for 36 yards and one interception against Georgia Tech. Brown led Maryland on its only touchdown drive against Temple, but the outcome had already been decided by that point in the fourth quarter.
The uncertainty has forced Clemson (6-0, 3-0 ACC) to prepare for both quarterbacks.
“That’s definitely a challenge for us as far as having to prepare for both styles,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said.
Regardless of who starts Saturday, unless Maryland (2-3, 1-1) upsets the Tigers, questions about the offense’s development in Crowton’s system and Edsall’s handling of the quarterback position are likely to persist.