Everyone's talking about sixth-year quarterback C.J. Brown and a potentially explosive offense but if the Terrapins open their 2014 season with a bang, it's probably going to be the defense that blows up.
The Terrapins, coming off last year's 7-6, Military Bowl season, march into Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium for a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff with James Madison. The Dukes are under new management in former North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers and no one is quite sure what to expect.
To hear Maryland linebacker L.A. Goree explain it, the Terp defenders have watched tape of every offense on the east coast to get ready. "We just have to focus on what we do so we can be prepared for whatever they do," he said. "We cannot take James Madison lightly. I remember they beat Virginia Tech (in 2010)."
The Dukes also played Maryland to overtime in 2009, not that any of these Terps -- except Brown who should lobby the NCAA to call sixth-year seniors 'Brownshirts' -- were around to see it. That's not to say Maryland is not without more greybeards.
Joining Goree in that front seven on defense, are five other senior starters and junior defensive end Quinton Jefferson. There's veteran depth at just about every spot, too, and taking on that part of the defense may be the toughest task for the new-look Dukes' Saturday.
"There's a level of trust because we know where we are," said Goree of having nine starters back on defense. "Everybody on defense, we're closely connected."
They're also pretty talented. Maryland yielded just 3.7 yards per rushing attempt last year and the Terrapins were 18th in the nation with 37 sacks. Returning senior defensive end Andre Monroe had 9.5 sacks himself but he doesn't have a go-to move like a bull-rush or speed rush or swim move.
"There ain't no secret, it's just will," he said. "It's more reaction. I see what a (blocker) is doing and if he has a weakness, I take advantage."
Monroe & Friends will have to be up to their old tricks Saturday. They'll actually be facing a quarterback who has beaten them before. In 2012, then-Georgia Tech signal-caller Vad Lee ran for 64 yards and two scores in a 33-13 setback for the Terrapins. He's under center at JMU now, one of five FBS transfers on offense for the Dukes, who return just four starters on that side of the ball.
No matter what, James Madison will want to avoid third-downs. Former NFL defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, now in his third year with the Terps, saw his defense yield just a 34.2 percent success rate to opposing offenses on third down, the 21st lowest total in the country.
Meanwhile, Maryland has averaged 27.3 points in three previous openers under Randy Edsall, including a 43-10 win over Florida International last season. Those kinds of numbers pop up again, the offense will retake center stage but it's the defense that may just be Maryland's biggest edge early this season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB C.J. Brown became the first Maryland QB to pass for more than 2,000 yards and rush for over 500 in a single season. His 576 rushing yards last year set a school QB record, and he threw for 2,242 more, accounting for 25 touchdowns, the second most in a single season for the Terrapins. He had over 200 passing yards and 100 rushing yards in four different games in 2013. He's the catalyst for what could be an explosive unit.
--WR Stefon Diggs is back from the broken leg that ended his season early last year and he is one of the most explosive players in the country, averaging 156.0 all-purpose yards through his first two seasons. The Terps will count on him in the passing game, on reverses and as a kick-returner. The attention he draws should also make things easier for WR Deon Long and others and he has something to prove. A week ago -- as motivation -- Edsall had him working with the second team.
--ILB Cole Farrand anchors a veteran defense that should be imposing out of the gates. Farrand had 7.6 tackles per game last year, earning honorable mention All-ACC honors. He had 23 tackles in one game against Clemson and is one of nine returning starters on a defense that is loaded with veteran starters and reserves.
--CB William Likely is the star in a veteran secondary chockfull of experienced playmakers. He was fifth on the team with 70 tackles last year and led the squad with 12 pass breakups. The diminutive 5-foot-7 Likely came up big on special teams, too. He averaged 26.04 yards per kickoff return and 12.8 per punt return, including a score at Virginia Tech.
SERIES HISTORY: Maryland leads the series with FCS James Madison 2-0. The last time the two teams tangled in 2009, the Dukes took the Terps to overtime before bowing 38-35. That was early in a season that would see Maryland win just two games. The Terps won the first meeting in 1998, 23-15. Both games have been in College Park, as is this one.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've played similar teams and no one wants to be that team featured on 'Upset Special.' We understand that these guys have a lot of transfers coming in and they're going to be good football players." -- Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown on James Madison, where his younger brother is a redshirt freshman DB/WR.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: The Terps have four starters back on the offensive line and a stable of runners led by 2013 leader Brandon Ross (64.7 yards per game, 4.7 per carry). With the WR talent, look for Maryland to spread defenses and gash opponents with a hurry-up attack. The Dukes have eight starters back from a defense that allowed just 98.6 yards rushing per game but they can't load the box against Stefon Diggs and Deon Long and JMU is in its first game in a new 3-4 alignment.
Scouting the passing game: Maryland averaged 14.05 yards per completion in 2013, 16th in the nation and the most for the Terrapins since 2003. With veteran C.J. Brown back at QB and a talented array of WRs, notably big-play threats Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, Maryland promises to be explosive up top. And Brown is often at his most dangerous when things break down and he has to improvise on the move.
Scouting the run defense: The Terps will start six seniors in the front seven, a wealth of experience, and they're deep, too. They'll be matched up against a JMU team with just four offensive starters back, only two in the offensive line. Big edge, Maryland. Likewise, the Dukes' leading returning rusher is Khalid Abdullah, who had just 347 yards on the ground last year and they're in a new scheme.
Scouting the pass defense: The secondary is a projected strength with three starters back (CB Will Likely, safeties Sean Davis and Anthony Nixon) plus junior corner Alvin Hill and 2012 starter Jeremiah Johnson, who missed 10 games last year with a foot injury. They'll be eying JMU WR Daniel Brown, who averaged 15.8 yards per catch and scored eight TDs. The return of OLB Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil from injury as an edge rusher should bolster an already formidable pass rush. Maryland's 37 sacks last year ranked 18th in the nation and were the most for the Terps since 2002.
Scouting the special teams: PK Brad Craddock led the ACC with 1.62 field goals per game and is on the Lou Groza Watch List. Stefon Diggs' 28.5-yard kickoff return average in 2012 was the second best in school history and he'll share that duty this year with freshman Taivon Jacobs. Will Likely set a Maryland freshman record with 12.8 yards per punt return last year. Junior Nathan Renfro averaged 40.8 yards per punt but was sometimes erratic, an issue that wasn't resolved in the spring or in summer camp.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
--WR Stefon Diggs (No. 12 WR, 82nd overall) -- Has already been named to the Biletnikoff, Maxwell, Hornung and Walter Camp Awards watch lists. His two-year average of 156.0 all-purpose yards per game ranks second nationally among all returning FBS players.
--NT Darius Kilgo (No. 18 DT, 191th overall) -- The burly, 6-3, 310-pound run-stopper in the middle will split time with fellow senior Keith Bowers, allowing both to stay fresh.
--OLB Matt Robinson (No. 24 OLB, 270th overall) -- He is a hybrid coverage linebacker after playing safety the first two years of his career. He had 73 tackles, including 10 for loss last year, but he is amazing in coverage, his true ticket to the next level.
--OLB Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil (No.29 OLB, 336th overall) -- He is back from the upper body injury that cost him seven games last season. A ferocious pass-rusher, he is on the Butkus Award Watch List.
--Safeties Sean Davis and Anthony Nixon have combined to start 31 of Maryland's 35 games over the last two seasons heading into Saturday.
--TE Andrew Issacs, who played only on special teams a year ago as a freshman, will get his first career start at TE, after beating out sophomore T.J. Gallo and redshirt freshman Derrick Hayward for the job.
--LT Derwin Gray is the only true freshman on the offensive and defensive two-deep (backup tackle) heading into the season-opener.
--OG Evan Mulrooney, sidelined in camp with a viral infection, is lifting weight and running on a treadmill, though no date has been set for his full return to the team.
--LB Alex Twine and WR Levern Jacobs have been charged with second-degree assault, stemming from a July 19 incident, according to The Washington Post. "We are aware of the situation and are in the process of gathering more information," said Edsall in a prepared statement. "We take these matters very seriously. We will have no further comment at this time." Twine is on the two-deep at linebacker this week.
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