The B1G change is finally here, Maryland gearing up for Big Ten competition, and fourth-year coach Randy Edsall with a team, at least on paper, that looks up to the task.
The Terrapins (7-6) return eight starters on both sides of the ball, including a host of playmakers on offense that should give the Turtles hare-like, quick-strike ability. Likewise, the Terps also line up in the 3-4 for the third-year and have experience and depth throughout the defense.
"It's comforting going into the season having the depth and experience we have coming back," said Edsall, who rarely seems to take comfort as he builds the Terrapin program.
There are still questions about how a middle-of-the-pack ACC team will match up in the Big Ten. And while there are playmakers -- veteran quarterback C.J. Brown, ultra-talented wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, and a stable of running backs paced by Brandon Ross and the return of big, strong Wes Brown -- it's the offensive line that will make or break Maryland's season. The Terrapins were 10th in the ACC last year, grounding out 148.4 yards per game on land, and they had just 18 rushing scores in 13 games.
Some of that disconnect -- because Edsall loves to run the football -- can be traced to Wes Brown's one-year suspension over a run-in with law enforcement officers last summer, but a lot rests on the shoulder pads of a still unproven offensive line.
Now new line coach Greg Studrawa inherits a disparate group anchored by senior Sal Conaboy at center but that may still be shuffling around Conaboy. The hope is two true freshmen -- hulks Derwin Gray and Damian Prince -- can work into the mix and make contributions, and that's not generally how it's done in the Big Ten, where fifth-year offensive linemen dominate the landscape and power running games seem a birthright.
The defense, with a startlingly experienced rotation in the front seven, should hold up better, particularly if nose tackles Darius Kilgo and Keith Bowers, end Andre Monroe and inside linebackers L.A. Goree and All-ACC Cole Farrand continue the upward trends in their play. The secondary could be excellent with corners William Likely, Jeremiah Johnson and Alvin Hill. Safety Sean Davis is in the best shape of his career and seems primed for a big season.
Outside linebackers Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, Yannick Ngakoue and Matt Robinson all have a penchant for play-making, too.
Brad Craddock should be among the conference's top kickers and coaches are confident the punting game will sort itself out in camp.
The pieces are there for this to be Edsall's finest Maryland team but with so much change this season, no one is quite sure what that means yet.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: What a surprise that the Terrapins early schedule breaks well for them with the distinct possibility of a fast start before conference play. James Madison is in Byrd Stadium for the Aug. 30 opener, then the Terrapins travel to South Florida where no one is bullish on the Bulls (2-10 last year), and losers of their last six games. Long-time rival West Virginia is next but that's a home game. With a good shot at a 3-0 start, the improved Terps then have winnable games at Syracuse on the 20th, and at Indiana the 27th, before the Big Ten home opener against -- gulp -- Ohio State. It's a cautionary tale, though, because Maryland was 4-0 last season and had just hit the rankings before heading off to Florida State and a 63-0 reality check.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: It's all up front. Can a veteran but somewhat smallish defensive front hold up to the week-to-week rigors of the Big Ten. And can that offensive line, shaky the last two years, protect C.J. Brown to allow him to make plays down the field and also get surge to establish a running game. Senior Silvano Altamirano took the lead at right guard with converted center Evan Mulrooney's viral infection illness during camp. Freshman Sean Christie has already likely been lost for the season with a knee injury. Highly-touted freshmen tackles Derwin Gray and Damian Prince can and likely need to make a difference this season. Defensively, there are a lot of experienced players in the front seven that can rotate and make the defense effective. At least that's what the Terps are banking on. Keep an eye on senior DE Andre Monroe, who had 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for losses (both team highs) last year and is tops among all retuning FBS linemen with 0.66 sacks per game.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The offensive line. It allowed 27 sacks (nearly two per game) last year. Maryland was inconsistent on the ground and the rushing attack was sometimes nonexistent. The Terrapins won't succeed without a good year from Rimington Trophy candidate Sal Conaboy & Co. The other major concern, at least based on last year's statistics and performance, is the punting game where junior Nathan Renfro and his modest 40.8 average return. The Terps were 12th in the ACC with a 35.8 net average and Renfro uncorked a lot of low line drives. Freshman Lee Shrader, brought in to challenge, hasn't got off on the right foot either.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The thing I like about the defense is I like their camaraderie. I like the leadership that they're bringing to the practice field. It's not just one or two guys. It's everybody. Everybody is very enthusiastic and holding people more accountable. That's what we've got to do on the other side of the ball. We don't have that on offense. We've got to get people stepping up. Defensively, it's a group that really understands their roles. They understand what needs to be done and you can see them practice with that enthusiasm and effort. That enthusiasm is what you want to see." -- Coach Randy Edsall.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Randy Edsall, fourth year at Maryland, 13-24 record at Maryland; 87-94 overall, 15 years.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
--WR Stefon Diggs (No. 7 wide receiver, 80th overall) -- A junior coming off a broken leg last year, Diggs is averaging 156.0 all-purpose yards per game (receiving, kickoff and punt return, with a run here and there) for his career. It's a figure that ranks second among all active FBS players. He seems to be back to full speed and ready to terrorize opposing defenses again. Diggs is one of those players that brings fans to the edge of their seats every time he touches the ball.
--C Sal Conaboy (No. 36 center) -- Started 20 games at center the last two years and was recently named to 2014 Rimington Trophy Watch List. Big (6-3, 295), strong and smart (2013 ACC All-Academic team), Conaboy has improved each season and Edsall loves his "steady" play in the middle. There's not nearly as much stability around him on that line but he's emerging as a leader, trying to help his fellow linemen and Maryland make a mark in a league known for big, strong, smart linemen.
--OLB Matt Robinson (No. 19 outside linebacker, 268th overall) -- A converted safety, few college linebackers can match Robinson's coverage skills. In his first season as strong-side linebacker, Robinson was fourth on the team with 73 tackles and third on the team with 10 tackles for loss. He broke up four passes, the second most on the team and he's a senior still learning how to play linebacker. He has suffered chronic shoulder injuries and got to participate in a full offseason weight-lifting program for the first time in his career this year.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB C.J. Brown -- What can Brown do for you? The fifth-year signal caller became the first Terp ever to throw for more than 2,000 yards and rush for more than 500, the top dual threat QB in Maryland history. His 576 rushing yards set a Maryland QB record. While he doesn't necessarily have a big league arm, he makes the throws he needs to and he's the acknowledged team leader. One reason is an incredible toughness (battling through shoulder, knee and last year's "trunk" injury) during a star-crossed career. A grad student now, Brown has maturity and he's the linchpin that can trigger a potentially explosive offense, getting the ball to Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, among other big-play guys. The coaches' only criticism of him is that he trust himself more, be more decisive in his reads, whether running the ball or passing.
BREAKOUT STAR: WLB Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil -- A remarkable combination of size, speed and athleticism, Cudjoe-Virgil was coming into his own last year when he went down with an upper body injury. He showed a penchant for the big play with 3.5 sacks and then an acrobatic interception in the West Virginia game last year. Cudjoe-Virgil is at the weakside linebacker slot where he has free reign to attack the backfield and create havoc in former NFL defensive coordinator Brian Stewart's 3-4 scheme. Coaches love his "passion" for the game.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: LT Derwin Gray -- The 2013 non-qualifier prepped a year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy and steps in now as the Terps best hope to add some more athleticism and raw talent at the troublesome left tackle spot. The 6-5, 300-pound Gray was tabbed the No. 1 recruit out of Washington, D.C., by ESPN in 2013, and was No. 2 according to Rivals. Another true freshman, Damian Prince, could also push up front but neither has found their way to the top of the depth chart. Yet.
--Senior wrestler Spencer Myers is working out as a defensive end, and has impressed in camp. Coaches particularly like his strength and ability to use leverage.
--CB Jeremiah Johnson missed all but two games last year with a toe injury but is working back into the form that made him a lockdown corner in 2012. In his absence, then-freshmen Will Likely emerged as a star (fifth on team with 70 tackles) but the hope is the duo can be a great corner tandem this year.
--RB Wes Brown returns from a year-long suspension to join a logjam at the tailback position. 2013 rushing leader Brandon Ross is back, still vying with fellow junior Albert Reid. Along with Brown, shifty sophomore Jacquille Veii, the fastest of the runners, is also looking for more time.
--Redshirt freshman linebacker Derrick Hayward was switched to TE, where he joins another battle royal with untested sophomores P.J. Gallo and Andrew Isaacs as the front-runners.
--WR Nigel King, who had 33 catches for four scores and a 13.6-yard average last season, was granted his release as camp opened, and transferred to Kansas.
--OG Sean Christie, out with an ACL, has been the only major injury in camp so far though veteran guard/center Evan Mulrooney will be out for an extended period with a viral infection doctors had trouble identifying at first.
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