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A stable of running backs comprised a backfield that was arguably the Terps’ biggest strength on the gridiron last season. Five different tailbacks carried the ball at least 25 times, rushed for more than 100 yards and scored at least one rushing touchdown in 2016 for Maryland, which finished the season ranked fourth in the Big Ten with 199.5 yards on the ground per game.
Then-sophomore Ty Johnson had a breakout season in College Park in which he led the Terps in rushing attempts (110), yards (1,004) and touchdowns (six). Johnson also proved to be one of the most dynamic runners in the nation with a per-rush average of 9.1 yards.
Johnson played in all 13 games for the Terps and started eight. His stellar season was highlighted by several marquee performances, including a Homecoming game in which he rushed for 204 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries against Purdue. Johnson was also Maryland’s best performer on offense in the Quick Lane Bowl loss to Boston College in which he rushed for 159 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.
Had he not been suspended for Maryland’s final four games for violating the university’s student-athlete code of conduct, freshman running back Lorenzo Harrison could have been neck-and-neck with Johnson for the team’s leading rusher.
Harrison didn’t waste any time in making a name for himself in College Park, carrying the ball nine times for 67 yards and a touchdown against Howard in his very first college game. He went on to score a rushing touchdown in each of his first four games to start his career as a Terp and he recorded his first college 100-yard rushing game with 105 yards and a touchdown in a win Oct. 22 over Michigan State.
Like Johnson, Harrison also posted an impressive per-rush average (7.2) and is a threat to take it the distance every time he touches the ball.
Seniors Kenneth Goins, Trey Edmunds--although he fractured his foot and only played in five games--and Wes Brown provided some solid experience and depth to Maryland’s backfield, while freshman Jake Funk also saw some sporadic action.
‘It’s going to take an army’
One of Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell’s favorite lines to use when describing his rotation of running backs. Bell’s logic is simple. If he wants to attack a defense by running the ball down its throat, using as many able bodies as possible, which the Terps have no shortage of in the backfield, is a better strategy than putting that entire workload on one or two runners.
With three seniors not in the mix anymore, it will likely be Johnson and Harrison at the top of the running back rotation for the Terps. They will be joined by a versatile trio of freshmen backs in the fall--some of which could end up redshirting--but last year’s top two leading rushers for Maryland should pick up right where they left off this spring.
Until DeMatha (Md.) four-star signee Anthony McFarland gets to campus this summer, Funk could be next in line for carries behind Johnson and Harrison throughout spring practice, but don’t sleep on redshirt freshman and Florida native LaDerrien Wilson, who had an impressive list of offers before committing to the Terps last year.
Johnson, Harrison, Funk and Wilson give Maryland a solid backfield for spring ball, but there was some talk last season about possibly moving Funk to the secondary. Funk is currently listed on the roster as a running back but it will be interesting to see if the experiment of trying him out as a defensive back will carry over into this year’s spring practices.
Regardless of whether Funk remains in the running back rotation or not, Bell should be able to further add to his ‘army’ of tailbacks in the fall when McFarland, Tayon Fleet-Davis and Javon Leake suit up for the Terps.
The Terps will almost certainly incorporate more of a vertical passing game this season, but the backfield will remain the cornerstone of the offense. One of Bell’s favorite stats is the number of “explosive plays” the offense he’s coaching is able to register.
Last season, most of Maryland’s big plays came on long runs, which is only made more impressive by the fact that opposing defenses generally knew that the Terps had very little in terms of a deep-passing threat. But it was also a byproduct of the Terps running the ball nearly 200 more times than they passed it.
With a full season under their belt in Bell’s offense and perhaps a better arm under center, the Terps could decide to open things up and incorporate more deep passing in spring practice.
Last year’s starting quarterback Perry Hills was as tough as they come, experienced, and made big strides in his throwing mechanics from his junior to senior year. However, his biggest strength was still arguably his mobility and nobody’s ever going to claim that he was a pure passer. Maryland has several candidates for its starting quarterback competition this year that would bring a more consistent arm to the offense than Hills did. If the Terps eventual signal caller can throw a nice deep ball, expect Bell to take more shots down field.
But the key is going to be the timing of those big throws, which will be dictated by the production of a strong ground game. Bell is no dummy and he’s not going to ignore that two or three of Maryland’s best players on offense are in the Terps backfield. The offense is still going to revolve around the running game, but Maryland should be more well-equipped to attack secondaries when defenses load the box this season. Once Maryland shows a willingness to throw deep, the Terps backfield might find more running room as the season progresses.