COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It’s often said: “Injuries are part of the game.” But they seem to be a rite of passage for Maryland starting quarterbacks these days.
The Terps have lost two starting quarterbacks--Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill--in three games this season, and the next man up in College Park is sophomore gunslinger Max Bortenschlager, who is in line to make the second start of his career when Maryland plays Minnesota Sept. 30.
In the first start of his career, as a true freshman, Bortenschlager got the nod on the road against Nebraska. He finished 14-for-29 passing for 191 yards and a touchdown in a loss to the Cornhuskers.
It was far from perfect, but Bortenschlager didn’t turn the ball over and showed he’s a quarterback with some pocket presence and a strong arm. However, what Bortenschlager is not, is a runner. In fact, he finished with 11 carriers for -22 yards against Nebraska (keep in mind sacks count against rushing yards in college football) and he has 20 attempts for just 16 yards so far this season.
Entering the game in relief for an injured Hill last Saturday against UCF, Bortenschlager was forced to work with a first unit that he hadn’t had practice reps with during the week and within a scheme that is meant for a more mobile quarterback.
The results weren’t pretty as he finished 15-for-26 passing for 132 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. But the Terps are expecting a better performance from the Indiana native this weekend against the Golden Gophers because of the time Bortenschlager will have to prepare with Maryland’s starters and a game plan that will be ‘tailored’ to his strengths.
“Max is a tough kid,” Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin said Sept. 26. “He went in the [UCF] game in a tough spot. I thought it was a gutsy performance. He did really well. It wasn’t perfect, but who would expect it to be? He’s tough. He competes. Max has confidence in himself and we have confidence in him. Now, having a full week to prepare in practice, where we can tailor the game plan to him as opposed to someone else, will certainly help him.”
Durkin added that having the extra time to build chemistry with the rest of the starters is a key ingredient to any quarterback’s success, and he believes that added work will show in Bortenschlager’s performance on Saturday.
“When you have a week to prepare and know you’re the starter and go through it all, obviously you get more reps, you get the main share of the reps in what we’re planning on doing, what we’re planning on seeing,” Durkin said. “Your preparation helps you. I think our offense can operate just fine with Max there. I think we’ve shown that and proven that before.”
But Durkin isn’t the only Maryland coach confident in the Terps’ ability to gameplan around its third different quarterback in the last five weeks.
“Much like [Pigrome] a year ago--he didn’t look great when he played--a year later, he looked a lot better with a spring and a summer and all the reps that you accrue in whatever drill it may be until that point,” Terps offensive coordinator Walt Bell said Sept. 27. “Do I expect Max to look better? Yes absolutely, especially when the plan is tailored to fit his skills.
“I think Max will be much better going into a week where he’s getting all of the reps with the ones, and making sure that plan fits him and is about him. We’ll cater this thing to what he likes, what he doesn’t like. And moving forward, I think we’ll be better with him in the game for that.”
But does Bortenschlager’s lack of mobility completely change the read-option-heavy offense Bell and the Terps like to deploy? After all, Pigrome and Hill’s athleticism and mobility has led to nearly 20 percent of Maryland’s total rushing yards so far this season.
Bell says, no.
“That’s one of the things [Bortenschlager] does best,” Bell explained. “Now will the zone-read, power-read, him having to be an effective runner, will that be as much? I mean everybody knows that’s not what he does real well. But in terms of true run-pass option, managing B and C level defenders, that’s a huge part of what we do, always will be, and that’s something that he does really well, simply because he can spin it pretty well; he’s a smart kid; and he can drive his eyes to the place where it’s supposed to go.”
Maryland’s coaching staff has expressed confidence in their new 6-foot-3, 211-pound starting quarterback, and so have Bortenschlager’s teammates, who know they must do a better job of protecting him than the five sacks they allowed him to take against UCF.
“I feel like he’s the most ready,” Maryland sophomore running back Lorenzo Harrison said. “We all have the utmost confidence in Max. We’re going to protect him and make sure he feels comfortable, and just let him do what he does best--throw the ball. I feel like he’s a really good pocket passer, especially when he’s given time to go through his reads and get the ball out like he’s supposed to. But he has a really good arm, throws a really pretty ball. So I mean, he’s a good quarterback.”
Bortenschlager’s calm demeanor and the way he carries himself on and off the field is just one more reason why the Terps are confident he can get the job done on the road against Minnesota as Maryland begins Big Ten play.
“Max is true to himself,” Bell said. “Max is serious about everything he does. He’s a great student. He’s a great human being. He’s a great practice player. He’s the same guy everyday, Bell said.
“Everything he does, he does at a high level. But at the same time, he does have the ability to make a mistake. He’s OK. He has been there. He has played in a bunch of football games in his life. He has played football at a high level in high school. He has been coached well his whole life. I don’t worry about [last week’s performance affecting him]. I don’t worry about the big environment on the road. I think Max will handle that incredibly well.”
So now what’s Maryland’s plan if disaster strikes again and Bortenschlager goes down?
“Caleb Henderson is coming along,” Durkin said. “He’s practicing and doing well. He’ll certainly be ready to go and getting a lot of reps this week and competing. Ryan Brand is the third team quarterback, he does a great job for us every day. He’s a very accountable guy. Knows the offense and he’s been with us for a while now. That’s who we’ve got.”
Henderson has been recovering from foot surgery since spring ball, but the former four-star recruit did appear to have a legitimate shot at starting for the Terps this season up until his injury. Brand is a redshirt sophomore and the brother of Maryland freshman BUCK Bryce Brand. He spent his freshman season at Air Force before taking the JUCO route in 2016 and throwing for 918 yards and nine touchdowns with the College of San Mateo.