(Over the next few weeks we’ll be digging in to each Big Ten team as spring football gets closer to a reality)
Thanks to some struggles from Michigan and Penn State, Maryland came into the Big Ten and found some immediate success, finishing 4-4 in conference play, good enough for third place in the rugged East division. However, with some critical leaders and playmakers departing College Park, Randy Edsall will need to reload his roster starting right away this spring if this program is to remain relevant and competitive.
Can Maryland overachieve again? It all starts in the spring.
Despite having some all-conference level talent at receiver, Maryland’s offense was fairly pedestrian while trying to adjust for the new defensive schemes in the Big Ten. Indeed, despite looking like a team that would be carried by the offensive talent, the defense made huge plays that were the difference when the Terrapins won games in 2014.
Even with a winning record, Maryland gave up nearly 2 points per game more (30) than the offense was able to score (28). This scoring deficit was generated mostly by blowouts against the best competition on the schedule (Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin). That means the margin between a winning record and missing a bowl is very thin, and a lot of work will need to be done in spring football for the Terrapins to avoid falling on the wrong side of that equation in 2015.
The one certainty is Lou Groza Award winning kicker Brad Craddock will once again help this team capitalize on many scoring opportunities, but there’s a lot of open spots on the offensive and defensive depth charts. Let’s take a look at what will be the important story lines for Maryland spring football in 2015.
Spring Football Starting Date: March 2
Spring Football Game Date: April 11th
Key Returning Players: William Likely, CB/KR; Brad Craddock, K; Caleb Rowe, QB; Brandon Ross, RB; Yannick Ngakoue, LB; Sean Davis, S.
Key Losses: C.J. Brown, QB; Stefon Diggs, WR; Deon Long, WR; Cole Farrand, LB; La Goree, LB; Andre Monroe, DE.
Terrapins’ Spring To-Do List:
– Find Receivers and Build Rapport with Caleb Rowe: Part of Maryland’s offensive struggles at times in the 2014 season came from the rotating door of players participating in the passing game thanks to nagging injuries to key contributors like C.J. Brown and Stefon Diggs. While that made for some problems in 2014, these trials by fire may actually form building blocks for the returning talent beginning in spring 2015.
Rowe only played in the first six games thanks to a torn ACL suffered after the Ohio State game, but he did see significant playing time in the first two Big Ten games. Rowe may still be somewhat limited in spring ball, but early reports appear to indicate he will at least participate. Marcus Leak is a receiver that will need to step into a leading role, but the more important item will be generating some depth from the other receivers stepping into starting roles or roles on the two-deep.
There are plenty of contenders already on the roster, along with a talented 4-star freshman D.J. Moore coming in to compete as well. The key in spring ball will be sorting out the returning players who should be getting the majority of the playing time, as well as who works best with Rowe, who could start for the next two seasons if his request for a medical redshirt for the ACL tear is granted.
Put simply, there are no clear next-level talents like Diggs and Long on the roster anymore. That makes the experience and relationship between a new starting quarterback and mostly new receivers critical to making sure Maryland’s offense does not completely disappear in 2015.
– Rework the Defensive Front: Sometimes when a team that struggles on defense loses a bunch of starters, it can be a net positive if the players being promoted have more raw talent or time to develop compared to the departed players. However, it is unclear if Randy Edsall has reloaded the talent at these positions enough to say this is true. This therefore becomes a huge question mark with 6 of the 7 starting defensive linemen and linebackers needing to be replaced.
One big catch that Edsall picked up in the 2015 recruiting class was DL Adam McLean, a 6’2″ 290-pound wrecking ball who will compete for playing time immediately given the lack of depth suddenly at this position. One other defensive line recruit Oseh Saine is the only signee from 2015 who enrolled early and will take part in spring drills. Saine will compete with a unit made up mostly of rising sophomores and juniors who are unproven, but could be developed into a respectable D-line.
And if the total rebuild of the defensive line in spring practice was not enough to do, Edsall and his defensive staff must also replace 3/4 of the starting linebackers as well. The sole returner is Yannick Ngakoue, who put up some nice statistics and performances while being overshadowed a bit by his fellow linebackers who were mostly seniors in 2014. Names to watch out for at linebacker as the spring moves forward are sophomores Jesse Aniebonam and Jalen Brooks (although Aniebonam may be moved to defensive line if depth requires someone to make that move), as well as Jermaine Carter Jr.
A strong defensive front is critical to slowing down the various types of attacks in the Big Ten, and particularly the running attacks. Maryland has recruited what appears to be good talent for these positions, but the development must begin in earnest now if the 2015 defense is to develop into anything respectable up front.
– Develop a Running Game Plan of Attack: Granted, the talent on Maryland’s 2014 offense definitely slanted hard towards having a pass-heavy offense, not the least of which was the inexperience across the offensive line. That result played out on the field as the Terrapins generated only 120 rushing yards per game to go with 220 passing yards, with a lot of the rushing coming from QB C.J. Brown.
Now with Caleb Rowe taking over at quarterback, who doesn’t happen to be much of a runner even disregarding the fact that he will want to avoid risking a third ACL tear in 4 years, the running yards will need to come from the guys who have manned the backfield for the past two seasons: Brandon Ross and Wes Brown.
Ross and Brown made some strides as the season went along and defenses wore down in the Big Ten, but both seem to lack the explosive speed needed to break off huge runs. Moreover, both have played inconsistently, although that may change with a heavier focus on the run game this offseason along with some depth upgrades at the offensive line (when considering those returning from injury as well as suspension).
Just like what Iowa learned to do (somewhat) with converting a fullback Mark Weisman into a featured back role, Maryland’s coaching staff needs to accept Ross and Brown for what they are and then put a running scheme in place to exploit their talents as well as possible. This of course means that the offensive line must generate some positive push and holes in opposing defenses. If that occurs and Maryland has a cohesive plan to run the ball, consistency will likely finally be seen from these two running backs, and this will be crucial if Maryland wants to compete in the Big Ten East division in 2015.
– Avoid the Injury and Suspension Bug: One nagging item that has defined the first four seasons for Randy Edsall in College Park has been a high number of suspensions and serious injuries that his team has had to traverse while building the program back to the respectable level of results reached in 2013 and 2014. Offseason conditioning and careful practice procedures in spring drills need to be used in order to avoid losing players well before the 2015 season even starts.
Furthermore, those players coming back from injury or suspension need to stay back, and part of keeping in the good graces of the coaching staff and athletic department will be showing up and being a team player and leader throughout spring practices. On offense alone, QB Caleb Rowe, WR Levern Jacobs and OT Moise Larose return from suspension, while WR Taivon Jacobs, OG JaJuan Dulaney and TE Andrew Isaacs are coming back from injury. Important defensive contributors and likely starters DE Quinton Jefferson and LB Abner Logan return from injury and suspension, respectively.
Maryland’s 2015 team is clearly a work in progress, with some significant retooling at key positions and a potential drastic change in offensive philosophy to a run-heavy attack. Although some positions have depth on the roster, it is largely unproven depth. Thus, even if spring practice is successful at identifying the next starters and key contributors for the Terrapins, it will all be for naught if those same players can’t actually stay on the field once the season arrives in September.
If Maryland wants to sniff the same success as last year, good health and players keeping their noses clean is a must. Hopefully starting with spring drills, Randy Edsall has a plan in place to help his players achieve both these important goals.
And that’s just off the field, on the field Maryland needs to keep working on their sportsmanship as well, if the Penn State coin flip fiasco from 2014 is any indication. For Maryland fans, these incidents need to become the outlier rather than the general rule.
Plenty to accomplish next month in College Park. Hop to it, Terrapins!