Maryland enters 2014 coming off a season in which it lost five of its final seven games. So why the confidence? The Terrapins believe they can compete in the Big Ten immediately, thanks to 16 returning starters and one of college football’s top playmakers in wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
In each of Randy Edsall’s three seasons as head coach, Maryland has improved steadily, from two wins to four to seven. The events surrounding Edsall’s hiring – Maryland firing Ralph Friedgen and Edsall cold-shouldering UConn – had many observers soured on the Terps. But it’s impossible to deny the continued development occurring in College Park.
They aren’t Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State – all East Division foes – but the learning curve could be minimized due to an underrated roster in terms of talent. Now, if they would just stay healthy. Edsall’s first three seasons have coincided with Maryland being decimated by injuries.
“We’ve got some playmakers on offense [who] can really make things happen,” he told ESPN.com “We’ve got some very talented wide receivers, our quarterback is really good, a dual threat. The biggest thing is we’ve got to stay healthy and continue to get better.”
The biggest limitation came last season when Diggs missed the final six games after suffering a broken fibula. Not only that, fellow wide receiver Deon Long broke his fibula – and tibia – in the same game, a humbling 34-10 setback at Wake Forest.
|9/6||@ South Florida|
|11/1||@ Penn State|
Maryland was cruising along at 5-1 until that dreary October day. Diggs and Long combined for 66 receptions for 1,076 yards and four touchdowns. Those totals were 50 percent of the team’s receptions and receiving yards at the time of the twin injuries. Quarterback C.J. Brown is certainly happy to have the duo back in 2014 at 100 percent.
“I’m just happy to have my legs back because at one point I wasn’t even walking,” Diggs said during spring drills. “I think about it every day. It’s my motivation. The return, ready to get back. For God to give me my legs back, this is my second chance.”
Diggs, who spurned Ohio State during the 2012 recruiting cycle, gives Maryland a versatile game-breaker who is capable of scoring every time he touches the ball. Kickoffs, receptions, rushes – it doesn’t matter with the skillful Diggs.
There were concerns he may have lost a step or could appear timid post-injury, but Diggs put those fears to rest with blazing speed in spring practice. And that was at 90 percent. Diggs stayed active throughout his months of rehab, working with offensive coordinator Mike Locksley and former NFL star-turned-wide receivers coach Kennan McCardell to picture routes and other nuances of the Terps’ flexible offense.
“I missed my team a lot,” Diggs said. “I missed being on the field, missed being around them. It’s good to bring that energy and enthusiasm to the game as much as I can.”
If the offense stays intact, Maryland could field one of the top units in the conference. Brown had a breakout year in 2013, throwing for over 2,200 yards with 13 touchdowns on seven interceptions. He completed 58.9 percent of his passes and rushed for 576 yards – 4.1 yards per carry – and 12 touchdowns. He returns as a sixth-year senior.
“I think I was the old guy last year,” Brown said. I’m still a senior, but each year I feel, as a quarterback, I think [certain things] come with the territory in terms of leadership and guiding the younger guys.”
During a career that’s spanned two conferences and two coaches, Brown has developed into the top rushing quarterback in Maryland history and a decent passer as well. It’s that second thing that he wants to continue improving at and doing more of, as running back Wes Brown returns from a suspension that saw him spend 2013 away from football.
C.J. Brown entered college as the program’s next great quarterback. Then an injury of his own – a broken collarbone – gave way to the Danny O’Brien era. Friedgen’s firing also wreaked havoc on Brown becoming the starting quarterback. In 2012, another injury – this time a torn ACL – sidelined him the season.
He hopes to remain upright and on the field this year and is counting on a questionable offensive line to do so. The left side of the line needs replaced. But new offensive line coach Greg Studrawa, an Urban Meyer disciple, instills plenty of confidence.
As does the defense. The unit returns all but two starters from a unit that ranked eighth in the ACC in total defense and seventh against the run. What Edsall and Co. are searching for is depth.
Linemen Darius Kilgo, Andre Monroe and Quinton Jefferson form a defensive line that’s primed on getting into the backfield. Monroe and Jefferson combined for 89 tackles and 12.5 sacks last season. Linebackers Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree, Matt Robinson and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, cornerbacks Jeremiah Jones and William Likely, and safeties Sean Davis and Anthony Nixon complete one of the best back ends in the Big Ten.
“There’s no doubt we will be able to compete and do well in the Big Ten,” Edsall said when Maryland announced it would join the conference. “We’ll be fine because we’ll have the right people here, we’ll have the talent, and we’ll develop talent to make sure that we’re going to go in there and be competitive and win.
“That’s exactly what we’ll do.”
He’s stuck to the plan for 20 months.