CLEMSON — Patrick Stevens is an authority on the Maryland beat. The University of Maryland graduate has been covering the Terrapins since he was in college, and moved right from college to covering them for The Washington Times – with a year-plus sojourn into a self-run blog, D1scourse.com, and back into the Times fold in 2011. His blog, D1scourse, is a must for ACC fans, as is his Twitter feed, Twitter.com/D1scourse.
Q: Q: What is the biggest challenge Maryland faces this season?
A:: If you asked coach Randy Edsall, he would probably say "being more consistent." In truth, the Terrapins have diminished numbers (informally 82 scholarship players, including just 26 scholarship players combined in the junior and senior classes), three new coordinators and only one scholarship quarterback who isn't a true freshman --- as well as the lingering memory of last year's 2-10 debacle. There are, without question, plenty of challenges to choose from. The quantity of them all is probably more noteworthy than the quality of any one of them.
Q: Who is the one player who is totally indispensable to the Terrapins, the guy Maryland couldn’t do without in case of an injury?
A: He's not Maryland's best player, but quarterback C.J. Brown is the one scholarship player at his position who has even been through a practice at the college level. Questions still exist about his passing (a 49.4 completion percentage last year sticks out), but there's no doubt he can run --- and he'll be working with a new offensive coordinator (Mike Locksley) who, despite his issues during a disastrous head coaching stint at New Mexico, still ran an offense that helped get Illinois to the Rose Bowl a few years ago. Behind Brown are true freshmen Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe, and forcing either of them into important action is less than ideal for the Terps.
One not-so-random thought: In only one of the last eight years has a quarterback started wire-to-wire for the Terps (Sam Hollenbach in 2006). History suggests Hills or Rowe will be required at some point.
Q: What was the biggest accomplishment of spring?
A: Avoiding long-lasting injuries. There were some guys who were shelved at the end of the spring; defensive linemen Joe Vellano (foot) and Keith Bowers (heart palpitations) come to mind. Still, Edsall said in April he didn't believe the Terps lost anyone for when September rolls around.
As for anything on the field, let's not kid ourselves – no "accomplishment" means a whole lot in the spring when you're coming off a 2-10 season.
Q: What is the biggest question Maryland must answer in preseason practice?
A: All eyes will be on the offensive line, which lost senior left guard Andrew Gonnella in the middle of last season and then saw its starting tackles --- Max Garcia on the left side, R.J. Dill on the right --- transfer out. Much was made of Danny O'Brien's departure, but losing a talented guy like Garcia (now at Florida) and a more-than-capable veteran in Dill (now at Rutgers) could prove more damaging than seeing O'Brien head to Wisconsin.
Maryland does have some versatile pieces on the line returning, including Bennett Fulper. He played center last season but could be a guard as a senior with Sal Conaboy taking over Fulper's old spot. Justin Gilbert returned from injury last year to play guard, but will probably be a tackle as a fifth-year senior. Figuring out the other tackle and guard spots will be critical for any hope Maryland has for a .500 or better season. The picture isn't as blatantly bleak as it was in 2009, when the line was incredibly inexperienced from the start. But an injury or two to the Terps' starters could be devastating.
Q: Who are two or three newcomers who could make the biggest impact, and why?
A: Wide receiver Stefon Diggs is the most heralded recruit to arrive in College Park in a long while, and the ability for Edsall and Locksley to land him in February is probably the program's happiest development in the last 18 months. Still, a wideout can only do so much on his own --- he's dependent on quarterback and offensive line play to have a chance to thrive.
Also worth keeping an eye on is who emerges at running back. Sophomore Justus Pickett was a second-stringer last season, but redshirt freshman Brandon Ross and true freshman Wes Brown both will have a shot to earn at least a share of that gig.
Q: What is the Terrapins’ biggest strength?
A: While there's some temptation to point to a solid linebacking corps, here's a vote for an impressively deep group of defensive linemen who will compete for three spots rather than four thanks to a scheme change. Joe Vellano, who kicks outside to end, was easily the brightest spot for the Terps last season. Andre Monroe, another tackle-turned-end, impressed when healthy. Ends Isaiah Ross and Justin Anderson are both coming off injuries and figure to contribute. Keith Bowers started all of last season at end. Loquacious tackle A.J. Francis figures to serve as a run-clogger in the middle of the line. Maryland has some solid options up front on defense, and it's the best reason to think the Terps can surprise in 2012.
Q: Their biggest weakness?
A: It could be any number of things, especially since last year's team was so bad at so much – bad throws, dropped passes, inability to stop the run, often-feeble return and coverage units that were a stark reversal of years of solid-to-strong special teams play. The overarching issue this year could be numbers; at most positions, Maryland will have an unknown quantity somewhere in the two-deep. Some of those uncertainties could turn out to be good players, but it's anyone's guess how many of the freshmen in the program are prepared to contribute this fall.
Q: Randy Edsall hired a pair of new coordinators in Mike Locksley and Brian Stewart. How will the Terrapins be different on both sides of the ball?
A: Locksley installed what was frequently called "a pro-style offense with some spread principles" in the spring, which is polite coach-speak for "I'm not going to tell you exactly what we'll run." One thing's for sure: It can't be any worse than the haphazard approach advocated by former offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, who was exiled to Manitoba (with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, to be precise) after his spread scheme flopped with players recruited to play in a West Coast scheme. The Terps promised to play fast last year, almost Oregon-like; the only similarity between the two was Maryland ranking 119th of 120 teams in time of possession, just ahead of the quick-scoring Ducks.
Stewart is a Wade Phillips acolyte (he worked with Phillips as an assistant first in San Diego and later in Dallas) who introduced a 3-4 defense in College Park in the spring. It's frankly a defense that makes a lot of sense for schools that aren't going to attract tons of high-level defensive tackles --- it's a whole lot easier to find linebackers than it is defensive tackles, and it provides some special teams flexibility as well. In the short term, it can't fare much worse than a unit that ranked 102nd in scoring defense, 108th in total defense and 111th in rushing defense.
Q: Following last season’s disastrous effort, Randy Edsall is clearly on the hot seat. Is he in a must-win scenario to keep his job?
A: Edsall came to Maryland with marginal wiggle room --- the athletic department has a mountain of financial issues and direly needs football to at least come close to filling up 54,000-seat Byrd Stadium. He wasn't helped by the fact some fans didn't want to see Ralph Friedgen fired and that others were less than thrilled Friedgen's successor was not named Mike Leach. The biggest damage, though, was that Edsall took a 9-4 team that probably wasn't quite as good as its record and turned it into a 2-10 team that was, well, a 2-10 team.
Chances are, apathy will abound in Maryland's fan base this season, which does nothing to solve the money woes. But Edsall is entering only the second year of a $12 million deal, so ditching him wouldn't be cheap. Another 2-10 might be enough to prompt a change, but a 4-8 would probably be seen as enough progress to warrant staying the course.
Q: What is a best and worst-case scenario for the Terrapins in 2011?
A: Best-case for Maryland is C.J. Brown flourishes as a full-time starter at quarterback, the Terps find a solid combination on the offensive line, the defense progresses to something resembling a power-conference unit (which it did not last season), the team gets off to a decent start to exorcise the memories of an abysmal 2011 and Maryland wins six or seven games and earns an invite to a lower-tier bowl.
Worst-case for Maryland: There is a swath of injuries, particularly at QB and on the offensive line, the Terps lose two of their first three games to dissolve even the slightest bit of attention from a fanbase already eager for basketball season to arrive and the Terps toss up another 2-10 or a 3-9 to perhaps precipitate a coaching change.
More likely: Maryland will have a progression to the mean in the first half of the season, but its shaky depth and brutal November schedule (Georgia Tech, at Clemson, Florida State, at North Carolina) leave it with a 4-8 or 5-7 record to show for its troubles.