A few weeks ago, much of the SB Nation college football team met in New York for both planning and filming a few roundtable discussions. In the first one that was released, SB Nation's recruiting analyst Bud Elliott named as his "Bold Experiment" Maryland's attempt to field a team with only 30 scholarship players, to go back to ironman football.
My first response: a chuckle. My second response: "…that was a joke, right?"
I follow football obsessively. Obviously. And the fact that I could even for a half-second wonder if Maryland really was down to just 30 scholarship players tells you quite a bit about how the last 12 months have gone for Randy Edsall's Terrapins. In replacing Ralph Friedgen, Edsall at first seemed to be a decent, if unadventurous, hire by a school that passed on Mike Leach and Friedgen assistant James Franklin. His reputation was solid after building a Connecticut program from scratch, sticking with the school for more than a decade, and winning a surprising Big East title in 2010. A year later, Edsall is already seen by many as a failure. On the field, his first team withered and fell apart at the seams, upsetting Miami in the season opener, almost doing the same to West Virginia the next week, then completely and utterly collapsing on the way to a 2-10 record. Off the field, Edsall turned off many a player, resulting in a rare level of attrition. In all, "20-odd transfers" have left the program since the season ended.
Fan interest at Byrd Stadium was flagging even with Friedgen's 2010 resurgence. Attendance fell 6.5 percent (to 47,954) in 2008, then another 7.3 percent in 2009, then another 11.9 percent in 2010 despite the Terps' surge from 2-10 to 9-4. Thanks to a rather well-placed alum (Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank), the Maryland program has a high-profile marriage with Under Armour and is dreaming of becoming the Oregon Of The East Coast, so to speak; but the Terps needed to improve fan interest to truly reap the rewards of such a thing. So Maryland dumped the resurgent Friedgen and passed over Leach because administrators wanted a "conservative, safe, non-confrontational hire". Because, you know, that's how second- or third-tier programs win big and drum up fan interest: by playing it safe. Sure. (The true Oregon Of The East Coast would have hired Leach.)
There is hope, however, as small as it may be. As with most ACC programs, the schedule is challenging but not unforgiving. And at interesting, marketable positions, Edsall signed some impressive young talent in the 2012 recruiting class. (With help from new offensive coordinator and master recruiter Mike Locksley, his 2013 class is taking shape nicely as well.) It is an understatement to say that the defense needs work -- it is like saying Wednesday's New York thunderstorms caused a bit of a disruption; Maryland fell from 19th to 83rd in Def. F/+ last year, is moving to a 3-4 set, and got little likely, immediate help from recruiting. (The biggest help actually comes from a linebacker's return from injury.) Still, it is not a foregone conclusion that the Edsall era will continue to crumble as voraciously it has recently. Not even close. And that's only partially because it's impossible to continue to fall apart at this rate. The projections in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 only give Maryland an 11 percent chance of finishing bowl eligible this fall, but they only give them a 15 percent chance of finishing 2-10 or worse again. So there's that.
(Of course, the Football Outsiders Almanac gave them just a one percent chance of finishing 3-9 or worse last year, so perhaps that isn't a good place from which to derive hope.)
Good recruiting should keep Edsall employed no matter what happens in 2012, but he needs some on-field successes to stem the negative sentiment surrounding the program. Will that happen in 2012?
Here's what I said about the Terps last year. We're all wrong sometimes, huh?
There is precedent for everything. But in general, one type of coach succeeds more often than any other at a BCS conference job: a coach who has already succeeded to some degree at a BCS conference job. And in bringing in former Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall after they pushed out Ralph Friedgen, Maryland got themselves one of those coaches. After well over a decade at UConn, Edsall agreed to come to his "dream job" in College Park to see if he could not only reattain the success Friedgen had in his opening years at UM, but maintain it. […]
Because of their ability to go after the ball, Maryland produced a significant turnover advantage that might be at least somewhat sustainable. … [T]he regression to the mean might not be completely crippling. There is experience on both sides of the ball, and perhaps just as importantly, there are potential stars too -- O'Brien and Meggett are good (and could be great) on offense, while Vellano and particularly Tate are standouts on defense.
Without a doubt, there are question marks. The receiving corps is a complete mystery, as are both lines, really, but Edsall should be able to make something out of this team rather quickly. Who knows what their ceiling is, but there at least shouldn't be much of a drop-off. There better not be, at least, because the season begins with two defining home games: Miami and West Virginia. Both of those teams are undergoing transitions of their own, so who the hell knows what to expect, but those two games will create the narrative for the rest of the season. Are the Terps going to be darkhorse contenders for a division crown? Are they going to be fighting and scrapping for bowl eligibility? We'll probably know by the evening of September 17.
Swing-and-a-miss on my part. Perhaps the oddest part of Maryland's 2011 season was that the Terps DID start off strong against Miami and West Virginia. Granted, Dana Holgorsen's offense was only beginning to take hold for West Virginia, but Maryland still performed well in a win over Miami and admirably in a loss to WVU. But the season just careened off the rails from that point forward.
First Two Games: Maryland 31.2 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 27.2 (plus-4.0)
Next Five Games: Opponents 29.5 Adj. Points per game, Maryland 26.8 (minus-2.7)
Last Five Games: Opponents 31.2 Adj. Points per game, Maryland 26.0 (minus-5.2)
Maryland lost a few games, lost at least one key player (linebacker Kenny Tate), and lost hope.
The most interesting-slash-depressing thing about the season? It could have been so much worse. Despite falling from 9-4 to 2-10, and despite free-falling from 32nd in F/+ rankings to 96th, Maryland was actually a rather lucky team. In terms of turnovers luck, Maryland was the second-luckiest team in the country, recovering 67 percent of all fumbles and benefiting from 4.0 points per game in turnovers luck.
So now the turnover begins. Offensive coordinator (and former New Mexico head coach) Mike Locksley replaces Gary Crowton, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart (formerly of Houston) replaces Todd Bradford, and new blood replaces old pieces that either weren't very effective, have transferred from the program, or both.
When you lose your top passer, rusher, receiver, and three of your most experienced linemen, it isn't a good thing. But when they led an offense that ranked just 87th in Off. F/+, it probably isn't a crippling loss -- you were already relatively crippled. But whether Locksley wanted to quickly strip down this unit and rebuild it from scratch or not, he now has that opportunity. Quarterback Danny O'Brien (transfer), running back Davin Meggett (graduation), receiver Quintin McCree (graduation) and linemen R.J. Dill (transfer), Andrew Gonnella (graduation) and Max Garcia (transfer) are all gone, but with so many new faces, it is probably best to focus on who will be wearing Maryland uniforms (no matter how crazy those uniforms may look) this fall.
- Quarterback C.J. Brown. Brown saw quite a bit of playing time as a sophomore when O'Brien got hurt, and while he was clearly limited in his passing, he could thrive in what might once again be a relatively balanced attack. Brown completed just 49 percent of his passes and averaged just 4.5 yards per attempt (including sacks), but he was dynamic on the ground. Brown averaged 9.0 yards per non-sack carry last fall and, in just 71 carries, exploded for a plus-18.3 Adj. POE (meaning he was more than two touchdowns better than the average runner given his attempts, blocking and opponents). He is flawed, but he could still put points on the board, and he is ready to become a leader.
- Running backs Justus Pickett, Wes Brown and Albert Reid. Pickett and D.J. Adams were not incredibly effective last year as backups to the not-incredibly-effective Meggett, combining to average just 3.9 yards per carry with a minus-2.6 Adj. POE. Adams had his moments but transferred, leaving Pickett and a pair of intriguing freshmen. Wes Brown is a four-star, 200-pounder who is expected to contribute very quickly. And almost by default, there is playing time available to the three-star Reid as well if he earns it.
- Receiver Stefon Diggs. A late signee, Diggs spurned offers from basically every school in the country to stay at home and go to UM with two of his high school teammates (Brown and offensive lineman Mike Madaras). IF he is indeed the five-star receiver Rivals claims, and if he begins to reach his potential relatively quickly (you never know how long it's going to take), then he could spearhead the progress of what really is, on paper, an interesting group of young skill position players. And he is not alone in the receiving corps. Fellow freshman Levern Jacobs is an interesting prospect, plus seniors Kevin Dorsey and Kerry Boykins, each former four-star recruits, combined to average a decent 7.8 yards per target last year despite quarterback issues. Tight end Matt Furstenburg (348 yards, 6.8 per target, 61 percent catch rate) is a decent possession option who could be much more prevalent in Locksley's offense
- Six offensive linemen with starting experience. The losses of Dill, Gonnella and Garcia did this line no favors; the three combined for 71 career starts. But in two-year starting center Bennett Fulper, the line does still have a leader; and in former four-star guards Peter White and De'Onte Arnett, they are not without potential up front.
Locksley will likely continue some of the spread principles under which former coordinator Crowton tried, and failed, to operate. He is known as a "multiple set" guy (as vague a term as is possible) and, as he proved with Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn at Illinois, he has no problem shifting his offense to what his personnel does well. Williams is actually a decent comparison from Brown, while we're at it. Williams failed to develop into an incredible passer at Illinois, but he did have his moments.
The offense was by no means good, but the primary reason for Maryland's collapse came on the other side of the ball. The Terps went from a solid, Top 20-25 unit to one of the worse BCS conference defenses in the country. They fell from 28th to 108th in Success Rate+ (efficiency) and from 32nd to 78th in PPP+ (big play prevention). From 28th to 112th in Rushing S&P+ and from 23rd to 103rd on standard downs. From 29th to 61st in Passing S&P+ and from 34th to 77th on passing downs. Maryland was both leaky and fruitlessly aggressive, not a good combination.
For whatever recruiting successes Maryland has experienced in recent years, few have come on the defensive side of the ball. The offensive two-deep might have as many as eight four- or five-star recruits, but they are hard to find on defense. In fact, the only four-star returning defender is senior Kenny Tate; despite the most linebacker-sounding moniker ever, Tate was a fantastic defensive back in 2010, but last year he moved to linebacker, struggled a bit, then missed eight games last year because of injury.
With Tate, the defense improves immediately, especially if he has further adapted to linebacker. But overall, it appears the weaknesses might improve while the strengths regress. First, the improvement:
Along with Tate, six of the top eight linemen return as the Terps move from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 under new coordinator Brian Stewart. Ends Joe Vellano and Keith Bowers combined for 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and four passes broken up (all by Vellano) last fall. Tackle is a question mark in terms of experience, but in players like senior A.J. Francis (6'5, 305) and Darius Kilgo (6'3, 300), they certainly have decent 3-4 size with which to work. Meanwhile, the depth chart at linebacker is littered with experience, from senior Demetrius Hartsfield (7.0 tackles for loss), to senior Darin Drakeford (3.0 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles), to interesting junior Marcus Whitfield (just 8.5 tackles, but 3.5 tackles for loss). It does appear that the depth might be amenable to a move to the 3-4. And the early results were encouraging, to say the least: the defense recorded an absurd 13 sacks in the spring game. (And yes, as always, spring game stats are zero-sum. That means that the Maryland offensive line allowed 13 sacks.)
However, the secondary could be iffy. Gone are corner Cameron Chism (three interceptions, four passes broken up, 2.0 tackles for loss) and safety Titus Till, and only one returning corner (Dexter McDougle) logged more than 4.5 tackles last year. Steady senior safety Eric Franklin (4.5 tackles for loss, four passes broken up) returns, and McDougle (three picks, six passes broken up, 2.5 tackles for loss) is aggressive and intriguing, but depth could be a serious issue in the defensive backfield.
As projected in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, Maryland faces five teams ranked 33rd or better (including four straight to finish the season), but they also face FCS William & Mary, No. 77 Temple, No. 57 UConn and No. 81 Wake Forest among their first five games. Granted, Wake and Temple both demolished the Terps in 2011 (combined score: 69-17), but there could be hope that a much-improved Maryland squad could start the year 4-1, then have an outside shot of taking out N.C. State and perhaps Georgia Tech at home to reach six wins. It is still unlikely, however. In the end, an improvement to four or, perhaps, five wins should be cause for calling the season an undeniable step forward.
Some coaches need to tear everything down to build up the program they want. Edsall's tear-down process doesn't seem to have been by design, but he faces a rebuild all the same.
It isn't impossible to talk yourself into this team indeed improving by a decent amount. The offense could craft an interesting identity behind Brown, Pickett, Diggs and other newcomers. Meanwhile, the defense at least shouldn't get worse in its new alignment. But after last year's egregious collapse, Edsall really doesn't get any benefit of the doubt. The burden of proof is on the Terps themselves to show that 2011 was the outlier, and that 2010 wasn't just a brief spike in what has otherwise been a rather steady, sustained downhill slide for the Maryland football program.
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