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Maryland football is building, but the 2017 schedule’s going to hide that

The Terps’ degree of difficulty rises, but recruiting has the future looking solid.

Quick Lane Bowl - Boston College v Maryland
Ty Johnson
Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

In this week’s Illinois preview, I talked about the dangers of inefficiency, even in the face of massive big-play ability.

However you define explosive plays, if you have more of them than your opponent and fewer turnovers, you’re going to win 90-plus percent of the time. Big plays matter even more than you think.

But what creates big-play opportunities? Efficiency. Successful plays give you more plays. Staying in favorable down-and-distance leads to more successful plays and therefore more big plays.

Illinois had the third-worst three-and-out margin (three-plays-and-punt drives that you force minus the ones you commit) in the country. Granted, it was only the second-worst in the Big Ten (thanks, Rutgers), but it doomed the Illini even though they had big-play ability in the skill corps and on the defensive line.

Maryland faced similar issues. DJ Durkin’s Terrapins ranked 87th in FBS and ninth in the Big Ten by committing 3&Os on 22.9 percent of their offensive possessions; meanwhile, they forced them on only 21.4 percent of their possessions (68th and 12th, respectively), a minus-1.5 percent margin that ranked 81st overall. Include what I have been calling three-and-out-plus drives, which are 3&Os plus other no-point drives that end in three or fewer plays (turnovers, failed end-of-half situations), and the Terps’ margin falls to 109th.

When you are inefficient offensively, you are inconsistent — you might be capable of big plays, but you don’t know when they are going to come.

When you are inefficient defensively, you are struggling to create big plays (or prevent them) because your opponent is in favorable down-and-distance combinations.

Maryland failed in both, ranking 90th in success rate on offense and 112th on defense. They also dealt with the same quarterback injury issues that Illinois faced — starter Perry Hills was in and out, and four quarterbacks threw at least 33 passes each.

Maryland also won twice as many games as Illinois. The Terps weren’t world beaters, but they went 6-7, reaching a bowl for the third time in four years despite inefficiency and negative turnovers luck. How?

Maryland may have been inconsistent, but there was a pattern to its failures. Against good teams, the Terps had nothing to offer. Against lesser ones, they took advantage of the advantages they found.

  • Maryland vs. S&P+ top 50 teams (0-5): Avg. percentile performance: 16% (~top 110) | Avg. score: Opp 44, Terps 7 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.7, Terps 4.1 (minus-2.6)
  • Maryland vs. everyone else (6-2): Avg. percentile performance: 58% (~top 55) | Avg. score: Terps 37, Opp 21 | Avg. yards per play: Terps 6.4, Opp 5.1 (plus-1.3)

Hills’ injuries correlated to when the schedule got rougher. He threw only 14 combined passes against the five top-50 teams on the schedule. When you are never at full strength against good teams, you’re going to suffer.

That doesn’t explain everything, though. The defense was good against iffy teams and horrible against good ones. The run game that was the basis of the Maryland attack was dominant against iffy teams and inconsequential against good ones.

(No, seriously, breakout star Ty Johnson averaged 2.6 yards per carry against top-50 teams and 12.1 per carry against everyone else. Holy cow.)

Some systems are built around tactical advantages and some around talent advantages. In a perfect world, you do both, but few pull that off. Maryland seemed to be more latter but couldn’t build a talent advantage against enough teams.

The solution? Bring in a ton of talent, of course! Per the 247Sports Composite, Maryland’s 2017 signing class ranked 18th in the country and fourth in the blue-blood-heavy Big Ten. It graded out better than Nebraska’s and every other team’s in the Big Ten West and was inferior only to Ohio State’s, Michigan’s, and Penn State’s. The 10 teams below them signed an average of 1.7 four-star prospects; Maryland signed eight.

Granted, this can only get you so far when you’re still recruiting behind three division mates — I’m thinking Durkin and Terps fans could be swayed to join the pods bandwagon — but that’s something to worry about later. For now, the combination of bowling and recruiting made for a successful first go-round for Durkin, the former Florida and Michigan defensive coordinator, even if it included losses to Ohio State and Michigan by a combined 121-6.

That Johnson and fellow breakout running back Lorenzo Harrison return is exciting. The defense returns a majority of its play-makers as well, and there’s at least one incoming four-star each at quarterback, running back, offensive line, defensive tackle, cornerback, and safety.

If Hills were returning, I’d say the Terps would be poised for a high-caliber season. But he’s not, nor are quite a few of last year’s receivers. S&P+ suggests a shaky season before things get rolling in 2018 and beyond. But upside could make the Terps interesting.

Maryland v Michigan
D.J. Durkin
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

2016 in review

2016 Maryland statistical profile.

There was one other plot development: Maryland’s secondary imploded. Nine defensive backs made at least 12 tackles, and 12 made at least four, but only one played in all 13 games: cornerback Alvin Hill. 2015 star William Likely III missed half the year, and safety was a revolving door.

As a result, no matter the opponent — top-50 or otherwise — Maryland’s defensive competency plummeted.

  • First 7 games (5-2): Avg. defensive percentile performance: 52% (~top 60) | Avg. yards per play: 5.0 | Completion rate allowed: 50% | Passer rating allowed: 110.6
  • Last 6 games (1-5): Avg. defensive percentile performance: 20% (~top 105) | Avg. yards per play: 6.4 | Completion rate allowed: 62% | Passer rating allowed: 147.5

Granted, “last six games” includes Michigan and Ohio State, but it also includes Rutgers and BC. And the numbers were still drastically different over the second half of the year.

In theory, then, you could pin Maryland’s struggles on injuries. That would make the Terps’ No. 87 final S&P+ ranking artificially low and suggest that their No. 72 projection for 2017 is also a bit on low. But as with Hills, certain key DBs are gone, so you can’t say a return from injury will cure ailments. Plus, there’s the matter of having the second-worst run defense in the country per Rushing S&P+.


Offense

Maryland offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

What happens when you’ve got a run game that is unstoppable against lesser teams and ineffective against good ones? You get a fun combination of full-season stats. Maryland ranked 12th in Rushing S&P+, 15th in Adj. Line Yards, seventh in Rushing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays), and 31st in opportunity rate; the Terps also ranked 55th in rushing success rate, 113th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and 125th in power success rate. They couldn’t necessarily bowl you over, but if the blocks held up, Johnson and Harrison were prepared to explode downfield.

No matter who the big plays came against, this duo was dynamite. They combined to rush 198 times for 1,637 yards (8.3 per carry) and 11 touchdowns. Despite poor short-yardage execution, they gained at least five yards on 45 percent of their carries, and elite explosiveness led to Johnson ranking in the 99th percentile and Harrison ranking in the 92nd percentile in their respective categories.

Maryland v Florida International
Lorenzo Harrison
Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

You can build around two elite backs, yeah? Especially with a line that features four returnees with starting experience and six former four-star recruits? Give coordinator Walt Bell a stable quarterback, and you’re really cooking.

There’s potential behind center, at least. Sophomores Tyrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager got their feet wet in 2016 — that’s the polite way of saying they were way over their heads (Bortenschlager averaged 4.3 yards per pass attempt including sacks, and Pigrome averaged 3.8) but have time to figure things out.

Plus, UNC transfer Caleb Henderson joins the mix. A former four-star, Henderson looks the part, and Bell was one of his recruiters at North Carolina. But he threw exactly one pass for the Tar Heels, which makes him about as much of an unknown as the sophomores. Hell, it puts him only so far ahead of four-star freshman Kasim Hill.

If Henderson or anyone else is able to play well and stay healthy, he should have bouncy targets running around. D.J. Moore (5’11, 215) led the Terps with 637 receiving yards in 2016, though in Maryland fashion, he was all-or-nothing — 15.5 yards per catch, 33 percent success rate. Senior Taivon Jacobs (5’9, 165) returns from injury as well, and players like sophomore DJ Turner (5’9, 200), senior Jacquille Veii (5’9, 185), and incoming freshman Tahj Capehart (5’10, 175) appear to have solid potential.

That’s great, but is there a target with size anywhere? That remains to be seen. Tight ends Derrick Hayward and Avery Edwards combined for five receptions, and wideouts over 6’0 combined to catch ... zero passes last year. If someone like 6’2 senior Chris Jones, 6’2 freshman Jayden Comma, or 6’4 freshman Carlos Carriere looks good in fall camp, plenty of opportunity is available. Size isn’t a requisite for being a good receiver, but it helps to widen the window a new QB has to throw to.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Nebraska
D.J. Moore
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Maryland defensive radar

Maryland’s defense got off to a rough start when freshly named coordinator Scott Shafer stepped down in early April, an awkward time to find a replacement. Durkin leaned on former Stanford co-worker Andy Buh, and the results were mixed. The Terrapins were disruptive — 14th in Adj. Sack Rate, 29th in power success rate, 31st in defensive line havoc rate, 76th in stuff rate — but got mauled by decent run games. And when the pass defense fell apart, well, that didn’t leave any way for Maryland to stop opponents.

Big-play prevention remained a strength, but that only matters if you have any hope of preventing five or six yards at a time.

Maryland defensive efficiency & explosiveness

There’s probably a reason why Durkin loaded up on defensive linemen in his 2017 class. He does return an excellent pass rusher in senior Jesse Aniebonam (14 tackles for loss, nine sacks), and senior nose tackle Kingsley Opara (11.5 TFLs, three sacks) is a keeper, but despite solid injury continuity and a seemingly solid set of play-makers, Maryland’s run defense was abysmal. The sooner four-star freshman tackles Cam Spence and Breyon Gaddy can look the part, the better.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Nebraska
Jesse Aniebonam
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The timing here is awkward. When your run defense is this bad, you can only expect so much improvement in a single season. But while there are exciting freshmen throughout the line and some appealing sophomores (plus freshman Ayinde Eley) at linebacker, the top four returning linemen and top three returning linebackers are seniors. The keys will be handed over to 2018 recruits quickly, maybe more quickly than would be advisable.

There’s something to build on in the secondary, at least. In Likely, Hill, and safety Jarrett Ross, the Terps have to replace three of their steadier options, but the replacements are mostly sophomores and juniors. So whoever steps forward is likely to return next fall.

The ceiling appears high in the back, too. Junior corner JC Jackson is a former four-star Florida signee who led the team with seven passes defensed. Junior safety Darnell Savage Jr. combined 3.5 TFLs with five passes defensed. Four-star sophomore Tino Ellis saw decent action and broke up three passes, and incoming cornerback Deon Jones and safety Makquese Bell are two of the best-touted freshmen in the class.

One can see a path forward for the secondary, and the classes are far more balanced. The front seven might not have all of its ducks in a row until about 2019, but the secondary could be strong in 2018, maybe 2017.

Maryland showed it can beat iffy competition even with an awful run defense; it wasn’t until the secondary got banged up that everything fell apart. But with a schedule that features five projected top-20 teams and four more in the top 50, the run defense will need to improve a solid amount. It’s not a given that this will happen.

Minnesota v Maryland
Jermaine Carter
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Special Teams

I’ll say this for Wade Lees: if you’re going to have short punts, make sure they’re unreturnable. Lees averaged only 39.8 yards per kick as a freshman in 2016, 91st in the country, but only 20 of his 72 punts returned, and at only five yards per return. That resulted in a No. 65 punt efficiency ranking.

Combined with steady kick returner D.J. Moore, Maryland has decent pieces returning in special teams, but the Terps ranked 102nd in Special Teams S&P+ last year because of the points they lost in the place-kicking and kickoff departments.

Adam Greene made just 75 percent of his under-40 field goals (you’d like that to be 85 percent or higher) and both of his over-40 kicks, while Greene and Danny Sutton combined to boot touchbacks on just 15 percent of their kickoffs. Those numbers have to improve to prevent Maryland from leaking points.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Texas 16 -18.7 14%
9-Sep Towson NR 30.8 96%
23-Sep Central Florida 78 3.7 58%
30-Sep at Minnesota 47 -8.3 32%
7-Oct at Ohio State 2 -30.0 4%
13-Oct Northwestern 37 -5.5 37%
21-Oct at Wisconsin 11 -22.5 10%
28-Oct Indiana 39 -5.5 38%
4-Nov vs. Rutgers 92 5.9 63%
11-Nov Michigan 10 -18.8 14%
18-Nov at Michigan State 44 -9.1 30%
25-Nov Penn State 8 -20.3 12%
Projected S&P+ Rk 72
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 98 / 45
Projected wins 4.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -2.4 (81)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 32 / 37
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -7 / -2.2
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 57% (38%, 77%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.9 (0.1)

Few teams had as many definitive strengths and weaknesses, and that makes the Terps a hard team to project. Focus on Johnson and Harrison, Henderson’s four-star rating, health in the secondary, and incoming recruits, and you talk yourself into a big autumn.

Note the awful run defense, and the turnover at receiver and defensive back, and the fact that those recruits are true freshmen, and point out that the offense was only good when the departed Hills was behind center, and you settle on the Terps needing another year or two.

I see the former but lean latter, especially after taking a gander at the schedule. Maryland will be a major underdog at Texas, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, and at home against Michigan and Penn State. Without a major upset, that means the Terps will have to go 6-1 against everybody else to bowl again. That means losing no more than one at Minnesota, at Michigan State, and at home against UCF, Northwestern, and Indiana.

That seems a bit too much to ask. And while it’s interesting to see what might happen to recruiting if Maryland’s record regresses in Durkin’s second season, I’m going to assume that the Terps win four or five games while getting key players experienced and primed for a nice step forward.

Team preview stats

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