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Maryland has the pieces to get better, but is still in a tough spot

Injuries took away DJ Durkin’s most promising players early in 2017, and now they’re back, and some recent star recruits are older. No excuses.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

First, it feels strange writing a Maryland preview when not too many days ago, offensive lineman Jordan McNair died after collapsing during a team workout.

I wanted to mention McNair up here, instead of mixed in with talk of bad bounces and turnovers luck and all the things I usually talk about in these previews. As much as we care about football and enjoy talking about it, reality reminds us of our true priorities. I hope the McNair family is coping, and I hope the members of the UM football team are getting the help they need to work through their grief.


Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here.

On September 2, 2017 in Austin came a vision Maryland fans could get behind. Against Texas in Tom Herman’s debut, Terrapin sophomore quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome completed nine of 12 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns and rushed 11 times for 64 yards and two more scores. He went down with an unspecified injury, but freshman backup Kasim Hill came in, went 3-for-3 for 44 yards, and put the game away with a short touchdown run.

Maryland posted 482 yards and 51 points against a Texas defense that turned out to be mostly top-notch. The Terps’ run game was everything it was supposed to be (star running backs Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III combined for 177 yards), the passing game was surprisingly spectacular, and while the defense was far from amazing, it did force two turnovers and four turnovers on downs in a 51-41 win.

The win was the sign of progress you want to see in a head coach’s second year.

DJ Durkin had come to College Park after stints as a defensive coordinator at Florida and Michigan. The former Bowling Green defensive end had successful defense throughout his résumé, and now it appeared he had an offense that was even further along. Maryland hadn’t enjoyed an offense that ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 50 since 2006, but the Terps couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.

On September 5, it was revealed that Pigrome was out for the season. So was Jesse Aniebonam, maybe the defense’s best player. Three weeks later, after Hill was nearly perfect in a blowout of Towson, he tore his ACL.

After averaging 57 points per game in weeks 1 and 2, the Terps averaged just 17.5 the rest of the way. They lost by 28 to UCF, 38 to Ohio State, 20 to Wisconsin, 25 to Michigan, and 63 to Penn State. The defense, without Aniebonam, ranked about the same as the year before (79th in Def. S&P+ in 2016, 85th in 2017). After showing top-30 promise, the offense finished 113th.

This was some of the worst QB injuries luck we’d seen since what Maryland itself had been through in 2012, a season in which a freshman linebacker finished as the first-string QB. Granted, it may not have made that much of a difference in the win column, but Maryland went from fast and promising to simply hitting the fast-forward button.

These injuries made it almost impossible to evaluate Durkin. He has yet to sustain any promise on the field (he’s 6-14 against power conference foes), but he has now signed back-to-back top-30 recruiting classes, and in 2018, he welcomes back guys like Pigrome, Hill, and Aniebonam, but also an array of interesting transfers, from former Utah State receiver Rayshad Lewis to former Florida State cornerback Marcus Lewis to former Auburn blue-chip defensive end Byron Cowart.

UM should have the talent to hold its own against most teams, even if most of that blue-chip talent is on the young side. But until we see it, it’s hard to give the Terps too much benefit of the doubt, isn’t it?

Offense

2017 Maryland offensive radar

You can talk yourself into Maryland having a ridiculously good offense.

  • Pigrome and Hill are back after combining to go 27-for-33 passing for 405 yards, four touchdowns, and one pick in 2017, while rushing for 128 yards in 22 non-sack carries. Either could turn out to be outstanding. Last year’s leading passer, junior Max Bortenschlager, is also back, even if he didn’t show the same promise.
  • Johnson has rushed for 2,129 yards and a ridiculous 7.5 yards per carry in his career, and he should end up third or better in career rushing yards at UM. Harrison labored through a less productive 2017 but averaged 7.2 yards per carry in 2016. Plus, junior Jake Funk was explosive in limited opportunities last year, and redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland was a mid-four-star recruit in 2017.
  • Lewis joins a receiving corps that features experience (seniors Taivon Jacobs and Jahrvis Davenport) and upside (high-three-star sophomore Tahj Capehart, incoming four-star freshman Darryl Jones). The Terps have to replace star receiver DJ Moore, but pretty much every receiver looked good when Pigrome and/or Hill were behind center.
  • The line returns everyone who started a game last year, including three former four-star recruits (senior Derwin Gray, junior Terrance Davis, sophomore Marcus Minor) and a five-star (senior Damian Prince).
  • You’ll recognize the new coordinator, too. The last time Matt Canada was coaching in the Eastern time zone, he was nominated for the Broyles Award for crafting a deceptive, explosive Pitt offense. He spent last year at LSU, butting heads with head coach Ed Orgeron, and he’s burned bridges at previous coaching stops, but he’s a talented play-caller in the shift-heavy system he prefers. He replaces Walt Bell, who left for Florida State.
NCAA Football: Northwestern at Maryland
Taivon Jacobs
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

I mean, that’s quite a bit of known talent and potential, yeah? Assuming Hill and Pigrome are back to 100 percent, Maryland will have one of the best rushing backfields in the Big Ten. And when Canada’s got the head coach’s faith and trust, he is a creative problem solver.

Canada ultimately wants to do what LSU has done so easily over the last several years: run the ball effectively with the lead back. However, he hasn’t routinely been coaching teams loaded with NFL receivers, linemen, and running backs who expect to just line up and beat most everyone on the schedule through straightforward plans of attack.

The Matt Canada offense has basically been the equivalent of the Dave Aranda defense — a scheme meant to make the most of versatile players to create advantages that are needed due to lack of elite talent. [...]

At the heart of it all are basic schemes like inside zone or power that everyone else uses. The difference has been that Canada tends to do a lot more outside of those basic runs, with his motions and accompanying options, than other offenses that utilize FBs and TEs. But instead of preventing defenses from stopping these runs with speedy skill athletes spread wide to hold defenders, he’s involving FBs and TEs as options in the attack.

The least convincing bullet point above was a receiving corps that lacks Moore’s star power. A good run game will be imperative to field Maryland’s first good offense in forever, but the Terps will probably have one.

I feel strange speaking this optimistically about such a consistently bad offense. Let’s just move to defense before I change my mind.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Texas
Kasim Hill
John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Maryland defensive radar

Andy Buh’s 2017 defense was good at a lot of basic things. The Terps allowed just 5.4 yards per play on first down (40th in FBS), gave up just 11.5 yards per completion (28th), and allowed you just 1.6 gains per game of 30-plus yards (22nd). They had fast, active safeties, and they were decent at forcing you behind schedule.

Unfortunately, they were equally adept at letting you off the hook. Without Aniebonam, there was no pass rush — like, none: they had two players with more than 1.5 sacks and ranked 128th in passing downs success rate. They were also a pushover in short-yardage situations (127th in power success rate).

Big-play prevention is important because it gives your opponent more opportunities to do something stupid. But even in passing downs, opponents were in control.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Florida International
Jesse Aniebonam (41)
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

For worse or (probably) better, the line will look different this year. Three of last year’s top four tacklers are gone, including the only two linemen to record more than 3.5 TFLs (tackle Cavon Walker and end Chandler Burkett). But Aniebonam is awesome — he had 14 TFLs and nine sacks in 2016 — and Cowart still has time to live up to his all-world potential.

End Brett Kulka is decent, junior tackle Adam McLean is another former four-star, and quite a few of Durkin’s recent star recruits are DLs: redshirt freshman tackle Cam Spence, freshman tackle Austin Fontaine, etc. There are raw pieces here, but some were here last year and didn’t produce nearly enough.

The linemen are occupying blockers for a mostly unproven linebacking corps. Junior Isaiah Davis is the only of last year’s top four returning, though adding Illinois transfer Tre Watson could help with depth.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Texas
Antoine Brooks, Jr.
John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

The safeties were tremendous at big-play prevention, and all but one of last year’s safeties returns. Nickel back Antoine Brooks Jr. (9.5 TFLs, three passes defensed) was last year’s best defender, and Darnell Savage Jr. is a ball hawk. Four-star redshirt freshman Deon Jones could carve out a niche, too.

The cornerbacks weren’t asked to do a ton, but senior RaVon Davis and junior Tino Ellis are back after combining for six TFLs and six passes defensed, and Marcus Lewis could be a starter-caliber piece. I like this secondary.

Special Teams

There were 130 teams in FBS last year. The Terps ranked 130th in Special Teams S&P+, highlighted mainly by a terribly unsuccessful set of legs — they were 116th in punt efficiency, 117th in field goal efficiency, and 121st in kickoff efficiency.

Punter Wade Lees returns, but UM will have new guys manning kickoffs and place-kicking. Probably not a bad thing.

If there’s a bright side, it’s that Ty Johnson is a pretty good kick returner. He’s a bit all-or-nothing — he had a return score, but UM still ranked just 76th in kick return efficiency — but he’s capable of a few alls.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep vs. Texas 27 -11.3 26%
8-Sep at Bowling Green 97 2.1 55%
15-Sep Temple 81 2.7 56%
29-Sep Minnesota 67 0.0 50%
6-Oct at Michigan 10 -22.5 10%
13-Oct Rutgers 84 3.9 59%
20-Oct at Iowa 36 -11.4 25%
27-Oct Illinois 99 8.4 69%
3-Nov Michigan State 11 -17.2 16%
10-Nov at Indiana 58 -6.4 36%
17-Nov Ohio State 1 -26.2 6%
24-Nov at Penn State 8 -24.4 8%
Projected S&P+ Rk 80
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 89 / 64
Projected wins 4.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -2.0 (81)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 23 / 37
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / -0.5
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 61% (65%, 58%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 3.9 (0.1)

Despite injuries and coaching changes, Maryland’s record has been strangely stable.

  • 2016-17: 10-15
  • 2014-15: 10-15
  • 2012-13: 11-14
  • 2010-11: 11-14
  • 2008-09: 10-15

The Terps go to a bowl about every other year, and if they peak a little too high one year (9-4 in 2010), they crash the next (2-10 in 2011). It’s an odd existence.

With two years of solid recruiting under his belt and two exciting QBs, can Durkin create a new existence for the Terps? It’s hard to guarantee it, but there’s obvious potential.

Since S&P+ isn’t programmed to directly take injuries into account, it is predictably conservative here. Maryland is projected just 80th overall, with a likely 4-8 record.

Because of the QBs, I’m guessing something higher than that, but how high exactly? The receiving corps is still potentially iffy, and the defense still might not have the play-makers up front.

If the Terps can overachieve their projections by about a touchdown per game, they can threaten bowl eligibility.

But the schedule isn’t much more forgiving than last year’s, and they can’t waste opportunities. They can’t slip up against any of the schedule’s lesser teams (Bowling Green, Temple, Minnesota, Rutgers, Illinois), and they still have to pull an upset against a Texas or Indiana. But to be safe, let’s set the bar at five wins.

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