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COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Maryland enters year two under head coach DJ Durkin with the optimism of a second season under the regime that delivered a bowl appearance last fall, but also with uncertainty at the quarterback position. And unlike a question mark at free safety or a logjam at tight end, settling on and sticking with the correct QB will go a long way toward a successful campaign in College Park.
This year, there are four candidates for the starting role: sophomores Tyrrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager, plus transfer Caleb Henderson and true freshman Kasim Hill.
Durkin acknowledges the competition is wide open. “I don’t have a set date or day and time of when we want to make some sort of decision,” he said.
“I want to let it sort itself out on the field and let the players decide it.”
It’s definitely possible two or three quarterbacks play against Texas, and it’s not a stretch to think that we won’t know the eventual No. 1 starter until after the Sept. 23 game against UCF.
Just twice since 2003 have the Terrapins started the same quarterback in every game of the season: Sam Hollenbach in 2006 (9-4 with a Champs Sports Bowl win) and CJ Brown in 2014 (a 7-6 season that included a bowl bid plus wins at Michigan and Penn State). Other years have seen injuries and ineffectiveness mandate a change … with less than stellar results.
Last fall, the Terps went 5-2 in games Perry Hills started and was not replaced due to injury, 1-3 in games he was knocked out of, and 0-2 in games where the injured Hills was unable to start. Finding the right guy behind center is paramount — and keeping healthy is just as huge. Last fall, the Terps allowed a Big Ten-high 49 sacks, something junior offensive tackle Damian Prince knows needs to change.
“I’m not going to disrespect the offensive line from last year and say we didn’t take it personal … but if we fix anything, we have to fix that,” he said.
Last year’s O-line did a fantastic job creating holes for a running game that boasted a 1,000-yard rusher in Ty Johnson. The Cumberland, Maryland, native averaged over nine yards per carry as a sophomore. Lorenzo Harrison provides more than just running back depth — the sophomore had runs of 40, 44 and 62 yards last fall. DJ Moore returns as the top receiver after ranking first in yards and second in catches during the 2016 season. Now, if only the Terps could find the right guy to throw to Moore … and keep him upright.
Defensively, the Terps return seven starters, with 57 career starts coming back to the linebacking corps that should be the unit’s strength. Senior Jermaine Carter anchors the D from the Mike linebacker position after leading the team with 110 tackles in 2016. Converted quarterback and fullback Shane Cockerille tallied 108 stops last fall, but the Baltimore native remains on the shelf recovering from injury. Getting Cockerille healthy and in the mix is crucial for that defense to take full advantage of bright spots such as defensive end Jessie Aniebonam, whose nine sacks placed him among the leaders of the Big Ten. Last fall, the Terps had just 12 take-aways — fewest in the conference.
“You can have a defense that makes stops and gets three and outs,” Aniebonam said. “But in terms of getting turnovers — strip sacks and picks — that’s a ‘want-to.’ You have to have a savage mentality.”
If the defense can develop that mentality and it leads to results, whoever starts at quarterback will benefit from the short fields Perry Hills and company didn’t get last fall.
Unlike previous years, Maryland’s schedule begins with a bang. For the first time since 2010, the season doesn’t start in College Park; the Terps beat Navy in Baltimore as the home team that year. The trip to Austin to face Texas marks Maryland’s first opener on the road since 2009, a 52-13 loss at California that set the stage for a 2-10 campaign. The Longhorns boast plenty of heritage and talent, but also have a new head coach. Conventional wisdom holds that if there’s a chance you could shock the burnt orange, it might be Saturday, Sept. 2.
Other nonconference affairs involve home games with Towson (the Tigers played the Terps close for a half in 2011) and UCF (don’t call them Central Florida — it’s a branding thing). The Big Ten slate does not deliver the double whammy of Michigan and Ohio State on consecutive weeks, unlike the previous two autumns, but the East Division boasts three schools starting in the Top 15, with Michigan State also receiving votes. The Terrapins’ crossover games are against Wisconsin (#9 in the preseason AP) and Northwestern (also receiving votes). Granted, Maryland received one vote in this month’s preseason coaches’ poll.
How many votes they’ll receive in December will likely hinge on who gets Durkin’s vote as starting quarterback … and how many terms he serves.