The difference in the quarterback position was perhaps the biggest reason why the Maryland football team improved from three wins in 2015 to six wins in DJ Durkin's first season as head coach.
Terps quarterbacks threw 29 interceptions in 2015, but threw just nine in 2016 as the since-departed Perry Hills meshed well with offensive coordinator Walt Bell.
The quarterback tasked with taking Maryland's offense to another level may well turn out to be Caleb Henderson, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound rising junior out of Burke, Va. Henderson began his career at North Carolina, where he redshirted during the 2014 season and barely played in 2015 behind Marquise Williams, who had a terrific career in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Henderson transferred to Maryland last August for a better chance to play -- after Williams graduated, Henderson was still behind Mitch Trubisky, now expected to be a first-round draft choice in late April -- and to be closer to home. Henderson also knew Bell, who was the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator at UNC in 2014. Henderson also had a bit of history with Maryland, which offered him a scholarship entering ninth grade.
Now, Henderson has a real shot to not just play but start. During the first spring practice open to the media March 30, Henderson took most of the reps at quarterback with the first unit, with rising sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome getting the rest of the snaps with the first team.
"I think it's awesome. I've made a lot of great friends here," Henderson said after practice March 30. "I live right over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. So it's awesome being 40 minutes from home, being able to go home for dinner, see my mom, see my dad, stuff like that. It's awesome. I think it's an awesome opportunity. I love the school. I love the guys on the team. I love the coaches. It's a great opportunity that I have."
In the fall, Henderson will compete with rising sophomores Max Bortenschlager and Ryan Brand and incoming freshman Kasim Hill in addition to Pigrome for the starting position. Pigrome, who possesses electrifying speed as one of the best athletes on the team, played in 11 games and started one last year, completing 37-of-71 passes for 322 yards. Bortenschlager, more of a traditional pocket passer, played in two games and started one, completing 16-of-33 passes for 209 yards.
Henderson, meanwhile, said he brings "a strong arm and mobility, too, for being 230 pounds." Rising senior wide receiver Jacquille Veii lauded Henderson's leadership, pointing out that Henderson has "that fire to him that he wants to win and compete."
Durkin's assessment of Henderson was similar to Veii's observations.
"I love [Henderson's] competitiveness. He's a fiery guy, he's into it, he's high energy and he's really talented," Durkin said. "Caleb, he can really run the ball as well as throw. He's got a strong arm and he's a big, thick body who runs really well. He's a good athlete. All those things in terms of talent, he checks all the boxes. He has familiarity with the similar scheme from where he came from, and I think that helps him, too. He's coming along really well."
Henderson and the rest of the quarterbacks will be asked to run Bell's high-tempo, spread offense, which is designed to get the ball to skill position players in space. It was a run-heavy offense last year, and could be again in 2017 with the weapons in the backfield Maryland has in rising junior Ty Johnson, rising sophomore Lorenzo Harrison and newcomer Anthony McFarland.
But the key to improving upon Maryland's offensive output from a year ago may be creating more explosive plays through the pass game. Henderson is excited about the Terps' potential on play action. "It's actually a big threat because we have multiple running backs that can take the ball and go," he said. And Maryland has the talent on the outside to stretch the field.
The Terps return top receiver D.J. Moore, a rising junior who caught 41 passes for a team-high 637 yards last year, but Teldrick Morgan, Levern Jacobs and DeAndre Lane have departed. Moore, Veii and rising senior Taivon Jacobs were the receivers on the first unit during practice March 30.
Veii In Second Act At Maryland
Veii, in particular, has taken a circuitous route to arrive at this point in his playing career. Veii, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound Gaithersburg, Md., native with big-time speed, is in his second stint in College Park, Md. He was originally recruited out of high school by former head coach Randy Edsall's staff and showed flashes of his talent as a freshman in 2013, primarily at running back.
Veii played running back and wide receiver in 2014, catching 16 balls for 230 yards and running for 105 yards, but was frustrated with the lack of a defined role. Veii explained he had to "do running back workouts and flip and do wide receiver workouts, because I didn't know what I was going to be doing."
"It was kind of tough mentally," Veii said.
But his time in College Park from 2013-14 wasn't necessarily a lost cause. He befriended Stefon Diggs, who played receiver for Maryland from 2012-14 and has spent the last two years with the Minnesota Vikings. Veii considers Diggs his mentor.
"Every time he's back from Minnesota, we're just always working out, working out, working out," Veii said. "He just shows me the work ethic I've got to have, just telling me to be a pro now, so if I get blessed with the opportunity to get there, it's easier. Now, I already know what to expect and how to handle myself."
Veii's next stop was Towson, where he played his junior year as a receiver in 2015. He caught 44 balls for 505 yards, both tops on the Tigers. Veii then transferred back to Maryland after the 2015 season, by which time the Terps had a brand new coaching staff. He had to sit out the 2016 season, but "you look at practices last year, he stood out," Durkin said of Veii. "He was a guy that certainly could've helped us a bunch last year."
Veii said he's taken strides with his route running since returning to Maryland, particularly with respect to his patience. He said he was "kind of sick to my stomach watching the film" at Towson "because I was rushing things and just trying to run away from guys" with his speed.
Now, he's ready to take advantage of his second opportunity with the Terps.
"Any time you come from not playing for a whole year, you're like a shark -- you start to smell blood in the water," Veii said. "You want to eat. I'm hungry, and that's what I want to do. I want to eat."
The Terps will play their annual red-white spring game at Maryland Stadium at 12:30 p.m. April 22.
Issue 232: April 2017