DJ Durkin's first year as the University of Maryland's head football coach was a successful one, as he led the Terps to a six-win season that included an appearance in the Quick Lane Bowl. However, new challenges await this year, thanks in part to a schedule that ESPN's Football Power Index ranks as the Big Ten's toughest. The Terps are currently preparing for their season -- which kicks off at Texas Sept. 2 -- at fall camp in College Park, Md., with storylines at every position.
Junior Caleb Henderson, sophomores Tyrrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager and freshman Kasim Hill are competing to be the starting job. Henderson was at North Carolina from 2014-2015 but barely played before transferring. Pigrome and Bortenschlager started one game each as last year, though Pigrome got into 11 of Maryland's 13 games.
An electric athlete, Pigrome has a chance to be a dual-threat quarterback who can give defenses fits -- his 254 rushing yards ranked third on the Terps last year -- while Bortenschlager is more of a traditional pocket passer. Hill, out of St. John's College in Washington, D.C., was one of the key members of Durkin's 2017 recruiting class.
"If you went out and watched them all throw, watched them run, you'd say, 'Man, I'd love to have any one of them to be a Division I quarterback,'" Durkin said of his passers. "That's the good news. Now it becomes who's making the best decisions, who runs the offense the best."To me, it's the guys that are the best leaders that make the best decisions, just have that 'it' factor about them. That's our job in practice, to keep putting them in spots to really figure out who that is and we're certainly going to do that."
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Maryland had the fourth-best rushing offense in the Big Ten last year at 199.5 yards per game, and the big contributors -- junior Ty Johnson (9.1 yards per carry) and sophomore Lorenzo Harrison (7.2) -- are back. Sophomore Jake Funk also returns. Durkin added to this group by bringing in Anthony McFarland, Tayon Fleet-Davis and Javon Leake as part of his 2017 class.
"All the guys who returned, it makes us better players because we have to up our game in order to stay where we are in terms of playing," Funk said of the new competition. "They're coming in, and they're hungry to play as true freshmen -- just like I was last year." We have a really deep room at running back. We've got a bunch of guys that can play. It's going to be interesting. It's going to be fun."
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Junior D.J. Moore is the leader of this group, having recorded a team-high 637 receiving yards, including six touchdowns on 41 catches last year. One of the biggest improvements Maryland's offense must make is doing a better job of getting Moore the ball down the field. Another key for the offense will to be to find ways to involve the tight ends; top tight end Derrick Hayward caught four passes last year.
One potential breakout performer could be sophomore D.J. Turner, who caught just two passes last year but was the star of the spring game, catching six passes for 126 yards. Senior wide receiver Taivon Jacobs said Turner has explosive speed, but, at 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, will also be difficult to bring down.
"For [Turner], those attributes are going to allow him to excel here or the next level," Jacobs said. "For him, it's about working on the little things -- working on how to read defenses, improving routes, hands, whatever else he needs to do. From that standpoint, he's going to be special."
During the spring, the first team's offensive line was, from left to right, Derwin Gray, Sean Christie, Brendan Moore, Terrance Davis and Damian Prince. Gray, Christie, Moore and Prince are all juniors; Moore and Prince started all 13 games last year, and Gray started three. The offensive line was adept at creating running room for Johnson and Harrison last year, but Terps quarterbacks were sacked 49 times as the line struggled to contain the pass rush in obvious passing situations.
"This year we have more chemistry because most the guys that are on the line right now, we all came in together besides Terrence Davis," Gray said. "Pretty much all of us have been around each other. So the chemistry is there. We're easy to coach one another -- like tough love and stuff like that. I feel like this season is going to be a great season for the offensive line as far as our chemistry and being able to work together."
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
Maryland gave up 214.8 yards per game on the ground last year and too often was pushed around at the point of attack during Big Ten play. Durkin brought in the Gaddy brothers -- Breyon (6-foot-2, 360 pounds) and Brandon (6-foot-2, 311) -- and Cam Spence (6-foot-3, 315) as part of his 2017 class.
The top returner of this group is senior Kingsley Opara, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound Florida native who was second on the team in tackles for loss (11.5) last year. Opara said his goal is to play in the NFL and he understands he needs an even better year to make that happen.
"I went back home to Jacksonville and I just watched film with my mother, and I was just showing her things I missed," Opara said. "I missed a lot of sacks and a lot of plays just because I was being lazy. So I think I've just got to have that sense of urgency to finish, and if I finish and make the plays I can make and perform well against the better teams that we play against, then the sky's the limit."
Maryland had 37 sacks as a team last year -- tied for third-most in the Big Ten -- and Jesse Aniebonam was the biggest contributor, with nine sacks in part-time duty. Durkin said he believes "Jesse can and should be and will be a dominant player" in leading a group of pass rushers that also includes Chandler Burkett (two sacks) and Melvin Keihn (24 tackles).
"That's what I like," Aniebonam said of Durkin's expectations. "I'd rather have that and work up to it and prove people right, prove him right, show that I am someone that he can have faith in, have trust in on this defense, and that I am someone that can elevate my game to however high that I want to take it with the season. That's just motivation for me. That's a confidence booster."
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Senior Jermaine Carter Jr. is the undisputed leader of Maryland's defense and is coming off a season in which he made a team-high 110 tackles and with six sacks. There'll be competition at the weakside linebacker spot next to Carter. Last year, Shane Cockerille played there, but he sat out all of spring ball for undisclosed reasons and his status is unclear for the season. Senior Jalen Brooks played outside linebacker last year and made 28 tackles, but he wants to play inside this year.
"For a chance to get on the field more and have more of a positive effect on the team, I've got to make sure that I'm maximizing my opportunity at one of the two inside positions," Brooks said. "That's the mindset right now, to go in there and compete like hell to go ahead and win that spot … and for them to trust me in that spot next to Jermaine."
Sixth-year senior Denzel Conyers and junior Darnell Savage are the likely starters at safety, while juniors J.C. Jackson and RaVon Davis are front-runners to start at cornerback and nickelback. The secondary is young otherwise, as sophomore cornerback Tino Ellis will be counted on to take steps forward, as will sophomore safeties Qwuantrezz Knight and Elijah Daniels. Freshmen Deon Jones and Markquese Bell could both see early action this season; senior safety Josh Woods said Jones "is going to be a force to be reckoned with."
"Sitting in the room now looking around, I'm like, 'Wow, Denzel, Savage and I are kind of like the last of the older guys," Woods said. "Everybody else is just really young. So it's really fun, just seeing how the team changes -- how fast it changes -- but we've got some great athletes back there that can help us."
Issue 236: August 2017