It was the first day of spring practice for the Maryland football team, but the Terps already featured a brand new offense in a scrimmage setting. Offensive players huddled before plays, quarterbacks took snaps from under center and personnel packages included multiple tight ends and running backs, while myriad pre-snap motions and quick-hitting jet sweeps were tested for the first time.
For Maryland offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Canada, hired in late January after Walt Bell departed for the same position at Florida State, it was the third straight spring of installing his offense at a new school. He was the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh (2016) and Louisiana State (2017) before arriving in College Park, Md.
"You know, it's funny, but I don't like change," Canada said March 5. "I don't like moving, so that doesn't look the way it is."
The 46-year-old Canada's coaching career began in a less nomadic fashion, as he learned the trade as a student coach and graduate assistant at Indiana from 1992-1995, and then circled back around to the Hoosiers, whom he coached from 2004-2010 in various roles as offensive coordinator or an assistant. Maryland is Canada's sixth stop since he left Indiana, and he has been the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at all of them.
"Early on there, we were going pretty well, and then there's been more change. Everyone's been great. I've met great people everywhere, and I think, as I look around, my daughter has said it best: I mean, all the moves we've had, it's been awesome every place we've been," said Canada, whose family includes his wife, Erin, his daughter, Tori, and his son, Chris. "It's not easy, our profession. For me, you come in, you coach, you do your deal. But for your kids, it's a challenge, but they've actually made it better for me and tell me all the things they've gained from it. I'm very, very blessed."
Canada has consistently created productive offenses. North Carolina State was sixth in the ACC in total offense in 2014 and 2015 and third in the conference in points in 2015. Pittsburgh was fifth in the ACC in total offense in 2016 while scoring a program-record 40.9 points per game. LSU was seventh in total offense in the SEC in 2017.
At N.C. State, Canada developed Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who transferred to the Wolfpack after spending his first two seasons at Florida. Brissett threw for 5,268 yards, 43 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing 59.9 percent of his throws from 2014-2015. At Pitt, Canada aided the development of Buffalo Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman, who threw for 2,855 yards, 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions on 60.5 percent passing in 2016.
One of Canada's top priorities at Maryland will be developing Tyrrell Pigrome, who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall, and Kasim Hill, who will be a redshirt freshman. Both quarterbacks tore the ACL in their right knee last September and won't practice during the spring. Rising junior Max Bortenschlager, rising freshman and early enrollee Tyler DeSue and rising sophomore walk-on Legend Brumbaugh will see all the snaps during the spring.
"When you look at our quarterback situation, I think when we're healthy at quarterback, we're as good as there is," Maryland head coach DJ Durkin said.
Canada's main objective will be improving a Terps team that finished 11th in the 14-team Big Ten in total offense and points per game. Maryland scored 51 points and racked up 482 yards of offense in a season-opening win at Texas with Pigrome and Hill under center and put up 63 points and 534 yards of offense in a win against Towson with Hill at quarterback. But the Terps averaged just 17.2 points per game during the final 10 games of their season as injuries and a difficult schedule caught up with them.
Maryland also didn't help itself. The Terps typically limited their sets to four wide receivers and one back (no tight end) or three wideouts, one back and one tight end. They failed to spread the ball around, with wide receiver DJ Moore (who declared for the NFL Draft Dec. 19) and rising senior wide receiver Taivon Jacobs making more than 72 percent of Maryland's catches. Tight ends did not catch a pass despite being a potential safety valve for Bortenschlager.
The ball tends to be spread around in Canada's offense, as eight players caught double-digit passes at N.C. State in 2015, seven at Pitt in 2016 and seven at LSU in 2017. Canada will also use some exotic personnel packages, which include unbalanced offensive lines.
"I think if you look at our tight ends over the last few years, they've caught a lot of balls, been very involved, but it goes back to who deserves to play," Canada said of his offenses in recent years. "And I think that's the challenge we've given to our players. Do we need to play two or three backs at one time? Do we need to play four wideouts, three wideouts, two tight ends, three tight ends, six linemen? … It's more about who shows up and who wins the jobs."
Rising senior Ty Johnson and rising junior Lorenzo Harrison, who combined to catch just 16 passes last year, have the potential to grow into greater all-around backs and possibly be on the field at the same time. Johnson has the electric speed, and Harrison the quickness to operate in space in the passing game. Johnson thinks he'll get that opportunity.
"You heard Coach Canada say there's going to be possibly two-, three-back sets," Johnson said. "… I think there's definitely going to be a big chance of running backs catching the ball out of the backfield or lining up in the slot or something like that."
Another subtle change could also be in store for the Terps' running backs. The group could be helped by quarterbacks taking snaps from under center.
"It definitely gives you a more open view to the backside cut, banging it in there or bouncing it. It allows you to get your shoulders squared up more," Johnson said. "When we take our steps, you're squaring your shoulders on the second step already, and you're squaring them on when you're at 5 yards, not when you're 3 yards away from the line, so it kind of helps, giving you more time and space to make a decision."
Canada's offense is also an adjustment for the Terps' defense during practice. The jet sweep got a workout during a scrimmage March 5, with Jacobs and fellow receiver Jeshaun Jones ripping through the defense one time apiece.
"Oh, those jet sweeps. They comin'," rising senior defensive lineman Mbi Tanyi said after practice. "We've seen them today; that was a little surprise, they threw it in. Coach Canada, he's always got something. They're always shifting and this and that, but once we get set, we should be good."