Running back Anthony McFarland was poised to be the DeMatha Catholic (Md.) High School football team's focal point on offense during his senior season in 2016 as he deliberated where to play at the next level.
But a fateful preseason scrimmage against nearby St. Vincent Pallotti (Md.) High School changed things. McFarland suffered a broken fibula, and his high school career was suddenly over.
DeMatha head coach Elijah Brooks still remembers the moment his star running back went down in pain and the team's season, along with McFarland's future, was thrown into flux.
"I do remember his injury, because it had a definite impact on our offense and obviously on him," Brooks said. "We weren't as explosive or dynamic without him. We and he could've been great that year."
The Hyattsville, Md., native committed to Maryland in January 2017 and then redshirted with the Terps in 2017 as he continued to round back into shape.
Two years later, McFarland -- now a redshirt freshman with the Terps -- has proven he's healthy and ready to make a difference for Maryland. Part of a crowded backfield, McFarland has run 36 times for 325 yards and two touchdowns through five games. During the team's Big Ten opener against Minnesota Sept. 22, the 5-foot-8, 208-pound McFarland gashed the Golden Gophers for 112 yards and two touchdowns on just six carries.
It wasn't always certain McFarland would get back to this point. He had concerns himself, but as a senior at DeMatha, he continued to be an emotional leader for his team and its younger players, Brooks said.
"It was tough. He had times when he was discouraged," Brooks said. "He just wanted to be out there for his final season at DeMatha."
For an athletic, quick running back like McFarland, a broken leg could have been career-altering. Sophomore offensive tackle Marcus Minor, a teammate of McFarland's at DeMatha, was by his friend's side throughout the process. He knew McFarland had always been there for his injured teammates.
"It was hard to have it happen senior year when it's kind of your last time out there with your brothers," Minor said. "He's a real buddy and he was always there to lean on. … I did the same that he would have done."
While the physical rehab was difficult in its own right, the mental side can often be just as hard, Brooks said. During his two-year break, McFarland learned to rely less on pure athleticism and to focus on the cerebral side of attacking defenses. McFarland traveled with the Terps on the road throughout the 2017 season and learned a lot about how difficult college football, and especially Big Ten play, would be.
"My main focus is now preparing," McFarland said. "Prepare right and it'll show on the field. You can't get away with mistakes like in high school."
McFarland's focus on preparation includes a willingness to receive criticism from coaches and teammates in an effort to improve, senior running back Ty Johnson said. McFarland and his fellow backs are constantly helping each other improve their footwork, cuts or any other facet of playing the position, Johnson added.
McFarland has always been a "one-cut back" with his ability to quickly break tackles and accelerate towards the end zone, Brooks said, but the new mental approach could take him to another level.
Once McFarland was cleared to play and returned to form, his teammates knew what he could accomplish.
"No matter if I don't get off the block well or I don't do my job right, he can still get upfield and make us look good," Minor said. "And he has more strength on him now if he doesn't juke and lose you."
During this year's season opener against Texas Sept. 1, McFarland savored the moment to be back on the field with his teammates at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. There was a time, though, when McFarland never planned on playing for Maryland.
McFarland strongly considered going to the University of Miami (Fla.) but eventually realized he didn't have to leave the area to make an impact. To that end, McFarland mentioned longtime NFL tight end Vernon Davis, a native of Washington, D.C., who found professional success after attending Maryland.
"When I committed, I saw the feedback about other offers," McFarland said. "I'm not caught up in big-time schools like Alabama or LSU. I thought I could win in my backyard. Why do I have to go to another state?"
McFarland's skill set adds to a deep running back room, which McFarland said is the best group in the country. Alongside the redshirt freshman are Johnson, sophomore Tayon Fleet-Davis and sophomore Javon Leake.
The competition is something McFarland savors to help him improve.
"We have a great running back room where … when your number's called, you have to make a play or the next running back will," McFarland said. "That's what you want, you know? And it gives us that hunger and that competition, and that's how we compete. That's what I really love about the running back room."
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 248: October 2018
Originally published Oct. 15, 2018