One of the Old Coach’s favorite Muppet characters from Sesame Street (yes, I watched it with the kids) was Count von Count, aka Count Dracula. I loved the Romanian-accented sounds as he rattled off the number of the day. I can just hear him now, teaching us the number five as he counted on his puppet fingers: “Onnne, tooo, treee, fourrrr, fiffe. Fiffe!We have fiffe kvarterbachs!”
University of Maryland summer football practices began this past week, and the Old Coach is looking forward to seeing what new head coach Mike Locksley has in store for the coming season. With just under three weeks before the Terps kick off the 2019 campaign at home against the Howard University Bison, Locksley and his new staff haven’t got much time to fit all the pieces together and mold them into a team that can at least be competitive in what may be the toughest division in one of the best conferences in college football.
Preseason analysts have predicted that no less than four of the seven Big Ten East Division teams (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State) will finish in the top 25 this year, and the Terps will also face West Division Nebraska, projected to crack the top 20 in the polls. Add to that an early nonconference game against a formidable Syracuse Orange foe, and you get what many view as one of the most challenging schedules in the country (last year’s was the 16th toughest). Because the Terps are facing so many quality opponents, not many folks are expecting any improvement from the 5–7 record that Maryland posted last season.
A word of caution: Don’t write the Terps off so fast. Keep in mind that last year’s team suffered through one of the most traumatic experiences that can happen to any team. The death of teammate Jordan McNair, the manner in which it occurred and the firing of head coach DJ Durkin before the first game would have been enough to devastate most programs. But under the leadership of interim coach Matt Canada, the team was able to hold it together and managed to get within one completed pass on an extra-point attempt of upsetting Ohio State and being bowl-eligible for the postseason.
There may be differing opinions about the coaching methods of Durkin and his staff; that’s for you to decide. However, Durkin had been successful bringing in much better talent that could compete in the Big Ten, particularly signing many top players from the Delmarva area. When the university hired Locksley this winter, they decided to double-down on getting a head coach who had local connections and a reputation for recruiting the DMV. Immediately after the announcement of his being named, many area high school coaches and players expressed their excitement about the decision.
The good news is Durkin didn’t leave the cupboard bare when he was shown the door. Most of the players recruited by the former coach decided to stay. After all, they had been through a lot of turmoil and emotional hardship and had formed a bond that drew them together. So Locksley had some talent to build around.
Even though his staff was late getting started in the recruiting cycle for this year’s incoming freshmen, the Terps staff was able to land some surprising players. The most notable player, four-star New Orleans high school quarterback Lance Legendre, had verbally committed to Florida State. Rated as the eighth-ranked QB recruit in the country, Legendre was also the target of Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma State and Missouri.
But Coach Locks knows the recent history of Maryland football where quarterbacks drop like flies with season-ending injuries. In another coup, he was able to get Virginia Tech transfer QB Josh Jackson on board. Jackson, a redshirt junior, will be a graduate student at Maryland and have two years of eligibility after sitting out last season at Tech with a broken leg. In his freshman year, he passed for close to 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns while leading the Hokies to a 9–4 record and a trip to the 2018 Camping World Bowl. He was the top-rated freshman quarterback in the power five conferences for the 2017 season.
For those readers of “Coach’s Corner,” you may recall a column after the Terps Red-White Spring Game on April 27, when I raved about the performances of the only two quarterbacks that were able to physically play in that scrimmage: redshirt freshman Tyler DeSue and redshirt junior Max Bortenschlager. Despite a swirling, blustery wind, both passers were able to deliver the ball on target to multiple receivers. Both showed strong, accurate arms. Redshirt junior Tyrrell Pigrome, the QB who led the amazing comeback performance against Ohio State last year, only to miss the pass that would have given them the victory, sat out the scrimmage for medical reasons. Legendre and Jackson were finishing up graduation requirements at their respective schools and were not eligible to play yet.
Offensively, Maryland may be as deep at running back as any team in the country. “Onnne, tooo, treee, fourrr, fiffe. Fiffe rrrunink bachs.” Sophomore Anthony McFarland rushed for more than 1,000 yards, averaging 7.4 per carry, and he ran for an eye-popping 298 yards against Ohio State. Lorenzo Harrison returns to the Maryland team after a year’s absence. He rushed for over 600 yards as a freshman. Another speedster, Javon Leake, is equally as talented, as demonstrated by his four-touchdown performance against Illinois last year, one on a kickoff return and three on rushes. He became the first player in Big Ten history to win both the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week and the conference Special Team Player of the Week in the same game. Junior Tayon Fleet-Davis and redshirt junior Jake Funk are also capable of making big plays on offense, both running and receiving out of the backfield.
Umm, Coach. You just spent the entire column talking about two positions. What about the rest of the team?
Well, yes. As we all know, no quarterback or running back is worth a hoot if the receivers can’t get open and catch the pass or the offensive linemen don’t clear the way. And the Maryland defense will need to be much improved over last year’s squad, particularly having to play against the very physical Big Ten powerhouses.
But let’s save that discussion for next week.
In the meantime, let’s practice our counting, “Onnne, tooo, tree, fourrr, fiffe. Fiffe iss a gudt numberrr!”