As the old saying goes — you can’t look forward if you don’t know where you’ve been.
So, as we turn the corner to the 2018 Maryland football season, it is important that we start with a look back at the lessons that last season taught us all. A promising start with a win over Texas eventually gave way to the Terps missing out on the postseason once again, and there were plenty of harsh lessons learned along the way.
Let’s explore what we know were the lessons that were learned from a tough 2017 season in College Park, Md., shall we?
Maryland Goes as its Quarterback goes
One can’t help but wonder what could’ve been in year 2 of the D.J. Durkin era thanks to a series of freak injuries at quarterback. First it was opening-game starter Tyrrell Pigrome going down in the second half of the opener against Texas. He left the game due to injury when the Terps were up just 37-34 and gave the reigns to highly touted freshman Kasim Hill.
Hill led the Terps through the rest of a wild matchup with the Longhorns, only to see himself go down for the season just three weeks in to the year with a torn ACL of his own. That meant a square peg in to a round hole for Walt Bell’s offense as big-bodied Max Bortenschlager took over at QB for the rest of the season.
It wasn’t good news, as the powerful Terps offense that showed up with Pigrome and Hill at the lead ground to a halt. Bortenschlager completed 51.9 percent of his passes for just 1,313 yards and 10 touchdowns to 5 interceptions. All of that coming in 11 games played.
After scoring 51 and 61 points in the first two weeks, Maryland only managed to top the 30-point mark two more times all year without Pigrome and Hill at quarterback. Now with Bell gone to Florida State and Matt Canada stepping in as offensive coordinator, the hope is that Pigrome and Hill are healthy enough to lead the offensive resurgence that Durkin thought he would have seen last year.
The lesson learned was simple — without a playmaker at quarterback, Maryland is in deep trouble. That lesson could hold the same in 2018 if Pigrome or Hill aren’t healthy.
Durkin’s D Still Needs Work
If there’s a bigger lesson than having two dynamic quarterbacks go down in the beginning of the season hurts a program, it’s that not playing stout defense will kill you in the Big Ten. Maryland found that out for the second-straight season under Durkin, as the Terps got rolled over by just about every big-named opponent on its schedule.
It all led to a defense that ranked last in scoring in the Big Ten, giving up 37.1 points per game and 190 yards on the ground too. Those aren’t exactly good numbers for a defensive orientated head coach, but they are the reality of the first three seasons of Durkin’s era.
One could argue that a lackluster offense after Pigrome and Hill went down didn’t help, and they would be right. But, that wasn’t the difference between 37.1 points per game and 27.1 points per game on the defensive side of the ball.
Maryland has tried hard to recruit better on defense, and those players are likely to see big roles early in their careers. Can big names like defensive lineman Adam McLean and cornerback Deon Jones finally show out in 2018? McLean saw some action last season and looked like a potential star, while Jones redshirted. If he can live up to billing, that could help a passing defense that hasn’t ranked higher than 9th in the Big Ten in the two years Durkin has been at the helm of the program.
Point blank, this rebuild on defense has been puzzling at best. Durkin has had some quality to work with, but maybe not enough to fully execute what he would like. If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that this is a side of the ball that will continue to take lumps until it gets experience to match its recruiting potential.
Terps Are Getting Closer Thanks to Recruiting
It may have taken a bit longer than some in the Terps faithful have hoped, but at least there were signs of hope last season. Going in to Austin and beating Texas was no small feat. Neither was winning a heated recruiting battle for Kasim Hill and having him prove he could be the future leader of the program in less than two full games played.
Durkin wasn’t hired to make an immediate winner out of the Terps, he was hired to make them in to a long-term winner and that project required getting his guys in to the program and on to the field as fast as possible. However, the cupboard wasn’t totally bare when Durkin took over and now we are likely to see the fruits of the recruiting tree be picked.
Looking at the recruiting trail, you can see a glimmer of hope coming. Maryland’s last two classes have ranked No. 17 in 2017 and No. 28 in 2018 respectively. Those classes have included names like Kasim Hill, Adam McLean, Bryce Brand and Javon Leake who made impacts just last season alone. Experience for that class should bode well going forward.
As long as Durkin’s eye for talent is as good as it was with Hill, Maryland may be a contender in the East division quicker than some will believe. It’s a lesson that may have been forgotten from last year, but Durkin’s young players showed a lot of promise despite some difficult moments against a brutal schedule.
What it All Means
Durkin’s program feels like it is at a crossroads heading in to this season. We’ve seen glimpses of offensive powerhouse in year’s one and two, but with offensive genius Walt Bell off to Florida State it will be up to journeyman offensive coordinator Matt Canada to keep things going smoothly. Having Chris Beatty elevated to co-offensive coordinator should be a big help as well.
But, more than anything, the 2017 season continued to show that there is a long way to go for the Terps as a program. The depth is getting better, but there isn’t a position in which they are more than two-deep. That sometimes is the biggest difference between wins and losses in the Big Ten. The likes of Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin can often plug-in a second or third option at a lot of positions and be perfectly fine.
Time will tell if Durkin can get the Terps to be more competitive against the best the Big Ten has to offer, but at least the effort has begun to get better and the talent is falling in to place for hopes to rise.