The preseason outlook for the 2012 Maryland Terrapins football program wasn’t too promising. After the team went 2-10 in 2011, the roster took a big hit. Players who didn’t leave when Randy Edsall was initially hired fled after his disappointing first year. Quarterback Danny O’Brien transferred to Wisconsin. Then quarterback C.J. Brown tore an ACL in preseason. Several of the remaining veterans, including senior linebacker Kenneth Tate, also sustained injuries.
Four weeks in, Maryland’s 2-2, with more momentum and fight than the team showed at almost any point in 2011.
The Terps are trending up as they begin ACC play, and that’s not in spite of the youth on the roster, but because of it.
Maryland has played twelve freshman already this year, the ninth-most of any FBS team, and those rookies have played incredibly well.
Hills’ numbers on the year are just average – 58.2% completions for 749 yards, six touchdowns, and five interceptions – but he’s been improving as he gets more comfortable at the college level. He’s said that the game has finally started to slow down for him, and it certainly seemed like it last week against West Virginia, when he had the best game of his short career: 20 for 29, for 305 yards and three touchdowns.
That’s a good stat line for just about any quarterback (excluding Geno Smith) and while Hills’ numbers will fluctuate as he gains more experience and faces different defenses, he’s building a solid foundation for the rest of this year and beyond.
Hills has gotten a lot of help from fellow freshman Stefon Diggs, who leads the Terps with 295 receiving yards and three touchdowns this season. When Diggs, a five-star recruit from Montgomery County’s Good Counsel high school, committed to stay close to home and play for the Terps, he was hailed by Maryland fans as the future savior of the program.
Senior A.J. Francis called the rookie “one of the best players” he’s ever seen, telling The Washington Post: “A lot of the plays he makes, there’s no word other than unbelievable.”
It might still be too early to throw the “savior” label around, but Diggs hasn’t disappointed. An explosive return specialist, he’s second in the ACC (and 16th in the country) in all-purpose yards with 160.5, and his 21.6 yards per catch rank fourth in the nation.
Diggs is, rightly, getting plenty of attention, but he’s not the Maryland player who was taking the field for Good Counsel just a year ago.
Running back Wes Brown, another former Falcon, is one of three freshman listed as co-starters at tailback this week, along with Brandon Ross and Albert Reid, and sophomore Justus Pickett. Ross was named the starter in preseason but a hamstring injury kept him out for the first three games; in his absence, Reid started the opener, but Brown averaged more yards per carry. The Terps are still experimenting with what works in the run game, because all their options are relatively new and untested.
Another Good Counsel alum, left tackle Mike Madaras, will get his first career start this Saturday against Wake Forest. Madaras, who has played in every game for the Terps in 2012, and redshirt freshman Andrew Zeller, who saw his first game action at right guard last week, were added to the starting lineup this week in an effort to shore up the offensive line.
Hills has been sacked 16 times on the year, the 6th-most of any FBS quarterback. The coaching staff is hoping to reduce sacks by inserting rookie O-linemen to add more strength and athleticism on the inside, but part of the solution has to come from the freshman quarterback.
“One of the things we told Perry: If you don’t want to get hit so much, make sure the ball comes out on time,” Edsall said.
It’s just one more part of the learning curve for a very young team that has a very bright future.