Maryland was fairly awful last year on both sides of the ball, and I don't think anyone would dispute that. But there's a third side of the game, less focused-upon but nearly as important: special teams. The Terps' failures elsewhere ended up masking their successes there. The Terps were actually pretty good on special teams last year, and they have the potential to be even better this year.
Let's start with the obvious: Maryland has the kick return game on lockdown. Torrey Smith is...Torrey Smith. He'll break the current NCAA career record for kickoff return yardage by the middle of this year, and not a single player had more kickoff return yardage than Smith last year. He's an impact player returning kicks, and is far and away the most dangerous special teams player Maryland's had since Steve Suter.
But last year, another aspect of Maryland's special teams came along: the kicking game. Ever since the legendary Nick Novak graduated, Maryland's had their ups (Dan Ennis' senior year) and their...not so ups (Obi Egekeze, Dan Ennis' junior years). But Nick Ferrara, a true freshman last year, has the potential to be a legitimate all-conference kicker the next three years of his career.
He's already made a legitimate game-winning kick against James Madison, and for the first half of the season he was borderline MVP-level for the Terps (no, really). Then Travis Baltz went down, Ferrara took over, and it seems that he became more and more fatigued as the year went on, with an especially tough game against N.C. State. But his year was outstanding nonetheless; he received a freshman All-American awards and was undoubtedly one of the better freshman kickers in the nation. Out of all the freshman kickers with at least 20 attempts, Ferrara was second in FG percentage. He was certainly just as good as, if not better than, Dustin Hopkins, his freshman counterpart at FSU.
One would expect that another year of experience and working out in a college program would result in an evolutionary step forward for Nick, which would probably place him in the top 40 or so kickers in the nation, and perhaps higher. The bad news is that indications from camp haven't been quite as positive; then again, he struggled in camp last year but saw success on the field, so may he's just not a great practicer. The injuries are somewhat worrying, but as long as he can overcome them there's no reason to think he won't be somewhere in the top half of ACC kickers.
An aspect of the Terps' special teams that was seriously masked last year was the punting game, as Travis Baltz missed a few games to injury and wasn't really the same afterwards. But now that he's fully healed and is the Terps' full-time starter again, it's worth remembering the success he had prior to the injury.
Thanks to Brooks Barnard and Adam Podlesh, Maryland has a reputation as Punter U. Baltz fits right into that; his freshman year was arguably better than Ferrara's, and in his sophomore year he led the ACC in punting yards average. He was firmly expected to be the top punter in the conference again and perhaps launch himself into the nation's elite at the position.
But then he suffered an injury against Middle Tennessee State and missed six games on the year. He was able to get through two games toward the latter part of the year, but was playing through pain and it was clear he wasn't the same. His numbers suffered; his average and long were the shortest of his career.
By all accounts, out of practice, he's fully healed and kicking with no problem. There's not been a ton of news surrounding him, but at a position like punter, no news is usually good news.
So Maryland could potentially have top-flight players at kick returner, punter, and kicker. That leaves only one more aspect of special teams left: punt return. Sadly, the Terps aren't quite as set at that position.
I've already written about the Terps' woes at punt returner over the years, and the hope is that Tony Logan could finally give Ralph Friedgen an explosive punt returner the likes of Steve Suter. He wasn't outstanding last year, but he also saw his return numbers fluctuate thanks to injury. He did have a massive return against Clemson, but outside of that did very little and only average 4.4 yards per return - hardly All-ACC numbers.
It's a little silly to preach to the importance of special teams, because everyone here knows the basics of football and therefore probably have a good grasp on what special teams does. But I'll at least do it a little anyway: every single special teams play has the potential to be game-changing, and it's not unusual that they are. Having a kicker that can consistently get 3 points from 50 yards away changes the way you play offense. Field position is obviously important; in the NFL, for example, a four yard advantage in field position on every drive equates to a 0.4 TD difference per game.
Of course, there's no such thing as half a TD, but it's a probability thing. It would be 4.8 TDs over the course of a year. Again, it's a probability thing, but that's a pretty nice bonus to have.
Having a great special teams unit can easily make up for a 4 yard, or even greater, difference in field position over a game. Look at N.C. State; if Baltz returns to his 2008 form, the Terps would have a four-yard advantage in net punting over the Wolfpack. Throw in kick returns and that goes up to about five or so yards. Though that's rough and inconclusive, Maryland would have a slightly better percentage of scoring an extra TD (about 50%) over the course of the game.
Considering the number of close games Maryland had last year, an extra four TDs or so would be pretty good, and might account for another win or two. And while Logan, Ferrara, and Baltz are all variables to some extent, they're all variables with pretty decent chances of turning out and very high ceilings. Hey, thinking happy thoughts.