Well, it's official: with Perry Hills' torn ACL sidelining him for the rest of the season, the Maryland Terrapins will have a new quarterback starting on Saturday against the Boston College Eagles. And barring some unfortunate bumps in the road, that new quarterback will likely be the starter for the rest of the year.
We're not entirely sure if it'll be quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback-again Devin Burns, who orchestrated Maryland's offense to two touchdowns and 177 rushing yards in the second half of Saturday's close loss to N.C. State, or true freshman Caleb Rowe, who burnt his redshirt with thirty seconds to go and engineered the Terrapins' extraordinary, nearly-game-winning two-minute drill. Randy Edsall, for his part, is taking pains to keep that under wraps, listing the two as co-starters at QB on the weekly depth chart update.
Whichever way it turns, football aficionados will get a look at some interesting scheming from Mike Locksley, with the Terrapins' offensive system diverging wildly between the two possibilities. If it's Rowe, expect to see a West Coast spread - something of an Air Raid-lite, if you will - like the Terps busted out in the first quarter against N.C. State, and which I talked about at length last week. That scheme would rely on Rowe's superior arm to get the ball to Maryland's receivers in space on short, early-down routes, emphasizing their strength out wide. And with the defense spreading out to deal with the glut of horizontal routes, they take defenders out of the box, opening up a power run game for Wes Brown. It's a clever scheme, one I'm particularly fond of.
But I have a sneaking suspicion it'll be Burns who starts come Saturday, and if it is we'll see nearly the exact opposite in terms of scheme. Before I get to that, though: why Burns? For one, I'd guess the staff is more comfortable with him. After all, he was the #2 quarterback for over a month now and it was him who they initially turned to, only going with Rowe when it was clear that Maryland would need his arm - something Randy Edsall said was totally premeditated. Another fairly obvious reason: Boston College has struggled immensely against the run, which makes Burns' ability on the ground a more sensible option.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Burns can successfully run the single most important play in Mike Locksley's playbook: the zone-read option. What we saw in the second half against N.C. State was the closest Maryland's come to the original vision Locksley had when he devised this scheme, the one he built around the Terrapins' personnel before injuries decimated them, the one he installed throughout spring and early fall practices. Rowe may have the arm, just as Hills' had the toughness, but it's Burns who excels at the play that's built around Locksley's Oregonesque read-option scheme. It's exceedingly similar to what he ran in high school, giving him years of experience reading the defense that Rowe and Hills lack. And as a former wide receiver who once ran a 4.49 40, he's as dangerous a running quarterback as you're likely to find, which forces defenses to respect his ability to take off.
The fact that Burns can run the read option so well could easily be the deciding factor between himself and Rowe. It's so important because, despite what your eyes may have told you while Maryland ran the read option less and less effectively in the early weeks, Locksley is neither blind nor crazy. He was calling that play, and built the original offense around it, for a very sensible reason: it compensates for many of Maryland's weaknesses.
Weakness one: Maryland can't consistently pass. None of the quarterbacks on the roster, C.J. Brown included, were proven passers at the start of the year; none are now, either. Relying on any arm in that stable was and still is a significant gamble, one that Maryland wasn't willing to take. No matter. Just run the ball. Right? Well...
Weakness two: The offensive line probably isn't good enough to run the ball consistently, either. We've seen as much this season already, and the coaching staff already knew it. This is where the zone-read comes into play, because it's one of football's great equalizers. On a regular running play, there are nine blockers against eleven defenders - the quarterback doesn't block and the running back is obviously carrying the ball. But not on the zone-read: the offensive line leaves the defensive end on the backside of the play unblocked, shifting every blocker over towards the direction the play is being run (the playside). That unblocked end actually becomes the responsibility of the quarterback: he has to read the end and force him to stay in his lane and, therefore, out of the play. (He was in essence blocked.) So long as that happens, the quarterback hands it off to the running back and the play progresses as a regular running play, only with an extra blocker. If the end crashes down and chases the running back as if reacting to a regular run, he vacates his lane; the quarterback reads that and takes off right up that avenue.
All of a sudden, a running game that couldn't get anything straight-up can start to get major yardage, because each of the possibilities are tilted in their favor: it's either a numbers advantage for the back or an open lane for the QB. After seeing what Maryland managed running straight-up, it's no wonder this idea would seem attractive to them or that they'd try to build upon it.
Unfortunately, it was one play Perry Hills really struggled with. He was hardly a burner and struggled both with reading the defense and keeping it honest. (Several times it appeared he was actually reading the linebacker, which is lower-risk because no linemen are unblocked, but doesn't have the same point-of-attack benefits.) Still, Locksley never gave up on the play, presumably because he thought getting it to work was Maryland's best chance at a coherent, consistent offense. And he may not have been wrong.
Now that Burns, a highly dangerous runner with a history of making sensible reads in this offense, will likely captain the offensive ship, expect Locksley to revert back to going with this look on a full-time basis. It won't be a different scheme to what he ran with Hills, but the playcalling will change: fewer passes, more option. But it's likely what he originally hoped for, and still Base Locksley.
Ah, but wait! you say. Won't this become predictable, with defenses just loading up the playside and the unblocked lineman staying home? And won't that kill the advantage? Actually, that's exactly what Maryland wants. Any good offensive gameplan is built around getting the defense to think one thing is coming and then doing something else. It helps if the running back has the vision to do it on the fly, but it can also be done by Locksley himself, using the defense's expectations against it.
Here's a great example of exactly this from Saturday, which should showcase how unpredictable this scheme can be. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Maryland had a third and four near midfield, probably four-down territory. By this point N.C. State's defense and defensive coordinator knew what to expect from Devin Burns: zone-reads, options, a few screens, and more zone-reads. So when Maryland lined up like this, it was pretty obvious what to expect if you're N.C. State.
State sees this, they obviously identify a zone read to the strong side, leaving the defensive end on the weak side unblocked and using the five linemen, plus Matt Furstenburg, to handle the three remaning linemen and get to the second level. Mouse over the image to see what I'm talking about. So State, realizing this, tries to defend it by overplaying the playside to get more bodies over there, attempting to flood the gap that Wes Brown would try to run through. Mouse over the image to see it happen.
The weak side tackle stunts to get an extra body playside, while the two linebackers crash in to the same effect. The weakside backer especially charges in, trying to mirror the ball. This way, they have five bodies playside, plus a safety crashing down as well. It means Maryland won't be able to effectively double-team, and it's basically a straight-up run play.
Except that's not what happened. This is what happened:
Great Joe Bugel, they run the counter trey! Four linemen do more or less what you'd expect from a ZR, but Furstenburg and
Russ Grimm De'Onte Arnett pull, while Riggo Brown steps up like he's taking a zone-read option but instead cuts it back to the weak side. (Obviously it isn't the same as the Redskins' counter trey, given that the H-back pulls instead of lead blocks, but that's the way it's been adopted in the modern era, mainly by Malzahn and Meyer.)
So State tries to cancel out the expected mismatch and sells out against what they expected to be the playside, and in doing so took almost all of their defense out of the play. Three linemen are essentially non-factors. The strongside linebacker is out of the play entirely. The weakside backer, who would normally make the stop, is pulled out of position. Same for the safety, who instead of being able to force Brown wide is sealed inside thanks to a great block by Kevin Dorsey. Arnett gets around to seal the unblocked end, while Furstenburg does the same to seal the linebacker who had crashed too early, giving Brown an easy one-v-one with the cornerback.
And yes, he wins, though maybe not in the same manner Riggo would've:
At that point, the only reason he doesn't house it is because the strong safety didn't bite on the fake, and was able to get across the field to eventually corral him out of bounds. (Brown, though, got the last word.)
The end result:
And, of course, the end result for Maryland of a half played in this scheme, albeit against something of an unprepared defense: 177 yards on upwards of five yards a carry. It gave Maryland's line life, jumpstarted Wes Brown, and let Maryland move the ball in a way they've only dreamed of up to this point. To me, that's worth another shot.
The reason I went to lengths to explain that single play is because the same basic concepts will be used in almost every other play in Maryland's playbook when this scheme is in effect, as I believe it probably will (and deserves to) be. They want to run the zone-read so much and so well that defenses have no choice but to play to stop it. And that's when they call some counteraction play: a counter trey like this, perhaps, but maybe a triple option with Stefon Diggs, or a speed option, or a reverse speed option again with Diggs, or quick screens, or play-action off the zone-read, or a play-action reverse to (yes) Diggs, or any other of myriad options.
The first place a lot of fans' minds go when they see a scheme like this is "Isn't it predictable?" And it is to some degree, but any offense that runs it is doing so because of just that: predictability. They'll run in a way they couldn't do straight-up, force the defense to react, and then attack the weakness they just left exposed by reacting in the first place. Even defending a vanilla read option from a base defensive set can be a terror, as it requires great execution across the front seven and any mistake will be seized upon, while ZR-specific techniques like the scrape exchange require dedicated practice time. And once the offense starts to announce all these little wrinkles, defenses not only need great execution - they need to start guessing right, too.
But there's one pretty foolproof, if somewhat Cro-Magnon way to keep it under control: flood bodies into the box. It's not elegant, but if a defense can stuff enough bodies in the box to flood the gaps and make things congested for the offense, it's pretty tough to pull off read options like this, or most of its little variants. There's simply not enough space or time. That's why spread offenses do, actually, spread the offense: to get guys out of the box. But it's not enough to just spread out the receivers: you have to throw to them, too.
And that, I'd guess, is what it all boils down to for Maryland. See, it doesn't matter how much you spread the field if the defense doesn't respect the receivers. To loosely quote Chip Kelly, if you spread a receiver out you have to throw to him. If you don't throw to him, the defense doesn't honor him. That's the dilemma for Locksley: can you count on Devin Burns' arm to make defenses respect receivers? Because if not, spreading the field won't do anything to stop them from flooding the box, and that makes the scheme toothless.
I don't mean to say that Burns does not have a good arm. Only that it's yet to be proven - or shown at all, really - at this level. He was pretty solid on shorter passes in high school, with nice touch, but it's darn near three years removed since then. He spent the last season as a wide receiver, ignoring his arm. Locksley clearly tried to protect him as a passer, calling a grand total of two non-screen pass plays, one resulting in an interference call and the other, a quick out to Kevin Dorsey, skipping just short.
If this is going to work on a large scale for Maryland, they'll need Burns' arm. He doesn't need to have enough to throw deep balls down the seam. But he does need to be able to throw the ball around 15 times a game or so, mostly screens, probably completing at least half, and hitting at least one intermediate route. This will be made easier when defenses cheat up to try to flood the box. But they will test him, and he'll need to respond. If he proves that he can, in fact, throw, then defenses will have to move on to more complicated measures, and that means Maryland's won.
Burns will, presumably, get a longer leash on Saturday against Boston College, when the staff has more time to work with him as he gets more first-team reps. (Assuming he does start, naturally.) Really, there's little other choice. And again, that's Maryland's great test. If it comes off and Burns proves his arm worthy, the Terrapins' offense will likely be a pleasant little surprise down the stretch, probably good enough for them to reach that sought-out sixth win. If not, it might get a little messy.
Whichever way this ends up, whether Rowe or Burns starts, whether Burns shows he can pass or not, the final five games just got a lot more interesting.