If it feels like I've done three of these posts in the past two weeks, it's because I have. But once again Maryland's offense will be led by a new signal-caller, once again forcing Mike Locksley to make substantial changes to his offensive gameplan, and once again it's a true freshman taking the reins. The difference? Well, this time it's a linebacker.
The blogger-est thing to do in this situation is, of course, to crack wise, maybe cry, and start shouting "GIVE STEFON THE BALL." All of which we've done and probably will do some more. But it's not what Mike Locksley will do, obviously, nor the rest of the team. They're still cooking up gameplans, coaching up the new guy, and trying their damnedest to squeak out two more wins in the final four. It's a highly unlikely bet for an impartial observer, maybe, but stranger things have happened.
The key to the whole thing will, of course, be the performance of Shawn Petty himself, the 6-3, 230-pound linebacker who'll be taking the snaps. Petty was a consensus two-star type in high school without a lot of offers, quarterbacking Eleanor Roosevelt but projecting as a linebacker at the next level. The scheme he ran in high school was built around the triple-option, similar to what Georgia Tech and Navy run (not, note, the zone-read option that Maryland uses), but it appears to have had a lot of multiple looks and Petty passed about 40% of the time, his coach estimates.
When you watch him play, it's no secret the type of player he is. He looks every bit a linebacker, probably more - maybe much more - than his listed 230, but he doesn't lumber around; his feet look surprisingly nimble, and though he doesn't have great speed he's certainly quick enough to be a threat with the ball. More importantly, he's big enough that he'll be able to absorb hits from head-hunting linebackers on the zone-read in a way Caleb Rowe really wasn't, which brings the ZR back into play for Maryland. In a way not dissimilar to someone like Ben Roethlisberger or Daunte Culpeper, he's also a bear to bring down for a sack. Linemen will have no trouble doing it, but if a defensive back gets to him on a zone blitz? Best of luck.
But he's got more of an arm that his move to linebacker would have you believe. He has a huge windup, but because of that big windup he puts a lot of torque on the ball, leading to good-looking, catchable balls. He looks composed when he has to escape the pocket and has surprisingly nice touch in short throws. Remember, too, that Petty was the quarterback of Team Flex, a Maryland-based 7-on-7 team with Jalen Tabor and Devin Butler that won a packed east coast event and went to 7-on-7 nationals, finishing 4-3. Petty tore up a few of those events at quarterback, and in fact was named one of the star performers at the national finals, lauded for throwing "nice, catchable balls" and having one of the best arms at an event that included the likes of Jeremy Liggins, Troy Williams, and Zeke Pike.
Petty doesn't look like he has a huge arm or like he's going to make a lot of plays with it. But those 7-on-7 events do a good job of simulating spread offense conditions, with a lot of spread-out receiving options, quick throws, and not a lot of downfield routes. What he did well at those events will translate well to what Locksley will ask him to do in the rare occasions he'll be asked to pass: make simple reads, find an open receiver in space, deliver a catchable ball and let the receivers take care of the rest.
That's something that, I imagine against Georgia Tech at least, will be available to him. Defenses are going to sell out against the run and try to make the linebacker beat them with his arm - and rightfully so, I think. But they'll have to be at least somewhat careful, because if Petty has time in the pocket and an open receiver underneath he'll make the throw. Locksley will have to simplify the reads, perhaps, and make the passing game a little more free-flowing and open - like a 7-on-7 event - but Petty's qualified to toss it around a bit.
That's not to say the change won't be drastic, as it is for all true freshmen who play in their first game. It's not helped by the fact that he has limited reps at quarterback in practice. And there's a reason, of course, that Petty was moved to linebacker. But if defenses overplay the run too much in an effort to make Petty beat them, they'll make things easy for him and may just be surprised by what he can do.
All that said, Maryland's still going to run it, and run it a lot. I'd expect a heavy dose of traditional set run plays, plus a lot of read option and variants of it. The good news is that they might actually be able to do it this time. You saw what a fit-and-firing zone-read could do to a defense, especially an unprepared defense, when it tore up N.C. State, compared to Maryland's sorry ground effort against BC. The reason for that, if you haven't figured it out yet, is simple: by leaving the backside defensive end free, you get an extra blocker towards the playside and get a numbers advantage. Throw in the threat of a mobile quarterback running up the backside of the defense, and it's one of football's great equalizers, along with the traditional triple option.
That traditional triple-option is mostly what Petty ran in high school, but he was also in the gun taking speed options. Maryland can, actually, use some of his triple-option experience when they run veer plays, as they did three times in the second half against N.C. State. (The "veer" refers to reading a playside, not backside, defender, usually the defensive end. It's used by the triple option and has been adopted by zone-read schemes in recent years, and it's hugely effective since the playside defensive end is usually the most dangerous player on any running play. Instead of double-teaming him, he's left unblocked and read, freeing up two blockers.) Using a steady combination of zone-read, speed, and veer option plays - all of which Petty has experience in - will be a pretty complex menu for defenses to prepare for and read.
And Petty may be somewhat more effective at those option plays than Caleb Rowe or Perry Hills was, for two big reasons. First, the physical tools: he's bigger than Rowe and can take hits, and he looks as if he's at least as nimble as Hills. And secondly and perhaps more importantly, he has a lot of experience - three or so years of it, I believe - making reads on the option, which is the area Maryland's quarterbacks have probably struggled the most. Even if the only thing he can be counted upon to do is consistently make the right reads, that will help Maryland gain an upper hand in the running game, or at least as much as one as can be had when defenses are stacking the box.
To prevent that from happening and defenses from cheating too far up, expect Maryland to go to bubble screens often. It's an easy throw for Petty and can be deadly with Maryland's wide receivers, and most importantly it maintains arguably the most important principle in the spread offense: if you spread a receiver, you have to have the threat of throwing it to him. A heavy dose of screens would force defenders to honor Maryland's spread receivers, opening up inside runs.
Unfortunately, it won't do anything about the safeties, who will cheat up and help negate the numbers advantage afforded to Maryland when the zone read is run properly. The only way that'll happen is if Locksley lets Petty make one or two deep or intermediate throws every game, which are obviously big risks. It's something of a playcalling dilemma, one likely to be resolved by Maryland figuring out how confident they are in Petty's arm.
But the biggest gameplan strategy is obvious: get the ball to Stefon Diggs, early and often. Diggs' touches and targets have steadily increased every week, and he could be pushing 15 (or even more) on Saturday if the scheme's done right. Because not only will he be targeted over the middle on horizontal passing routes often but he should also feature more in the running game, too. Expect Maryland to go back to what you saw against N.C. State, building on the inside zone-read but involving Diggs heavily to counter defensive expectations: counter treys from motion, triple ZR options, reverse speed options, and so forth. He will command considerable attention from every defense he plays, but he's still Maryland's best chance at producing moments of magic and making something from nothing - and, thereby, their best chance at scoring points. He's good for at least one big play every ten touches.
And as an added bonus, that attention that he demands will open things up for other players. If Petty's running an option with Diggs as the pitch, defenders are more likely to sit on Diggs and give Petty a lane, which he can use. Motion him into the backfield, and the way defenses react to a play changes completely. If they overreact, holes will open up elsewhere on the field. This is something that Maryland's done all year, and perhaps should be doing more anyway. But now that the traditional passing game is no longer viable, Diggs has to be emphasized even more.
Obviously, just last like last week, all of these reads well on paper, but it's somewhat fanciful to expect it to work out anywhere near as smoothly as described. Petty could easily struggle with the reads or throws; he certainly will struggle with the speed of the game and the athletes he's facing. If he struggles to make throws or isn't quite as athletic as advertised, defenses will cheat up on the running game and not honor the reads. There are dozens of potential pitfalls.
But that's the deal when you're starting a true freshman linebacker under center. Plans A, B, C, and D all had flaws of their own, too. When you're halfway down the alphabet, just be thankful that there are still positives to be had to begin with. It's something Maryland just has to deal with, while still trying to put him and the rest of the team in the best possible position to succeed. And this is the only way forward I can see. Build around the read option again, get the ball to Diggs by any means possible, but don't be afraid to let Petty drop back and make simple reads - especially screen passes, which will help to keep the defense stretched and out of the box.
Well, that, and hope the defense comes ready to play. Because even if everything comes off, I doubt Maryland's likely to be lighting up any scoreboards. But if Brian Stewart's defense ratchets the stinginess up to 11, they'll still find themselves in ball games late. And if that's the case - well, anything can happen.
Besides, they're due for some good luck and friendly bounces down the stretch.