It's been years since Maryland football had to worry about its running back situation. Over a decade, in fact.
In the beginning - for our purposes, 1999 - there was Lamont Jordan, who begat Bruce Perry, who begat Chris Downs, who begat another year of Bruce Perry, who begat Josh Allen, who begat Lance Ball, who begat Keon Lattimore, who begat Da'Rel Scott, who begat Davin Meggett. Maryland has always had either someone they were comfortable with at running back, or someone who proved his worth within days of starting. It's not been a historical worry spot.
Not this year, though. The pre-Edsallian heir apparent, D.J. Adams, was one of the high-profile defections during Transfergeddon, leaving Maryland with unspectacular sophomore Justus Pickett and three freshmen heading into the season.
The good news is that perhaps no position is easier to contribute at for youngsters than running back. The bad news? Even with that being the case, it can take awhile to figure out who can contribute if you don't have proven options. And that's exactly what happened with Maryland.
What Went Well: By the end of the year, the Terrapins looked to have two very good, if somewhat similar, freshmen running backs able to carry the load going into next season.
The star was Wes Brown, the true freshman out of Good Counsel who was monstrous against N.C. State and made positive impacts and big plays against UConn and Temple. Brown's a bigger back who clearly enjoys contact, even if he's not a full-fledged, well-rounded bruiser just yet (he sometimes bounces instead of cuts upfield into contact, for instance), but he also has good vision and nice elusiveness, making him a well-rounded back capable of being Mike Locksley's Rashard Mendenhall in College Park. He averaged 4.24 a carry in somewhat limited snaps, but his potential was obvious.
Less obvious? Brandon Ross, who was quietly Maryland's most productive and arguably best back. Few fans took note of him throughout the year, mostly because his success came after AMQHG had struck and fan interest had dimmed, but the staff certainly noticed. Over the final four games, Ross had performances of 66 yards on 12 carries (against Georgia Tech), 100 yards on 16 carries (against Clemson), and 141 yards on 21 carries (against North Carolina). That was enough to make him Maryland's top rusher on the season despite five fewer carries than Brown, averaging 4.59 per. He's not a particularly dynamic, but he has good top-end speed and interesting elusiveness in the open field - see his killer spin moves in the West Virginia game. His relatively no-nonsense style suits Randy Edsall's taste in rushers, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Ross as the opening day starter at running back come next season.
And even though neither back was terribly explosive, the type of runner usually associated with the zone-read option that Maryland ran, they both seemed more at home in the ZR than in the traditional running game. This may be because Maryland's line was better in the option game, but the backs have a toughness and assertiveness about them that gives the scheme a little bite it sometimes lacks. When these two are in, to paraphrase the great Hinky Dink Kenna, this ain't no sissy spread.
Lastly, while Justus Pickett had his fair share of problems as a starter, he did emerge as a serviceable third down back, as a dangerous receiving option and good pass blocker. But more on him later.
What Went Wrong: Well, it took forever for Maryland to figure out that Ross and Brown (Wrandon Bross?) were the two guys to go with, which led to Albert Reid and Justus Pickett getting starts and carries in the meantime. That was bad news, because while I like both of those backs, they weren't nearly as productive as the other two, averaging a combined 2.2 yards per carry. In retrospect, a large portion of their 105 carries probably should've gone to the other two backs.
Pickett was still just too tentative and lacked the little bit of burst that made him an elite prospect out of high school; Reid seemed to bulk up and have lost a step, functioning as Maryland's short-yardage back despite weighing in at all of 185 in high school. They both have purposes to serve, but as primary backs, they just weren't as ready as young Bross was.
To some degree, though, there was little choice, because the backs were hit as hard by the injury bug as any other position (save you-know-where). Brown missed the Virginia game due to injury and then the final three of the season; Ross missed the first three games of the season, played in the next two, and then missed another three in a row. That killed the rhythm Maryland's backs were building, and forced the productive guys out in favor of less-ready backs.
Unfortunately, Brown had some fumble issues, too, losing the ball twice against Temple and another time in a crucial situation against N.C. State. Those were his only three of the season, but then he also only carried the ball 90 times. That's a fumble every 30 carries, which would be one nearly every game if he turned into the workhorse some expect him to. The sample size isn't necessarily big enough to get truly worried over, but it was a spot of concern.
And given that they were often running behind a line that wasn't strong enough or technical enough to win at the point of attack, despite usually playing with a downhill running scheme, their numbers occasionally suffered as well. That's as much the scheme's fault (or injuries' fault) as it is the line or the backs themselves, but it made things harder than they needed to be.
The Future: Both Ross and Brown were in their first years, so the coming years definitely have some bright spots. It's an interesting combo, with Ross running a powerful 205 and Brown a solid 220, both downhill runners who'll wear down an opposing defense. That's seemingly at odds with the zone-read Maryland ran this year, but in reality it's a good fit: an option scheme is, in many ways, a power running game that's been adapted to spread out the field, and that's certainly the way Maryland ran it when they were able to.
That's a fearsome one-two punch that should be around for years. Past that? Well, Pickett announced his intention to transfer yesterday, which leaves a hole at third-down back. I wouldn't be surprised if they scrap the third-down back idea entirely, given that Ross and Brown should improve enough as pass-blockers to be viable options themselves in a passing situation. But as someone who was a Pickett fan, he does take some utility with him out the door.
Reid, then, will be the primary #3 back, hopefully picking back up the explosiveness and speed he had as a high school recruit. That's a pretty strong, youthful set of three that should be around for a long time. What comes after that is something of a question mark, with redshirt freshman Joe Riddle the only recognized running back still on the roster. Riddle's actually similar to Pickett in a lot of ways, perhaps lacking a standout attribute but someone who clearly has some utility about him. As a fourth-string back who'll presumably try to work his way up as others leave, he's a solid option.
Strangely, though, there are no committed running backs for the Terrapins at the moment, with DeAndre Lane the closest to it and him probably more of a slot receiver at this level. I suppose when you have four guys, each a freshman or sophomore, there's not a ton of need to allocate resources that way. But another option wouldn't hurt.
Final Words: Some said this was a transition year for Maryland football. I don't know how true that was, but it was most definitely a transition year for Maryland's running backs. With a legacy of stable, consistent backs behind them, the Terrapins had four options to pick from, each as inexperienced as the next. It took some time to sort out what was what, but they did ... eventually.
And good thing, too, because the final resolution gave them two freshmen backs who averaged upwards of 4 ypc in their debut seasons, despite a nonexistent passing game and makeshift offensive line ahead of them. All the talk heading forward is about Stefon Diggs, Deon Long, and Marcus Leak, but the sophomore running backs will make quite the duo of their own.