A lot went wrong for Maryland football in Randy Edsall's first year in College Park, but perhaps the most disappointing unit a year ago was special teams. The Terps were in the bottom three in the ACC in 2011 in punt returns (despite having the hugely-dangerous Tony Logan on the roster), kickoff returns, and field goals, plus a shockingly-bad 119th nationally in kickoff coverage. Long a Terrapin stronghold under the stellar Ray Rychleski, the special teams had decayed into the weakest of weak links.
As expected, Edsall mixed things up quite a bit for year #2 - some planned, some not. Lyndon Johnson was relieved of his duties in favor of former Clemson special teams coach Andre Powell, with The Prez moving to a full-time linebackers coach. Freshman Nathan Renfro took off his redshirt and instantly became a competitor at punter, while Aussie Brad Craddock was brought on board in July. Stefon Diggs came into the program and took control of the vacant return spots. Heck, even the long snapper was new, with Greg Parcher replacing graduating Tim Downs.
Yes, it was something of a much-needed facelift. The restoration received a blow, however, when Nick Ferrara struggled with a hip injury in preseason and missed the first several games of the season - an injury that turned out to be career-ending for the junior kicker. In a season full of fateful, high-profile injuries, that one is perhaps the most overlooked.
So Craddock, an Aussie rules punter who had minimal experience as a place kicker, was thrust into the fire, and Maryland's special teams strode forward. The results? On the whole, probably better from last season, but still a decidedly mixed bag - and, in some areas, worse than mixed.
What Went Right: The big thing? Clearly Stefon Diggs, who was lightning in a bottle as a return man. You'd think that someone with his elusiveness and stop-start quickness would be at home as a punt returner, but it was in the kick return game where he really excelled. He finished third in the ACC and thirteen nationally in kickoff returns, averaging 28.52 a return - for comparison, in Torrey Smith's best season, he averaged 25.93. And Diggs, of course, took two to the house, most significantly a 103-yarder that proved a deciding factor in Maryland's win over Virginia. For an offense that struggled so mightily for much of the season, Diggs consistently providing good field position - and sometimes points all his own - was a massive factor, almost immeasurable when you consider the infectious, energizing component. There's no reason to believe he should be anything other than a downright elite return man next season, if he isn't already.
What really worked for Diggs as a return man - his burst, which made it impossible to contain him if he could find a hole - didn't necessarily translate to returning punts, but he was fairly effective there as well, averaging over 10 yards a return, good for fifth in the ACC. But we'll have more on this in a bit.
And to Powell's credit, kick coverage did improve somewhat, as Maryland finished sixth in the ACC and 57th nationally there. (Craddock's consistently short kicks had something to do with that, to be sure. But hey, I'm taking everything I can get there.)
Individually, the Terrapins also unearthed a few special teams warriors, namely Ryan Schlothauer - 15th in the team in tackles, surprisingly - and Tyrek Cheeseboro, who had 11 tackles of his own and a forced fumble despite missing a game. Schlothauer, a senior, is moving on; Cheeseboro, though, is just a true freshman, and could develop into a real force as a special teamer over the next few years. With a name like "Tyrek Cheeseboro" and a knack for making plays in return coverage, he's a fan favorite waiting to happen.
What Went Wrong: Well, we all know it's coming, so might as well start at the most obvious place: placekicking. You get the impression that Craddock, a late addition with little experience in the American game, was brought on as a long-term play. Aussie rules punters don't placekick, after all, so there was always going to be a fairly substantial learning curve for him. But when Ferrara went down, Maryland had few other choices: it was Craddock, Renfro (also a punter by trade) or walk-on freshman Brendan Magistro. And Craddock won.
Everyone knows what happens next. Craddock, who had never so much as worn a helmet before stepping on campus, seemed to struggle with the mentality and technique of the kicker spot. He missed a short field goal and an extra point (which led to a missed two-point conversion) against N.C. State, a game Maryland lost by two; he missed a field goal against UConn, a game Maryland lost by three; and another against Boston College, another game Maryland lost by three; and another against West Virginia, a game Maryland lost by 10 (but which would've been changed drastically with those three points). He'd miss in wins against William and Mary, Virginia, and Wake Forest, as well, plus shanking another extra point at Wake. In all, he finished 10-16 on field goals, ninth in the ACC out of the 10 qualifying kickers, and 23-25 on extra points, 11th in the ACC out of the 11 qualifying kickers. It was an uninspiring season, to say the least.
Maryland's M.O. this year was to grind out wins with their defense and hope for a little bit of magic from Stefon Diggs. It almost worked, too, but if you're going to play that way, there's virtually no margin for error. Games are guaranteed to be close, so everything's gotta be on - especially kicking, one of the oft-overlooked fundamentals that decides close games. Maryland hasn't had a reliable kicker (top six in the ACC in FG%) since Dan Ennis back in 2006, and they lost at least one game, potentially as many as three, because they still don't have one on the roster. That isn't meant as a criticism of Craddock, who was placed in a very difficult situation, and perhaps shouldn't have been expected to perform much better. But Ferrara's injury and Maryland's trouble in identifying a competent replacement is one of the big reasons that, regardless of quarterback injuries, they're sitting at home this winter.
To make matters worse, Maryland struggled in the other two kicking phases, too. Craddock ended up as Maryland's kickoff man, but he averaged only 59 yards per kickoff, giving the ball to the returner at about the six yard line. He forced only five touchbacks all year, a shockingly low 9% of his attempts. That difference doesn't entirely make up for Maryland's kick coverage advantage - they'd still be comfortably ahead of several conference opponents - but it did expose them to plenty of risk and might've made things more difficult than they'd have otherwise been for the return team and defense.
As for punting, redshirt freshman Renfro had quite an up-and-down year. He announced himself in a big way, averaging 53 yards on his first four punts against William and Mary, and he looked solid against West Virginia (45 a punt). But consistency plagued him, and he had plenty of worrisome outings - seven of his games ended with averages under 40 yards per punt. His final average - about 39 yards per - ended up good enough for second-to-last in the ACC, among qualifiers.
And when you throw in the Terrapins' ninth-in-the-ACC 10.35 yards per return allowed, that meant Maryland wasn't even getting 30 yards of field position out of its average punt. That type of field position consistently gave the defense a short field to defend, and is perhaps part of the reason they eventually tired out in the way that they did. And, of course, it did largely contribute to another Maryland loss, this time against UConn, when the Huskies got a touchdown on a return from Nick Williams, eventually winning by three.
Lastly, while I, like any red-blooded Terrapin fan, love Stefon Diggs immensely, he made his fair share of mistakes in punt returns. Diggs is all things go, all the time, damn the torpedoes and on-rushing gunners. While that has its bonuses, it also has some pretty serious negatives, like fielding balls that should be let go or muffing punts - something that Diggs struggled with mightily early in the year, muffing three punts in the first five games. None of those muffs cost Maryland a win, but they're indicative of Diggs' occasional issues with decision-making, which spilled over to making strange calls on whether to field punts or let them roll. These improved as the year went on, but they also decreased his effectiveness: only once in his last five games did he have a return average in the double-digits, and then he was sidelined for returns to save his body for other pursuits. (This, I think, was a good idea, and I'll discuss it more later.)
The Future: The one big upside of Maryland's special teams this season? Their youth. Virtually every key player was a freshman (or at least in their first season contributing), and as such some of the issues should've been expected. Kickers, especially, tend to be a little funny; sometimes they star as freshman and fall apart in later years, sometimes they never see improvement year-to-year, and sometimes they just need a little time to acclimate. (Nick Novak, of course, being the key example of that last scenario.)
That doesn't necessarily mean that Renfro and Craddock will improve, but you'd be a fool to write it off. Craddock, after all, did knock through a respectable four-of-six from 40+, and Renfro showed enough flashes to know that there's a leg in there. It's all about improving technique and, in Craddock's case, mentality as well. It's unlikely they turn into kicking superstars, but developing into ACC-level starters is hardly out of the question.
Critically, though, there now are going to be a few other options. Magistro came on in relief of Craddock late in the year, hitting a short field goal and nailing his three extra points as well, proving that he can at least be a potential option on short kicks (and potentially more). Broadneck kicker Adam Greene has committed as a preferred walk-on, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Maryland's staff look to add even another specialist, scholarship or walk-on, in the coming weeks.
And, of course, Diggs returns. That'll be critical, especially on kickoffs. But I do wonder if he's not better served staying away from punt returns, where he can be a little mistake-prone and seemingly less effective. Diggs is at his best when he can play full-speed-ahead, reacting instead of thinking, something he can't do as a punt returner. That being the case, it might be prudent to save his body for times when he can help Maryland more. (Don't want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, after all.) Marcus Leak, an explosive player with something of a cooler head, might be a potential option; Dexter McDougle, who had that great run-back against Carolina, is another. And there are myriad others, I'm sure. It'll be interesting to see the development there in spring ball and beyond.
Final Words: Sometimes special teamers get a bad rap. They're one of the few areas where the game is more individual than team, perhaps more so than any position other than quarterback, and as such mistakes loom larger in the public consciousness. But if a kicker misses a field goal or a returner muffs a punt in a close loss, it's a bit harsh to say they in particular lost the game. So, too, did the quarterback who missed an open throw on third-down, or the safety who missed a tackle on a scoring drive, or the lineman who didn't seal a block as well as he could've. We just blame the guy who made the most-high profile, most visible mistake, not necessarily fairly. Football's a complex game with a lot of moving pieces; things are rarely as simple as they're sometimes made.
That said, it's virtually impossible to deny that Maryland's special teams, particularly on the kicking and coverage side cost them dearly this year. The return game was above average; the kicking and coverage game was decidedly, objectively bad. It's not that they missed opportunities and put Maryland in tough spots; it's that they did so with regularity, and did it in distressing fashion. Had they performed simply to an average BCS level, it's not tough to see Maryland getting at least one more win, potentially the two they needed to go bowling. The kickoff return team partially redeems the unit - and, despite what it may seem at times, that is not just Diggs - but the shortcomings elsewhere are obvious.
Still, improvement is possible. Maryland is likely to once again find themselves in a lot of close games next season, this time of the high-scoring variety; they already have one difference-maker in Diggs, and they could do with another from their kicking game. Not a lot of attention will be paid to that over the offseason, but it's one of the key areas of development if the Terrapins are to find genuine success in 2013.