If we were a little frightened of Maryland's secondary heading into the year, we were downright terrified about the offensive line. Of the opening day starters, hardly any experience was to be found: Bennett Fulper was a grizzled veteran, sure, and Justin Gilbert had been around for awhile, even if he only had six career starts and had played in only a handful of games in the past two years due to knee injuries. Past that, it was a few starts for Sal Conaboy and mostly nothing else.
Elite linemen usually need something a little extra special, but competent ones are usually built with experience. That was something Maryland simply didn't have, forcing youngsters like Mike Madaras, Evan Mulrooney, and Andrew Zeller into serious action before finally settling down a little bit on a lineup. Injuries to Fulper and Conaboy didn't help matters, of course, even if the line did remain largely unscathed.
It's easy to look at the offense's success - well, lack of success, more accurately - and chalk much of it up to the line. After all, that's where good offenses are built from, and Maryland certainly didn't have a good offense. In truth, the line did little to help matters. But it was far from the scapegoat, and in fact had some encouraging moments itself.
What Went Well: A lot of people aren't very high on how this unit performed this season. I'm not necessarily bullish, but I'm nowhere near as bearish as most are; by and large, they got stuck with a bad rap for a lot of other problems.
Make no mistake, the line didn't necessarily help matters, and they certainly weren't good enough to grab the offense by the gruff of its neck and haul it to success, despite everything else that was happening around it. But did anyone expect that? This was a solidification year for the line, not one in which they were supposed to be a standout unit. And had the other problems not sunk the offense on arrival, perhaps we'd be a little bit more encouraged by what we saw.
Take, for instance, what they looked like when they actually ran the scheme that they, y'know, were supposed to run. Maybe the performance wasn't sensational - Maryland only cracked the 4.0 ypc mark a single time all season - but it was most certainly better than the raw numbers suggest. When the Terps played with Perry Hills or Caleb Rowe - which is to say, not using the Locksley zone-read scheme that they practiced all spring and summer and had built around - they averaged a measly 2.0 yards per carry. When playing with Devin Burns or even Shawn Petty, that jumped to 3.6 ypc - and that includes half of the State game (which Burns didn't play in) and the most fearsome defense faced all season, Florida State, mostly coming with literally no passing threat whatsoever. Over the course of a year, with a more natural quarterback, that easily could've crept toward or even exceeded 4.0 ypc.
And the same issue is present with running backs. Maryland famously had issues finding someone to carry the load, and that led to them a lot of carries to a lot of different options. Albert Reid and Justus Pickett, who ended the season at the bottom of the depth chart, picked up 105 carries between them, averaging 2.2 yards per carry between them. Brandon Ross, who bossed the UNC game, or Wes Brown, who was a reliable option until his injury? Well, they got the lion's share of carries and averaged 4.59 and 4.24 per, respectively. (Of course, it's worth noting that those two saw most of their carries in the zone-read scheme; it may well be double-counting to some degree here.)
Looking at both those factors, though, it stands to reason that a season with a running quarterback capable of executing a variety of read options, with dangerous backs like Ross and Brown carrying the load, would've lead to much better ground numbers - something the offensive line is probably going to want shouted from the rooftops. They got a lot of stick for not opening holes, but when they did the job they thought they were going to be asked to do - zone-block on options for talented skill players - they did a pretty competent job, all things told.
And individually, you have to love giving Mike Madaras a ton of playing time as a freshman. Madaras rarely got noticed, which is a very good thing as a left tackle, and he looked assured and capable despite being a true freshman. This season will have done him a world of good, and moving ahead he should be a cornerstone of the line at left tackle. That's huge.
Similarly, there were some good individual flashes from Evan Mulrooney and De'Onte Arnett, developments that weren't necessarily expected and make things easier going forward.
What Went Wrong: For starters, all of these numbers are nice, but they're sort of theoretical compared to the cold, hard, somewhat misleading yet still all-encompassing final numbers: Maryland finished last in the ACC and third-from-last nationally in yards per carry, plus last in the ACC in sacks allowed (and 115th nationally in that mark).
Are there a lot of mitigating factors? Sure, as I'm the most eager to tell people. But the line has to share a large amount of blame for those unfortunate numbers.
Quite simply, they had a lot of trouble winning the point of attack. They would get overpowered, sometimes by smaller lines across from them. Now, it's worth mentioning that they weren't necessarily supposed to be doing a lot of that anyway; read options are about smart and quick linemen, more than maulers that'll open holes. But it's nice to have it as a Plan B, at least, especially when the secondary scheme involves a downhill running game. They just didn't have the brawn to pull it off.
And they certainly did struggle when it came to protecting the passer, even if I'd again say that having Perry Hills, who had very little escapability, made things very difficult for them in that regard. (With Hills, Maryland gave up a sack every six pass attempts. With Caleb Rowe or Shawn Petty, it was a sack every 14 attempts. It's worth noting, again.) Still, though, when you have a true freshman quarterback, you'd like to look to the rest of the team to make thinsg easy on him. It's a shame that Maryland just couldn't do that, because the line was itself expecting to be carried by the rest of the team.
All in all, there was just too much inexperience - and, arguably, not enough elite skill, except for a few spots, notably Madaras. They couldn't maul open holes in a straight-ahead running game, and they couldn't provide time for a quarterback who needed it. That isn't necessarily surprising - in fact, we knew before the season exactly what this unit was, which is to say inexperienced and a potential trouble spot. But it's still a reason for the struggles Maryland's offense suffered through, unfortunately.
The Future: Only Gilbert and Fulper graduate, which isn't ideal but which isn't a killer, either. Madaras has the potential to become an elite left tackle and will be at the very least serviceable, while a healthy Conaboy is guaranteed to hold down one of the interior line spots with aplomb himself. That's a pretty good base, and you can expect some combination of De'Onte Arnett, Evan Mulrooney, Andrew Zeller, Josh Cary and Nick Klemm to claim the other three spots.
Mulrooney, who had some really good moments and some not-so-great ones, could start at center and push Conaboy to a guard spot. Arnett acquitted himself pretty well at right guard, especially late in the year, and is probably the favorite to start there. Klemm, who lost his left tackle spot to Madaras, may be able to slide to right tackle, and his primary competition might be Zeller, who started a few games at right tackle but was previously a tackle. There's not a whole ton of depth, but there's enough.
One thing you should expect: more and more depth to be added in recruiting. Maryland only brought in two linemen last year; one, Nick Brigham, has since left the program. Derwin Gray is obviously the big name, a big athletic freak who has elite potential. Starting immediately is probably going to be a step too far, but there's a chance he could receive playing time as a reserve. Jajuan Dulaney and Moise Larose are both committed, as well, but they're longer-term prospects.
What'll be really interesting will be if Maryland heavily pursues a JuCo lineman who could potentially start immediately. Finding, for instance, someone who could immediately start at right tackle would be a huge boost to the unit. Even I think they were better than they looked this season, it's tough to think they have all the experience and skill level you want out of an ACC offensive line just yet.
Final Words: A lot of things went wrong this season that weren't expected to go wrong. The line wasn't really one of those things. It may not have gone right, but it didn't really do worse than expected and it was hung out to dry to some extent by the rest of the offense falling apart. It's a shame it did happen that way, because the problems compounded on each other and made the individual parts look pretty dire.
But I do have some real optimism moving ahead. They showed this year that, even as bad as they looked most of the season, they can work just fine for a running quarterback executing a read-option scheme. With everyone a year older and wiser, there's the potential for a very good unit here - especially if a few reserves emerge, or a JuCo ready to play right now joins up down the recruiting stretch.