We're within three weeks to the start of the football season, which means it's full-on preview season. Over the next several days, we'll be breaking Maryland down position-by-position, looking at the roster, the future, and of course making random baseless predictions. So let's kick it off.
1 -- C.J. Brown (Jr., 6-3, 205)
2 -- Caleb Rowe (Fr., 6-2, 185) or
Perry Hills (Fr., 6-3, 205)
The Prospectus: Though a few may have crazy dreams otherwise, this is without a doubt C.J. Brown's job. And the good news there is that Brown is a perfect fit for new offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who went to a Rose Bowl with a similar quarterback in Juice Williams. (Actually, I'm not sure Juice was even as good as C.J., if I'm being truthful.)
Brown can be a polarizing player, but I prefer to start with the good. Because while doubts over his passing ability are valid, they can overshadow just how good he is on the ground. And how good is he? Only arguably the best running running quarterback in the country. Don't buy it? The stats back me up. His yards/carry last year was 7.27, the best mark in the country for a QB, a full two yards higher than Denard Robinson last season and three yards better than any mark put up by Tim Tebow in his career. (Oh, and more than 10% of his attempts were actually sacks, which makes that figure all the more impressive. For comparison, only 5% of Robinson's attempts were sacks.)
He has, to quote Gus Johnson, Getting Away From The Cops Speed, and his lower-body strength and elusivity make him a devil to bring down in the open field. And you can bet that with Locksley's spread scheme and dangerous skill players like Stefon Diggs stretching the field, he'll have plenty of open field to work with. In fact, if Danny O'Brien was still here, I'd love to see Brown in a Kain Coulter/Trey Burton-esque quarterback/running back/receiver combo role.
But O'Brien isn't here, so Brown instead has to be a full-time QB, and that's where the problems come in. For as impressive as his rushing stats are, his passing numbers are just as worrisome: he was dead last in the ACC in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and QB rating last season. (Though as a quick sidenote: O'Brien was runner-up in those latter two categories, so the mitigating factors - the receiving corps and offensive coordinator - likely had something to do with it.) Just from watching him, it's clear his mechanics leave something to be desired, his accuracy is dodgy at best, and his decision-making can be questionable. Brown's simply never going to be a gunslinger, and it has to be accepted going forward.
Thing is, it doesn't necessarily mean he can't be effective in a spread offense with the other dynamic young skill players Maryland has stockpiled. After all, Locksley shoehorned Juice Williams into a Rose Bowl, VT won an Orange Bowl with a young, mediocre Tyrod Taylor in 2008, Tim Tebow is a national champion, and Nebraska won 9 games with Taylor Martinez under center. Is Brown markedly worse than any of those quarterbacks as a passer? I'm not convinced. (Compare, for instance, his stats to Taylor's numbers as a sophomore; there's a difference of only 4 points in QB rating.) Of course, Maryland's not Nebraska or Florida, but they have a lower definition of success, too.
And I do have some real optimism that Brown will improve through the air. Getting regular snaps in practice to form an understanding with his receivers is a luxury he lacked last year, and should help his rhythm. And as mentioned before, don't forget that his numbers are skewed by working with a bumbling offensive coordinator and an incredibly drop-happy wide receiver corps. If those factors improve as they should, Brown should improve along with them.
The presence of Locksley could be the most important factor in his development. Gary Crowton was headscratching in the way he handled Brown, who should be at his best with heavy use of the zone-read option and a short, simple passing game. Intermediate and deep routes shouldn't come any more than occasionally, just enough to keep defenses honest. I'd call it dink-and-dunk, but that's not really true; in fact, I think the offense will rely on big plays, but big plays that start small. (Think Brown on the zone-read against GT, or Diggs or Marcus Leak making something happen after the catch on a short route.) That should help Brown as much as anything else.
As for the others: Rowe and Hills are only true freshman, and not the hugely-talented, Braxton Miller-Teddy Bridgewater type who can make an immediate impact. If Brown doesn't suffer a big injury, Rowe and Hills should hopefully be redshirted. But given Brown's playing style and somewhat dodgy injury history, it's probably only a matter of time before he's forced out of action. With any luck it'll only be spot duty, but odds are good that it'll happen at some point.
If it does, I wouldn't be surprised with either option. Hills is more similar to Brown, a gritty, strong guy who is dangerous on the ground. Rowe is a lanky guy somewhat reminiscent of a young Danny O'Brien, with okay mobility and a very good arm. Rowe's generally consider the better prospect, but Hills is a more immediate fit for the system. The deciding factor will probably be who grasps the system earlier.
The Future: Brown is only a junior, and if I had to hazard a guess I'd say it's likely he remains starter for the next two years. He'll probably miss a few games in that time, though who his stand-in will be is yet to be decided. In addition to the battle going on between Rowe and Hills, two more quarterbacks will be in the mix next year, with New Mexico transfer (and former Virginia Tech Hokie) Ricardo Young becoming eligible as a redshirt junior and Elite 11 QB Shane Cockerille joining as a freshman.
But that will be a race for second-place if everything goes according to plan. Brown has the leg-up on the starting spot for the next two years, and the only way he loses it is if this year truly is disastrous. Assuming it's not, the real race will start in 2014, to see who'll take the reins of the offense in Brown's wake. And it's a quite a group: Young will be a senior, Rowe and Hills will hopefully be redshirt sophomores, and Cockerille will likely be a redshirt freshman, plus whoever Edsall and Locksley land in 2014 (someone like William Crest or Caleb Henderson could factor in immediately).
That's a potential logjam, of course, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of that bunch eventually transfers. But it's a strong group, and a group that fits well with Mike Locksley's offense. The odds that a future starter - and potentially a very good starter - comes out of that group seems fairly good. Color me cautiously optimistic.
The Optimism: Locksley's previous offenses have been tailor-made for Brown, he's one of the most dangerous rushers in the country, and should improve as a passer at least moderately. With the talent young talent Maryland has around him, that may be good enough.
The Pessimism: It's tough to paper over those passing stats. Even if Brown improves significantly, he'll probably be only average through the air. It's tough to win games with a borderline 50% passer, especially if he makes mistakes. And if things don't work out, it's not like Maryland has other options to look to.
The Random, Baseless Prediction: Brown plays every game, finishes with 53.5% completion percentage, around 2200 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, 11 interceptions; plus a 6.75 yards/carry average, just short of 1000 yards on the ground, and 12 rushing TDs. Rowe gets some spot duty when Brown takes a few rough knocks, but no significant playing time.
Final Words: Many teams make their QB the centerpiece of their offense; Maryland did, or at least tried to, with Danny O'Brien. C.J.'s not a centerpiece. But he is particularly dynamic and dangerous, another tool in an increasingly-talented and electric, if still unproven, offensive arsenal. He should be good for double-digit touchdowns on the ground if he stays healthy, and while that might not be paradigm-changing for Maryland, it can make a difference. Of course, the big deal here is passing. While he's not likely to light things up through the air, the question is whether he'll be good enough. Whether or not he will, I don't know. But in a scheme that plays to his strengths, I'm at least optimistic that he can be.