COLLEGE PARK, MD - SEPTEMBER 05: Quarterback Danny O'Brien #5 of the Maryland Terrapins hands the ball off to running back Justus Pickett #44 during the first half against the Miami Hurricanes at Byrd Stadium on September 5, 2011 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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.
1 - Tyler Cierski (So., 6-0, 255)
2 - Jeff Hernandez (Sr., 5-10, 235)
3 - Kenny Goins (Fr., 5-10, 210)
The Prospectus: If you had asked me yesterday who held the lead in the running back position battle, I'd have told you Justus Pickett with a fair amount of certainty. (And I know this because I actually wrote this post yesterday and said exactly that.) Instead, Randy Edsall said earlier this morning that Pickett doesn't lead; nor does superstar local freshman Wes Brown, or dynamic D.C. native Albert Reid. No, if the season started today, it'd be comparatively little-known redshirt freshman Brandon Ross who'd find his name atop the depth chart.
That's somewhat surprising, given that Ross is probably the smallest name of the four options in the position battle. But it falls a good way short of shocking, for two reasons. First of all, Ross is a coaches' favorite, twice earning scout team player of the week during his redshirt year and drawing plaudits from Mike Locksley in spring ball. And secondly, frankly, there was never much space between the four options to begin with, and I'm not convinced there's all that much now. Any of them could be named the starter, and I'd guess that at least three will see significant carries.
I'm still tempted to say that Pickett is the most likely opening day starter, given his experience. A bit like C.J. Brown, he can be quite polarizing: his talent is clear (could've played at Auburn or Arkansas, remember), but he struggled mightily as a freshman, averaging only 3.7 yards per carry. I'm not too harsh on Pickett for that, given that he was only a true freshman, and I still do think that Maryland can have a very good back on their hands. He has very good quickness, and if he can finally become more decisive with the ball, I'd guess he'll be fine.
But unlike last year, Pickett has some real competition for his role. (He did last year with D.J. Adams, too, but you and I both know why that didn't work out.) It seems Ross is putting up the stiffest competition, and while we generally know less about him than the others, it's easy to be encouraged by reports. He's more of an all-around back than the others, with a good frame, some real top-end speed, admirable toughness, and the ability to make defenders miss on occasion. He seems more suited than the others to be an every-down back at this point, at least at this point. Of course, he's yet to play in a competitive game at this level, so he's nearly as much of a gamble as the others.
This isn't just a two-horse race, though. Just a few days it was described as a "four-way competition," and you'd be foolish to count out the freshmen - especially Wes Brown. It's generally easier for freshmen to adapt to the college game at running back (12 of the top 100 backs last year were freshmen, compared to seven receivers and eight QBs), but perhaps just as importantly Maryland needs their dynamic young players to perform for recruiting purposes. A productive, featuring, happy Brown (or, to a lesser extent, Reid) makes it all that much easier to sell College Park as a destination to other elite locals.
Brown's the more dangerous of the two youngsters, with physical tools that probably top anyone in Maryland's backfield since Lamont Jordan. That's not to say he'll be as productive as Lamont, let alone Lance Ball or Chris Downs or Bruce Perry or anyone else who's come through in the past decade or so; it's always tough to tell with freshmen. But he stands a very good chance of being very good, potentially very early. He reminds me a bit of a young Rashard Mendenhall: a bigger guy, with solid vision, good enough speed, who tends to find a hole and hit it but can do a little bit of everything. Given Locksley's success with Mendenhall himself, it's an encouraging comparison; he's a downhill runner and potential feature back who can certainly play that role in Mike Locksley's scheme.
Reid strikes me as less likely to feature, potentially a redshirt option, but he's still in the mix. He's the smallest of the four, and there's a chance he'll need to become a bit stronger before becoming anything more than a situational back in college. That's not necessarily a bad thing - he has the potential to be quite explosive - but just at the moment, what he would offer as a third-down back could likely be just as effective coming from Pickett. To overcome that, he'll probably have to be more dynamic and more ready mentally for college ball than anyone expected. Which, of course, is possible - he's a freshman, so it's all some measure of guesswork.
As I've mentioned a few times, no matter who's named the starter, it's very likely - almost certain - that this will be a by-committee deal. That's good, because at this point none of these are going to be ready to carry the load on their own. Expect to see a fair amount of rotation between the spots, especially situationally (Brown for short-yardage, Pickett for third-down, etc.). For what it's with, Joe Riddle is almost certain to redshirt this season. He has potential as a scatback, but he's just a step behind Reid and Brown at this point.
Moving down the depth chart a spot, Tyler Cierski is a bowling ball of a fullback. He saw intermittent playing time last season, usually functioning as a wrecking ball for short-yardage sets. Fullbacks are hardly staples of the spread, but a few have found prominence - remember how everyone fawned over Owen Schmitt? Cierski, who's good with the ball in his hands and can open up space as a lead blocker, could play a Schmitt-like role in Locksley's spread. I dream of C.J. Brown following a marauding Cierski down the field.
Speaking of C.J.: given the questions surrounding him at quarterback, Maryland will likely rely on their talented, if still inexperienced, committee of backs to take some of the pressure off him. The Terrapins' best shot this year is a run-based spread, and for that they'll need some big performances from the running backs. Their youth means such a call is still a gamble, though probably less of one than relying on Brown would be. There's a chance things don't work out early, in which case Maryland's season may be sunk. But if they do settle in quickly, expectations will probably raise immediately.
The Future: It's bright. Very, very bright. Pickett's the elder statesman of the group, and he's only a true sophomore. Maryland's future in the backfield could be set for years to come between the group that's here now. Who turns out the best of this group, I have no idea, but Maryland should have them for several years, and with any luck at least one of them will be starter-level.
Down the road, some depth will be added by current commits Richie Anderson and DeAndre Lane, but Maryland doesn't have any recruits in the pipeline who'd shake the depth chart up too much. Good thing is that it doesn't look like they'll need them.
The Optimism: I'm not sure Maryland's had this much talent in the backfield since the days of Leon Baltimore - maybe even since that magical year in 2000, when Lamont Jordan, Bruce Perry, and Chris Downs all graced the depth chart. A case could be made for any of the four to be potential feature backs, and all of them have the talent to become a big player very quickly.
The Pessimism: The backs are as inexperienced as they are talented. Pickett is up in the air, and the rest are freshman and thereby unproven. While it'd take some monumental bad luck for all four to turn out as busts, they haven't yet proven themselves, and this is Maryland after all. At the very least, it should take some time to sort out who's what.
The Random, Baseless Prediction: Pickett starts at the beginning of the season, but platoons with Brown and Ross. He fares well enough, but the starting spot rotates between the three throughout the season, with Brown starting the final three. Ross ends as the leading rusher by a matter of a dozen or so yards, but the three in total combine for around 1,500 yards and 14 TDs; Reid and Riddle redshirt, with Cierski throwing in a couple of 20+ yards, Schmitt-esque plays of his own.
The Final Words: If there's any position I'm not worried about at Maryland, especially for the long-term future, it's running back. If not a single one of these four turns into a competent starter eventually, I'll have confirmation that Maryland football is cursed and we should give up the sport to focus on more fruitful pursuits, like basketball and field hockey.
Thing is, "eventually" isn't "now", and I have a sneaking suspicion that they're just one year away from where Maryland really needs them to be. I'm a C.J. Brown fan, but if Maryland is going to try to do what I think they're going to try to do - that is, copy the 2008 Illinois Rose Bowl run - they need big-time backs now to take the pressure off his arm. And while freshman, even non-blue chip freshmen, certainly can put up big performances at running back - just look at Giovani Bernard and Lamar Miller the past two seasons - they're not sure bets.
Nothing can be done about that, though, so Maryland might as well pick the most promising ones and throw them into the fire. There's certainly enough talent in here for someone to emerge.