COLLEGE PARK, MD - SEPTEMBER 24: Punter Nick Ferrara #43 of the Maryland Terrapins has a punt blocked by Rod Streater #18 of the Temple Owls during the first half at Byrd Stadium on September 24, 2011 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
1 - Nick Ferrara (Sr., 6-0, 190) or
Nathan Renfro (rFr., 6-1, 205)
3 - Brad Craddock (Fr., 6-1, 190)
1 - Stefon Diggs (Fr., 6-0, 185)
2 - Brandon Ross (rFr., 5-10, 205)
3 - Marcus Leak (So., 6-0, 205)
The Prospectus: We have good news and bad news. Let's start with the bad: Maryland's special teams last year was, unfortunately yet also undoubtedly, one of the worst units in the country. A quick sampling: 97th in FG%, 95th in gross punting average, 97th in kickoff touchbacks, 100th in punt returns, 99th in kickoff returns, and a nearly unbelievably bad 119th in kickoff return coverage.
Good news: it can only get better, right?
At least, it should. Lyndon Johnson, the special teams coordinator last season, has relinquished his duties to Andre Powell, formerly the special teams coach at Clemson. (He was the head guy during the C.J. Spiller era; take that for what you will.) Fresh ideas will hopefully help matters, as will a few significant personnel additions in the form of Diggs, Renfro, and Craddock.
But we'll start this with the veteran, Nick Ferrara. He's once again listed as possibly performing double duty as both kicker and punter, which would make it basically three years in a row he's handled both. It's not something I'm crazy about; his performance really fell off a cliff after a stellar first year, and I expect the stresses of pulling double shifts (both mentally and physical) has something to do with that. I'd be much more comfortable if he returned to place-kicking full-time.
And that's especially true now that Maryland has players ready to replace him at punter - two of them, both on scholarship at that. (Highly unusual and, some would say, inefficient. But hey, Maryland's not hurting for 'ships.) Renfro's a youngster who redshirted last year, but he had a preferred walk-on slot at FSU before accepting a spot in College Park, which indicates some level of natural ability. Craddock's a former Aussie rules punter and ... well, he's Australian. That's all I've got. But are they really going to be that much worse than Ferrara's 39.46 average? It's possible, sure, but even if they are wouldn't it be offset by the likely boost Nick'd get to his 60% field goal percentage? It's at least worth a shot, instead of settling for mediocrity in both fields.
Meanwhile, the most exciting side of special teams - the return game! - has by far Maryland's most exciting player manning the starting spots. Diggs earned both return gigs after a week or two in practice, and housed both a punt and kickoff return in the open scrimmage on Saturday. His speed, elusiveness, and overall explosiveness are basically beyond impeachment; so long as he adjusts as everyone expects him to, he should immediately become one of the country's better returners. Most teams will kick away from him, but giving the punter something to think about is never a bad thing and should help Maryland in the field position category.
A quick sidenote here: I'm genuinely terrified of having Diggs as a returner on a regular basis. He's the best chance Maryland has at having a strong offense, not to mention being the future of the program. He's probably too talented to leave off the field given that Maryland really needs all the help they can get, but you don't want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
As for the long-snappers and the holders: they're there. The best thing about Tim Downs is that you very rarely realized he existed, and I hope the same thing can be said for Greg Parcher. Sad, but 'tis the way of long snapper life.
But like I said above, the biggest change here isn't listed on the depth chart, with Powell taking over for Edsall acolyte Johnson. That's big, because special teams was heinously bad last year and The Prez was almost certainly a factor in it. (Seriously, how someone renders Tony Logan completely ineffective I'll never know.) Powell isn't likely going to be a fix-all, but he was able to unleash C.J. Spiller so at least he proved he can get out of the way of real talent. Whether or not he can augment it we'll find out in due time, but it's almost certainly a positive move.
The Future: Pretty similar to what's here, I guess. Ferrara's on his way out before long, and interestingly enough I haven't seen Maryland pursue any kickers on the recruiting trail. Whether that means Michael Tart moves into the starting spot or one of Craddock or Renfro either switches or pulls double-duty, I don't know (and I expect the staff doesn't, either). But that's a problem that will need solving.
The good news is that both Craddock and Renfro are freshmen, and so will be around for awhile. Same for Diggs, who should form the centerpiece of Maryland's return game. And as a bonus, the staff has changed their focus in recruiting lately to dynamic athletes, even if they're not the most highly-regarded, and one place those guys can really make an impact is as returners. Jacquille Veii, Richie Anderson, DeAndre Lane, Jarrett Ross - these guys all have the speed and elusiveness to cause problems in the return game, and that should give Maryland more options moving ahead.
Optimism: Unlike the last few years, Maryland actually has depth in the kicking positions, which should lead to a healthy competition and (hopefully) allow Nick Ferrara to just focus on one spot. Diggs has the potential to be an elite return man, and for a Maryland team that may struggle to get points, that could be invaluable. And there's a new sheriff in town with Powell, which hopefully will kickstart a moribund unit.
Pessimism: Ferrara may still well pull double-duty if neither Renfro or Craddock prove themselves; even if they do, neither's ever played in college and as such are pretty significant gambles. And while the return game has the potential to be great, we haven't seen any of the listed options in action.
Random, Baseless Prediction: Diggs gets two return touchdowns on the year, one of them winning Maryland a game, but is otherwise kept in check by worried punters. Ferrara finishes with a FG% of around 65%, while Renfro holds off Craddock and Ferrara for the punting gig and averages just shy of 40 yards a punt.
Final Words: Contrary to what I just said above, I harbor a crazy dream that Craddock becomes the next Brad Wing (i.e., 1000 kinds of awesome), Ferrara regains his magic as a kicker, and Diggs is lightning as a returner, combining to form one of the best ST units in the country. And all three could happen, I guess. But the likely scenario is much more mundane: Diggs will be routinely kicked away from; Ferrara will improve but not drastically; and Craddock or Renfro will be okay but not light the world aflame.
And I'm okay with that. Seriously, Maryland's special teams were disastrously bad last year; it literally lost them games. And they certainly didn't need help doing that. Even if the unit is only average, that'll be a marked improvement. Stop shooting yourself in the foot, at least long enough to let the other guy have a go at it.