Last year, Maryland's offense was pretty much a one-man show. True freshman Stefon Diggs came in and took College Park by storm, setting the school record for receiving yards by a freshman (848) and the conference record for all-purpose yardage as a freshman (172.4 per game). This year, the Terps brought in five-star JuCo transfer Deon Long, who set junior college records last year at Iowa Western and finished the year with 100 receptions for 1,625 yards and 25 touchdowns. Add in the return of starting quarterback C.J. Brown and an expected breakout year from sophomore Nigel King, and suddenly Maryland has one of the fiercest wide receiving units in the nation.
The three receivers have their different skillsets, and King probably described it best himself, talking about his own strength, Long's speed, and "how slick Stefon can be with the ball in his hands". Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley values these unique blend of skills, and thinks it will help all three receivers succeed as well as other aspects of the offense.
"It'll force defenses to have to defend the whole field," he said. "Last year, we'd see some matchup and double stuff on Stefon in the slot, and with the new system I don't think we always took advantage of the one-on-one matchups. For that, you've got a guy like Deon at one position and Nigel on the outside. You can't double all three of those guys so it'll be up to our quarterback to find the open guy, and they're all capable of making big plays, and I think that in itself will be beneficial to our run game."
After his tremendous campaign last year, it's hard to imagine an improved Stefon Diggs, but coach Randy Edsall teased exactly that at his Media Day presser, saying he's gotten bigger and stronger. What's been most impressive, according to the coach, is his work ethic and desire to get better.
"The thing that I think separates him, even with that talent and that ability – he's a tremendous competitor," Edsall said. "He's a worker. You talk about somebody that has a lot of confidence, he thinks that every time he touches the ball he can take it the distance. But the thing that I've seen out of Stefon is that he wants to get better with all the little things about playing the position, in terms of route running, his breaks at the top of his route, blocking, understanding everything that the defense is doing."
Long was a star recruit coming out of Dunbar in 2009, and committed to West Virginia before transferring to New Mexico. He spent two years there in Locksley's program, tying for the team lead in receptions (47) and leading the team in yards (809) and touchdowns (four) in 2011. He was named second-team all-conference, and transferred to Iowa Western.
At Iowa Western, he complied those impressive numbers we listed earlier - those one hundred receptions were the most in NJCAA history - and he led his team to a national championship. Now a five-star recruit, he committed to Maryland, and is set to start the newest chapter of his career. Long talks nearly as smoothly as he runs, and did not hesitate to wax poetic about his game.
"I can do it all," he said. "I'm a physical guy, a speedy guy. I get in and out of my routes quick, with smoothness. I got a lot of techniques to get off the line as far as releases, but one thing Stefon's been working on me with is my yards after the catch, putting more wiggle into my game so I can get more yards after the catch."
The camaraderie between Diggs and Long is apparent, and the two have been inseparable since Long's arrival on campus.
"Pretty much we've been together almost every day," Diggs said. "We had some summer courses, we're always in the weight room together, we're always together. In the weight room they try to split us up now. We've been spending a lot of time, and I expect a lot from him this year because I know his capabilities and what he's capable of. He has a lot of abilities, great receiver, deep threat, he's fast, and I just want him to have a great year. I want him to catch a hundred balls. I want the best from him, and I feel as if that 1-2 punch is going to be here in full effect."
The chemistry between the two comes as a relief for Maryland fans - when a star player sees another star brought in at his position, issues can arise (especially in a sport with just one ball). Wide receivers coach Lee Hull noted that this was always a possibility, but the relationship between Diggs and Long has been able to rise above that.
"This is a different dynamic because they're both local kids," Hull said. "They grew up knowing each other. They've been friends for a while, so I think it's different. There's no ego, both of them respect each other's game, and know that at any given time, either one of them could take it the distance, can be a big-time playmaker. I think there's a mutual respect for each other, so I think that's the biggest thing, and they can be a dynamic duo."
That mutual respect extends to a friendly sort of competition, both between the two of them and against the defensive backs in practice. The two have been helping each other improve their games, as well - the older Long teaching Diggs route running and tactics, with the shiftier Diggs teaching Long different cuts to make with the ball. Long said the two of them don't let the other slack off, and are constantly making sure they're enjoying themselves.
"If you're having fun," he said. "Then you're not complacent. You set goals for yourself, you hold each other to high expectations."
When asked who was winning the competition between the receivers and defensive backs in practice, Diggs let out a big smile.
"I mean there's no question, we're going to take care of that," he said. "We've got some great guys on defense, so it's going to be a fun run."
A lot of the focus, naturally, has been on Diggs and Long - the two are both larger-than-life personalities who have already put up huge stats and brought a lot of attention to the program. King, however, may be the X-factor for the Terps this year - a former highly recruited prospect out of North Carolina, he has a rare combination of strength, speed, and catching ability which should make him a big target for C.J. Brown this season.
Hull said King "should be the next guy to emerge", and after a year that ended with a four-reception, 72-yard performance against North Carolina, King is ready to make a name for himself separate from the other two
"I wouldn't even consider myself as the third guy," King said. "Because I feel like we all do what we gotta do. I just want to continue on where I left last season and just be better at the stuff that I can get better at, as far as what coach tells me I need to work on, working better as a team, being a better teammate and being a vocal leader."
Hull also noted true sophomore Levern Jacobs and redshirt freshman Amba Etta as players who could also contribute in big ways in the pass game this year. Etta is a speedster who has impressed in camp early, and Hull hopes to see him make big plays this year.
"I think he's got special skill," Hull said. "He is a deep threat, he's got legit speed, and he's tall, long and he can go up and get it. There's not too many balls that are overthrown with him, he's got great acceleration when the ball's in the air. Amba's going to have to work on the other routes and stuff, a little shorter and intermediate routes, but he's definitely a threat."
Maryland has other options in Malcolm Culmer and Tyrek Cheeseboro that should see the field this year, but with five reliable options up top, they'll be looking for C.J. Brown to spread the ball around on the march to a bowl game. For Deon Long, that's one of two major goals he has for his time in College Park.
" [From JuCo] I got a couple trophies, a couple game balls with records engraved on them," he said. "A couple plaques, All-American ring. I want a bowl game, I want a national championship."