Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire
Randy Edsall's said that personnel changes are on the way for the Terps' offense. We take a look at what that might portend for the future.
Maryland's offense isn't very good.
I say this with no malice or anger. I am not particularly upset that Maryland's offense isn't very good. They're relying on a true freshman quarterback thrust into the spotlight by an untimely injury. They have two freshmen starting on the offensive line, with only a handful of starts for the current combination. Four of their six offensive weapons - Stefon Diggs, Justus Pickett, Wes Brown, Marcus Leak - are either true freshmen or true sophomores. If you expected some sort of explosive unit before the season, you clearly weren't paying attention.
Despite all that, though, Maryland sits at 3-2, halfway to bowl eligibility with not a game left on their schedule they couldn't win. Their defense, which is hands-down a top-10 unit in the country and one of the best, if not the best, in the ACC, is good enough to get them there. This is a defense that wouldn't look out of place in the SEC. (Yeah, I went there.) It's a defense that deserves to go to a bowl game.
Problem is, points win football games. And right now, Maryland's struggling to put them on the board. They don't need to start throwing up 40 a game, but given that they managed 7 points against William and Mary, 21 against West Virginia (104th in the country in scoring D), and 19 against a depleted Wake Forest, it's not irrational to say they need to improve. And if the Terrapins have any hope at a postseason berth, a potentially-crucial development for recruiting, they'll absolutely need to.
Randy Edsall appears to know this, talking about it in his post-game presser and then mentioning again on Sunday that offensive changes are coming. Question is, what can he and Mike Locksley do, personnel-wise at least, to alleviate things?
After all, at least some of the issues are rooted in the Terrapins' roster deficiencies. Perry Hills is the quarterback now, for better or for worse. The first alternative is a converted wide receiver; the second is a true freshman himself, only without Hills' experience and (evidently) performing worse in practice. So Hills it is and Hills it will be, regardless f owhether he can develop a deep ball or make reads consistently. Edsall's acknowledged that, saying that the staff needs to do everything it can to help him improve; without a doubt, how much he progresses between now and the end of the year will have plenty to do with where the Terrapins ultimately end up.
The same holds true for the offensive line. Changes can and will be made, of course, but there's no obvious panacea to the Terps' protection troubles. Inexperience is an inevitability. So, too, is at least some measure of ineptitude. They can make alterations to the starting lineup, as they already have done and will continue to do, but there's a good chance that'll cause as many problems as it'll solve - we saw this weekend that, even if promising youngsters are added to the lineup, communication and chemistry errors can easily result. At some point, you have to pick a lineup, go with it, and let the players gel. Reading some quotes from Edsall's Sunday teleconference, he seems to be at that point. Tweaks can still be made; De'Onte Arnett, especially, should still have a solid chance at regaining his starting spot from Andrew Zeller. But the point of no-return for wholesale changes, this far into the year with no bye week, is long past.
So then what's Edsall talking about when he mentions changes coming on offense? Well, he's already let loose on the probably the biggest change: Maryland's finally settling in on their running back rotation, with Edsall admitting that Wes Brown and Justus Pickett are likely to get the majority of carries from here on out. As Maryland's two most productive backs (3.6 ypc between the two of them, compared to 2.3 for Brandon Ross and Albert Reid) the change makes a lot of sense. Expect Pickett to maintain his death grip on the third-down back spot and be the go-to guy in the fourth quarter, while Brown hopefully more carries in the middle of the game. After all, the Good Counsel freshman is still averaging 4.6 yards per carry on the year, and his vision - without a doubt the best of the four backs - will help the running game greatly.
I wouldn't be surprised to see some changes at receiver, as well, though more in playcalling than personnel. Stefon Diggs' role should continue to increase, and with Matt Furstenburg and Marcus Leak still getting relatively few targets, they could be emphasized as well - Furstenburg especially, who's still one of the most reliable receivers Maryland has.
But there could be a more substantive and much more intriguing chance on the horizon: a little bit of Devin Burns. The Terps' backup QB peeled off a 20-yard run against West Virginia when Hills' went out with injury, the most successful zone-read play Maryland's had all season; after that, he surely forced the staff to consider giving him some playing time. Edsall mentioned in the post-game presser that the staff had indeed talked about just that, but didn't see "the right opportunity" to stick him in the game. After seeing Saturday's particularly inept offensive showing, and expressing some concerns about Hills, I wouldn't be surprised to see Burns get a least a little burn in Charlottesvile (pun not intended, but I'll take it).
Let's get something out of the way, though: as Edsall said, this isn't a QB controversy. Hills' job is in no real danger; the staff likes him a lot, and he's not performing worse than expected. If Burns sees the field, it'll be with a relatively narrow focus: offering something of a Wildturtle look. Think of it as something like, though hopefully less stupid than, the Portis Package.
See, Maryland's most-used run play this season is probably the zone read option, which is more than a little strange since the Terrapins are pretty bad at it. Hills struggles to make the reads, and it often feels like just giving up a down. With Maryland's struggles passing the ball, they can't afford to continually put themselves in 2nd- or 3rd-and-long situations like that. But it seems Locks wants to keep that play in, and if so, the best route is probably to turn to Burns - a high school quarterback who ran a spread zone-read scheme at Georgia state champs Carver. He has plenty of experience making those reads, plus the athleticism to carry it out.
A lot of teams that try to go with a Wildcat scheme, like UConn and Wake Forest did, don't really have the athletes for it to make sense. Think about: who are they trying to get touches in space? Maryland, by comparison, does indeed have those athletes. Burns is an electric, live-wire runner himself, while Wes Brown is a dynamic back capable of breaking things open. The same holds for guys like Albert Reid and Brandon Ross, as well.
And that's to say nothing of Stefon Diggs, who, as we all know, is one of the most exciting players in the country. In fact, Diggs is probably the best reason to do it. The staff knows he's their best chance at getting production out of the offense, but they still struggle to get him touches (only 5 against Wake). An easy remedy: go zone-read triple option. It's more or less the same as a regular zone-read, only Diggs will either come in motion or line up in the backfield. Brown would dive, Burns would read and either keep it or leave it; if he kept it, Diggs would maintain pitch distance and be available for a pitch, ala an old-fashioned option. Even if the defense is aware that something like that is coming, it's plenty tough to stay disciplined and deal with all that athleticism (just ask anyone who's played Georgia Tech).
It's a flexible enough scheme that there are wrinkles that can be added on top of it, too. A popular one is to set up a bubble screen instead of having Diggs available on a pitch, giving the defense more to account for (and more for Burns to read). Jet sweeps, quadruple options (with a tight end releasing down the field), direct snaps, rollouts, middle screens: there are a lot of smart little concepts that can be added in, so that even if a defense knows it's the Wildturtle package, they can't bank on any single play. Heck, Burns even still knows the routes and could line up at wide receiver to really disguise things.
If carried out properly, it could be what everyone wanted the Portis Package to be: inventive (ie, not just "run right") and useful (by getting the ball to talent in space).
Again, this is far from a QB controversy. Hills is probably a better all-around quarterback than Burns, and Hills is without a doubt the guy you want in your huddle with your back against the wall. (Not a slight at Burns at all, but Hills' intangible qualities have been outstanding for a young guy.) At some point, Hills will learn to make these reads himself; he has a good head on his shoulders and is a hard worker, so it's just a matter of time and experience. But with so much else on his shoulders in nailing down the passing game, it's unfair and ineffective to rely on him to provide offense through the zone-read, too. Giving Burns a Wildturtle package wouldn't be a guaranteed cure-all for Maryland's offensive woes, either. But given that their offense is the ACC's least-productive (121st nationally in yards/game!) and most turnover-prone (118th!), it's unlikely to make things worse - and, if it works, it'd give them a pinch of dynamism and unpredictability they're currently lacking.
Regardless of whether or not Maryland gives that package a look - and if I were a betting man, I'd bet on it - here's hoping they can work out some of the kinks on offense. Like I said, this defense deserves to go to a bowl game. If the offense can catch up, even just a little, they probably will.