Rarely has a position so central to a team's success been so cursed.
Oh, sure, Iowa's running backs had a rough spell. And Purdue's had some bad luck with their ACLs. But it all pales in comparison to Maryland's quarterbacks, running through all three of their scholarship options and a converted wide receiver before settling on a true freshman reserve linebacker to start the final four games. It's pretty much unprecedented stuff, made all the worse by the fact that there was no position on the team that the Terrapins could less afford this type of injury spell.
It was the most important spot on the field and the position that had absolutely no margin for error. And the injury gods not only required margin, but they ripped the margins all the way across the page. It was carnage.
Funny thing about games like this, though, is that oftentimes they have a way of finding out and exploiting a team's weakest point. Maryland football's been operating under Murphy's Law for decades now; that it came one more time, as harsh as it possibly could've, is sad but perhaps not the most surprising thing in the world.
Never mind that, though, as it's a discussion for another day. (Like, say ... tomorrow.) Right now, we're looking at the guys Maryland did have at quarterback, and how they performed. The verdict: about as well as you could've hoped for, really, with everything that that implies.
What Went Well: Not a lot, in a vacuum, but when you remember that the four quarterbacks Maryland played this year consisted of a wide receiver, a linebacker, and two true freshmen whose best combined offer (pre-commitment) out of high school was Kent State ... well, things could've been worse.
Perry Hills may not have impressed terribly with his arm, which was hit or miss, or pocket presence and escapability (he had a tendency to get sacked quite a bit), but he lived up to his wrestling background. Kid's a gamer, as much as I've seen at Maryland in years. He was tough as nails to take as many hits as he did (even if he didn't need to take so many) and inexplicably got significantly better in the fourth quarter, when his back was up against the wall. He was relatively mistake-free, all things considered, once the game had slowed down for him, and his ability to lead a huddle and manage a game looked fairly promising. And he got the ball to Stefon Diggs, which may end up being the most important attribute for any Maryland quarterback over the next two years.
Hills got some criticism from fans, but fact of the matter is that he finished six games and won four of them, despite quarterbacking a team that most thought would finish with all of two wins to begin with. There's a heck of a lot to be said for that.
As for Caleb Rowe, he was very nearly Hills' opposite. He liked to run around and gunsling, with a big and accurate arm but maybe too much confidence in it at times. That fearlessness was far from all peaches and cream, but it allowed him to come in cold against N.C. State and drive 60 some yards to set up a would-be game-winning field goal. The potential there is obvious.
The other two quarterbacks - and I use the term liberally, given that neither started the year under center - were obviously very different by necessity, running Locksley's preferred zone-read option scheme and looking more a threat as runner than passer. Devin Burns exemplified what the system was supposed to look like, with his dynamism and relatively good reads letting Maryland's offense run rampant against N.C. State in the second half. Burns is absolutely electric, and I have a hunch that, had he been healthy over the final five games, Maryland would be bowling right now.
As for Shawn Petty: he was a true freshman reserve linebacker asked to start at quarterback. He threw six touchdowns to two interceptions and had a 115.24 passer rating. Let that sink in, because it's pretty incredible when you think about it. He also was a punishing runner, to his credit, and ran the ZR scheme about as well as Hills or Rowe would've.
I'm not going to mince words: this was inarguably Maryland's weakest unit this season. But the blame on that doesn't really fall on the players, who actually looked halfway decent compared to what they might've done.
What Went Wrong: More frankly, a lot. Obviously, there are the injuries, but you already know all of them so I won't go into it. But there was virtually no depth here; everyone Maryland turned to had a major flaw somewhere, if not more than one. Again, absolutely to be expected from the personnel that Maryland had, but it doesn't make it hurt any less.
For starters, Hills, despite all his moxie and ability to lead a team, seemed to be thrown into the fire far, far before he was ready. If everything had gone according to plan, he would've redshirted this year, sat behind C.J. Brown next year, and then been in a competition to start in his third year in the program. That would've given him time to work on his raw speed, pocket awareness, and arm accuracy, all things he really needed to catch up to the intangible side of his game.
But that was a luxury he (and Maryland) didn't have. As a result he seemed slow to recognize blitzes and loathe to scramble out of the pocket, plus struggled making reads on option plays and couldn't be counted upon to consistently hit downfield routes, either missing reads over the middle or floating deep balls. That's a fairly comprehensive set of weaknesses, but in his defense, again, it was to be expected from a true freshman playing before he was ready. It forced Mike Locksley to get creative, eventually transitioning to a scheme that focused on short, easy routes to open up a downhill power running game, but that was far from what the intended scheme was and it hurt Maryland big-time.
Then there was Rowe, who had a bigger arm, better accuracy, and better escapability, but also made harrowing decisions that Hills didn't. The logic behind starting Perry was obvious - when you have a good defense and a difference-maker, you just don't want your quarterback to lose games, and Hills most certainly didn't lose games. That wasn't necessarily a bonus Rowe had. He could win you games in a way Hills couldn't, as he showed against N.C. State, but he could also go out and throw three interceptions against Boston College. We didn't necessarily see enough of him to draw too many more conclusions, but decision-making is definitely a worry spot.
Then, of course, there's Petty, who did an admirable job but was, ultimately, a linebacker taking snaps. He fumbled a lot. His arm wasn't very accurate. Reads weren't necessarily consistent. It all came with the territory. The sad, unfortunate territory.
All of that put together handcuffed Maryland's offense to an absurd degree. Not only were they playing with quarterbacks who, by any measure, were playing before they were ready to, they were also playing with guys who didn't fit the scheme and couldn't take advantage of the team's biggest strengths: either the receivers (Hills) or the defense (Rowe). The talented receivers didn't get a chance to really shine, which is a shame, and the offense was predictably lackluster. I'll say one more time that this isn't an indictment of the players themselves as much as the situation Maryland found themselves in before the season, but it hurts nonetheless.
The Future: For as bleak as this year was, the future stands to be much brighter. C.J. Brown will be functional by spring and at full speed by August; Ricardo Young, former Virginia Tech Hokie and New Mexico Lobo, will be eligible; Caleb Rowe should be a go, too, and hopefully so too is Perry Hills. Heck, even Shane Cockerille will be in the program to provide quality depth and competition. That's five deep, with two high-level options and two youngsters with starting experience. It's a set of quarterbacks that, believe it or not, many programs would be envious of.
I've long thought C.J. Brown is the frontrunner, but the margin at this point is razor-thin. He was the starter coming into the year only by default; his only competition consisted of two freshmen who were obviously not ready and had no experience. Now those two freshman have been starters and will improve during the offseason, plus Young enters the picture. Now being the only one with experience isn't going to be enough. There will be a battle royale for this spot, and it'll be both entertaining and harrowing.
The interesting thing is that the personnel in the offense dictate some changes to the scheme, because there's just too much talent at receiver to keep running a scheme heavily based upon the zone-read option the way they did this year. Last year, legs were the most important component; next season, there's going to be a greater emphasis placed upon the QB's arm, while still maintaining a need for the ability to run the ZR. That could point to Ricardo Young, who has a bit more balance between the two, or even Caleb Rowe.
Whichever way it points, with there being five solid options in the competition (or four and a half, really, just because Cockerille's too young at this point), the starter is likely to be at the very least serviceable, and if Brown or Young turn out better than hoped from their year off, quite possibly much better than that.
(And I don't want to look too far ahead, but ... Will Crest. Please.)
Final Words: Most everything that could've gone wrong at some point during the year did go wrong, until AMQHG finally took pity on the position and spared Shawn Petty. But by that point it was a pretty hollow act, given that the string of injuries had derailed what otherwise might've been a pretty encouraging year.
The upside of it, I suppose, is that getting Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe game time has drastically strengthened the position, as there are going to be four options at quarterback next season comfortable getting snaps. The competition there is going to be fierce, and Maryland will stand to benefit from that. That may be cold comfort sitting at 4-8, but if Young or a healthy Brown or Hills or Rowe comes through and delivers Maryland to the postseason next year, AMQHG will be long forgotten. And if he reappears ... well, Randy Edsall would rather not think about that.