It's no secret that the last two years have been tough on Randy Edsall's Maryland program. After a 2-10 record in his first season with the program, a litany of injuries caused a 4-8 record last year. There are many reasons to think this could be a bounce-back year for the Terps - an excellent group of skill players, healthy quarterbacks, and a strong defensive core - but there's one major problem from the past two seasons that remains an issue this year. Maryland has had one of the worst offensive lines of the past few years, and this year's unit, while motivated and certainly talented up top, may be the most depleted yet.
Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley estimated that teams generally have 15 or 16 offensive linemen on scholarship. This year, the Terps have 13, including two true freshmen (Jajuan Delaney and Moise Larose) and one former walk-on (Gary Harraka).
"Any time you don't have a whole lot of numbers you're concerned about depth," offensive line coach Tom Brattan said. "But I think as a group we had a very good summer, so I think if their number is called and you get to that situation and step up then they'll do fine."
Coach Edsall said the five starters are pretty much set - by the preseason depth chart, that's Mike Madaras, De'Onte Arnett, Sal Conaboy, Andrew Zeller and Nick Klemm. The issue is who the reliable back-ups will be for the Terrapins, as the team would like to redshirt Delaney and Larose, leaving six scholarship back-ups (including two centers).
"That's probably the biggest thing that we have on offense to get sorted out," he said. "To get solidified during training camp here."
The starting five has impressed the coaches so far, led by Conaboy, who is the unit's representative on the team's leadership council. The starting center has impressed in camp, and looks to anchor an offensive line group in desperate need of a bounce-back year.
"They've all heard the stories and read the stories about how many sacks and it's all up to them up front and all of those sort of things," Edsall said. "I think they're ready to beat the challenge, I think that we'll get guys ready to play, and guys that want to play, so again we'll see how it all shakes out."
Conaboy is one of three upperclassmen starting on the line - he's a junior, with Arnett and Klemm entering their senior years. He's taken his leadership role seriously, but also says the players all have the opportunity to learn from each other.
"It's always going to be a different dynamic," he said. "It's just adjusting to it, and learning to work together, so for the older guys, it doesn't really matter, they'll step up and be leaders and their experience will come in handy, just like my experience and the younger guys'. We just have to work together."
Arnett's career has been a whirlwind of sorts in his time with the Terrapins, coming in as a highly touted defensive lineman before two years of inconsistent play and a move to the offensive line. Arnett has performed admirably in his new role, and enters this season as the presumptive starter at left guard after playing on the right side last year.
"I'm feeling very comfortable," he said. "I'm looking forward to this upcoming season, it's my last season, and I'm really looking forward to making a statement to solidify what people think of me as an offensive lineman. I'm no longer a defensive lineman – even though that was a great part of me and my development as an offensive lineman, that's what made me so athletic, but I'm really just looking forward to having my senior year with a great group of guys."
The lack of depth behind the starters could provide one of two problems - either added pressure to perform due to a lack of faith in the guy behind you, or a sense of complacency because of a lack of any fear to lose your job. Arnett says these aren't issues for him, because of the demand he places on himself.
"I'm probably my worst critic," he said. "And I respect Tom Brattan a lot as my coach, so when he has something to correct me on or he's critiquing me I take it to heart. I do my best to fix whatever it is that he's told me I need to work on, so I think probably me and coach Brattan are probably the most pressure that I have right now, honestly. I feel like I can play as much as need be until my body gives out, but for the most part the biggest pressure on me is making sure I do things the right way."
While depth is certainly an area of concern, Maryland can mitigate the damage if the key players on the line improve as they should. In particular, former four-star recruit Madaras was "thrown to the wolves", so to speak, playing a significant role as a true freshman last year. Brattan expects big things out of the Terps' left tackle this year, and solidifying that position would go a long way to having a reliable line.
"I think just physically, [Madaras] had a very good summer," Brattan said. "If you look at his numbers, they were very, very good. It's hard, he's six months away from going to school in a yellow school bus so to speak, and I say that facetiously, but all of the sudden you're thrust into the game your second game here, just 'You're playing!', and fourth game, 'You're starting!', and no matter how talented you are, it's different. The game is so much faster, the guys you've got to block on defense are so refined in their techniques, it's different. We'll profit this year from that learning experience, and you'll see him as an improved player."
Madaras is not the only player who improved significantly this summer - Conaboy said every single player "worked their butts off" and got better. Brattan specifically cited walk-on tackle Michael Dunn as a player who had a "very, very good summer."
"[Dunn has] completely transformed his body," Brattan said. "He's added a lot of good weight and has reduced his times, which is unusual. It's hard to put on weight in the summer and he did a really good job with that, I thought he finished on a really good note, so it'll be interesting to see how he does here in preseason."
Dunn currently shares the back-up right tackle spot with scholarship player Jake Wheeler. The two of them are the primary backups for senior Klemm. Another interesting back-up option is left guard Silvano Altamirano, a junior college transfer from San Diego Mesa College.
"Silvano, he really picked up things quick when he came in," back-up center Evan Mulrooney said. "He's a JuCo transfer, so a lot of the vernacular we use in the offensive line room he picked up real quick because it's something similar to what he used. Other than that, he's just mean, he gets after you, he gets after people. He plays like he has a chip on his shoulder. He's one of those shorter guys, not really highly recruited, so you see that in how he plays that he's mean, he tries to get after people. His technique is pretty good and he's a really good asset on the team."
The position with the most depth for the Terps is at center, where Mulrooney and Stephen Grommer stand behind the established Conaboy. Both are scholarship players who played other positions on the line in high school (tackle and guard, respectively), and who can play pretty much anywhere on the line. Brattan said it is possible the two could see some movement throughout the year if the depth is needed, and Mulrooney said he would welcome the opportunity.
"There's always a possibility," he said. "This camp, I know my role right now and I'm going to go in and work as hard as I can and let the chips fall where they may, and if I work hard enough and prove that I'm one of the best five, then I'll be out on the field and we'll just take it from there."
The offensive line will be a unit to watch closely throughout camp and the season, and Brattan, Conaboy and co. will try and fill the many questions with their various versatile answers.