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Maryland football: Terps offensive line has big test against Syracuse

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Maryland coaches and players discuss offensive challenges against blitz-heavy Syracuse defense.

Maryland's offensive lineman will be busy against a blitz-heavy Syracuse defense.
Maryland's offensive lineman will be busy against a blitz-heavy Syracuse defense.
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

A blitzing Syracuse notched five sacks against Central Michigan last week. When the Orange visited College Park last fall, their defenders sacked C.J. Brown three times for an average of a 10-yard loss and made seven tackles for loss. Maryland's offensive line struggled against West Virginia, and the unit's preparing for plenty more pressure on the turf the Carrier Dome on Saturday.

"They're actually returning a lot of starters, a lot that we saw last year," right guard Andrew Zeller said. The Terps expect to see seven returning starters on the Syracuse defense, although star nose tackle Jay Bromley is now in the NFL.

"They're going to blitz, and we have to play fundamentally sound, just execute," Zeller said.

Left tackle Michael Dunn sounded the same tune, noting in particular that Syracuse's linebackers spend a lot of time pursuing the quarterback.

"They like to bring a lot of pressure. We know that's what they're going to do," he said.

Linebacker Cameron Lynch leads Syracuse with 23 tackles and 3.5 sacks through two games. He plays the weak side position in Syracuse's 4-3 defense.

If blitzing seems redundant, it very much is for Maryland's offense. Blitzing defenses have been a recurring theme against the Terps so far, leaving similar week-to-week challenges for coordinator Mike Locksley and his players.

"They're going to be a pressure defense," Locksley said. "It seems week in and week out, every defense we face is going to load the box up and bring pressure."

That'll place an onus on Maryland's offensive line to give Brown time, and on Brown to cooly and calmly deliver the ball. (In case the depth chart wasn't enough, Locksley confirmed it will be Brown, not junior Caleb Rowe, under center on Saturday.)

In that passing offense, Maryland's tight ends have so far been conspicuously absent. None of Andrew Isaacs, Derrick Hayward or P.J. Gallo was targeted in the first two games, and Isaacs made one catch for no gain on two targets against West Virginia. Isaacs said a week ago that he isn't worried about pass-catching this year, although both Locksley and Randy Edsall cautioned against reading into the lack of tight end targets to date.

"We don't call plays to target somebody," Edsall said. "We call plays that we feel that the quarterback is going to go through a read, and sometimes the read will take him to the tight end. Our tight ends are involved in the passing game. We don't max-protect that much. We send them out, and depending on what the defense does, that's who the ball is going to go to."

Locksley said he was impressed with the sophomore starter Isaacs's progression, particularly as a blocker, and that his role to date in the passing game has been largely a product of the presence of Stefon Diggs, Deon Long and Maryland's deep wideout corps.

"You’ve got four wideouts like we have, obviously you make the decision in certain situations to get speed on the field and create match-ups," Locksley said. "It’s problem been a product more of the personnel usage than it has been anything else."

Still, Isaacs has played around 40 snaps per game.

"As far as targets and stuff, it doesn't really concern me," Isaacs said before last weekend's game.

In the running game, Maryland should have the services of Wes Brown again this week. He's been back at practice this week, and everyone who's been asked said all is normal for the sophomore tailback. Randy Edsall held Brown out of the West Virginia game in what has only been described as Edsall's decision.

"Wes has been fine," Locksley said.

Locksley offers updates on offensive tackles Gray, Prince

Offensive tackles Derwin Gray and Damian Prince are less likely to figure into Maryland's plans on Saturday. Despite right tackle Ryan Doyle's struggles against West Virginia, he remains firmly atop the depth chart at that position. Gray is listed as his backup and will travel, while Prince, the five-star freshman, remains on Maryland's scout team.

"Both those guys have a tremendous amount of potential. They'll both be big-time players around here. That's the one position that's tough to play early," Locksley said, even though Maryland has used freshmen at left tackle in each of the past two seasons.

"That's not the ideal situation you want to be in, but I think both those guys, we've been pleased with both of them, both their progress," Locksley said.

Offense's interesting self-grading system

Zeller said Maryland's offense has been working under an interesting self-evaluation system. According to Zeller, Locksley wants the offense to work at a "margin of error" under 12 percent.

Maryland's offense, Zeller said, counts an "error" as any play on which Maryland players drop passes, miss assignments to allow sacks, fumble the ball or throw interceptions. Etcetera, etcetera. The right guard said the Terps offense strives to hurt itself with mistakes of that nature on fewer than 12 percent of offensive plays throughout a game. It is an offense-wide evaluation. Against West Virginia, the offense stayed under that number, though Zeller said there was room to improve.

"If you're under 12 percent, Coach Locksley harps on it, you're going to win a lot of games, and if you're above 12 percent, you're pretty much beating yourself," Zeller said. "Your opponent is not beating you. You're beating yourself. That's our number one goal on offense, is to be under 12 percent margin of error."