Perry Hills has done this before. That wasn't the plan, but a C.J. Brown preseason injury catapulted him into Maryland's starting quarterback job in 2012. On Sept. 1, in the season opener against William & Mary, Hills threw 24 passes. Nineteen of those were caught, but three were caught by the other team, and those that Maryland receivers hauled in netted but 145 total yards. Maryland spent most of the game in danger of an embarrassing loss, but a Justus Pickett 6-yard run in the fourth quarter - Swift Justus! - salvaged a win.
Because time is a flat circle, Hills is back as Maryland's starter this year, beginning at noon Saturday against Richmond. Brown tore his ACL in 2012, so Hills started until he tore his own seven games later, then Caleb Rowe until he tore his, then Brown again, then Rowe again and here is Hills now - as the victor of Maryland's preseason quarterback competition over Rowe and transfer senior Daxx Garman. Rowe was Maryland's second-stringer last year, and Garman is a Big 12 import. Externally, Hills seemed like the underdog, but here he is.
"I knew there [were] things I had to improve on over the summer," Hills said. "Whether it was athleticism, accuracy or making the right read, just being calm in the pocket."
NCAA rules prohibited Hills from working individually with offensive coordinator Mike Locksley over the summer. So every weekend, he drove home - from the Capital Beltway to Interstate 270 northbound, then to I-70 and westbound for Pittsburgh, where he'd meet with his high school quarterbacks coach at Central Catholic. Hills said he spent the summer becoming more athletic: not just throwing, but doing 40-yard dash and agility drills. He's replacing Brown, after all.
"I definitely tried to improve from that standpoint, just to be the best I can be," he said.
Maryland has noticed. Locksley said Hills distinguished himself by the time fall scrimmages came around, and Edsall made him the official starter more than a week before kickoff. Edsall had said he would wait until game day.
"It wasn't a landslide victory, but he did enough from an information standpoint, and I also feel that there's a comfort level when he's out there with the offense.," Locksley said. "Being in the system, he's very comfortable. He knows how the system's run. For us, we're a no-huddle offense, so a lot of it is the communication part at the line of scrimmage, making sure everybody's on the same page."
Some of Maryland's offense won't look drastically different than when Hills last started. Wes Brown and Brandon Ross are still there, and Michael Dunn, Andrew Zeller and Ryan Doyle have evolved into long-term starters on the offensive line. Rowe is Hills's backup again, just as he was after Rowe and second-stringer Devin Burns went down against North Carolina State on Homecoming Saturday, 2012.
What isn't the same is who Hills can target. Levern Jacobs had one catch for 19 yards the last time Hills started a game, and every other pass-catcher from that day is gone. Saturday's receiving group features a handful of sporadic contributors from the last few seasons, but only Amba Etta-Tawo has meaningful starting experience. Malcolm Culmer, Taivon Jacobs and DeAndre Lane have made cameos, while D.J. Moore is a true freshman.
"Levern, Amba, Malcolm, Taivon, DeAndre, D.J. – they're all playmakers. Honestly, if we just go out and execute the things we're supposed to do, I wouldn't worry about it."
Edsall has said too many times to count that his quarterbacks don't need to win games so much as they need to manage them. Most of Hills's receivers are new, but his top two running backs, Ross and Brown, are not, nor is most of the offensive line.
"It's the same thing; I like him at quarterback. He's a very confident dude, so it kind of feels the same," Ross said. "But we're a lot older now."
To that end, Hills the starter feels different for the quarterback himself now than then. A shade more than three years after that almost-disaster vs. William & Mary, Hills gets a season-opening do-over this week.
"It was my first time stepping into a college stadium with fans yelling, things like that, going against a college team," Hills said. "Now I pretty much know that teams come out with surprises, try to disguise things differently. I've built up, like, a toolbox. I know what I'm going to see, so I'm a lot more comfortable."