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Maryland football can’t be worse at QB. But how much better can it be?

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Previewing Maryland's quarterbacks ahead of this 2016 football season.

maryland football spring practice
From left to right: Maryland quarterbacks Caleb Rowe, Perry Hills and Gage Shaffer.
Sung Min Kim

Maryland’s quarterbacks will get better in 2016.

Let’s start with that premise, because anyone arguing otherwise is being negative merely for the sake of argumentation. Maryland passers were the worst in major college football last year, and they were the worst by such a wide margin that it’s within decimal points of impossible for them not to improve.

(We don’t have to rehash this in full, because we’ve already done that. But suffice it to say Maryland threw 29 interceptions, which was six more than the 127th-best team out of 128 in FBS. Wichita State’s 34 in 1966 were, according to our best research, the last time anyone else did so badly.)

Maryland coach DJ Durkin says Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe, his two redshirt seniors, will have "a little leg up" on a five-man competition.

That will include redshirt freshman Gage Shaffer (who’s tall and throws hard but has never played a college down) and true freshmen Tyrrell Pigrome (who’s short and fast and has never played a college down) and Max Bortenschlager (who’s somewhere in between and has also never played a college down).

maryland spring practice
Perry Hills at Maryland’s spring practices in March.
Alexander Jonesi

Let’s presume Maryland doesn’t want to start any kind of freshman.

Rowe and Hills have four years of experience at college football’s highest level. If one of them can’t win the starting job, that’s likely trouble for Maryland, because there’s no five-star up-and-comer whose recruiting profile demands immediate playing time.

This means one of two things has to happen: Rowe needs to cut down on the bad decisions that have plagued his talented arm for years, or Hills needs to be a sharper thrower and master an option QB-run game under spread coordinator Walt Bell. If one of those can’t happen, Maryland will probably have bad quarterback play again.

Either of those things could happen. The likelier outcome, in my view, is that Hills takes the step forward required to be Maryland’s starter and do OK in that job.

The system Bell ran well at Arkansas State was an up-tempo spread. It relied on lots of option running from quarterback Fredi Knighten, a good athlete who (much like Hills) never demonstrated great strength as a passer. (Knighten’s career QB rating was 137, while Hills’ is currently 115.) But Knighten managed plenty of success as a runner and stewarded Bell's offenses to 38 and 40 points per game the last two years.

Bell called a lot of misdirection option reads for Knighten at ASU, based on a film review of two games I did for this story in the winter. Like this one:

knighten

Rowe isn’t an inept runner, but Hills has shown he’s really good on the ground. Watch Hills operate the read-option, and it’s easy to see how he could fit with Bell:

perry hills

Knighten is more fluid, but Hills is a bull and – for whatever faults he’s ever had – has always been fine at making options reads on whether to keep the ball or hand it off.

We can’t know yet exactly what Bell’s schematic plans are for Maryland, other than that it’ll be pacy. Maybe Bell will totally abandon the option runs and short throws that characterized his two-year run at Arkansas State, and maybe his system will be more like the pro-stylish thing Maryland did under Mike Locksley, which Hills couldn’t do.

But if Bell is going to run Maryland’s offense like he ran the Red Wolves’, why won’t Hills start and do a perfectly adequate job? Other than standard-issue Maryland pessimism, I can’t come up with a reason.

It's worth adding, too, that Pigrome is an athlete who might be able to succeed quickly in a Bell offense for many of the same reasons Hills could. Hills himself started as a true freshman, and it's not impossible that Pigrome finds his way onto the field, too.

maryland football spring game practice
Caleb Rowe throws during Maryland’s spring game on April 16.

Of course, there’s a ceiling on what Maryland’s QB will be able to accomplish.

What is hard to imagine happening – not that anyone is trying – is Hills, Rowe or anybody else really driving the Maryland offense. The Terps should have at least three quality running backs in Trey Edmunds, Wes Brown and Ty Johnson, and they’ll have an increasingly talented and experienced offensive line. So, ride those horses, you know?

More than that, it’s easy to fall into a trap when considering the impact of a new coaching staff. "If Coach X keeps things simple for quarterback Y," a thought might go, "then quarterback Y will make almost no mistakes and be really good." It’s classic system-QB theory, and it’s not grounded in total falsehood.

But it has limits, because there’s barely such thing as a system that fully protects a quarterback. Unless Leonard Fournette and LSU’s power run game decide to transfer to Maryland in the next few weeks and are declared immediately eligible, there won’t be a way for Maryland to wall itself off from its quarterback making mistakes. Recent history suggests this crop of quarterbacks will make plenty of mistakes.

Under Bell, though, they should make less of them.

And if Hills can fit into a Bell offense as well as the coordinator’s last QB, Maryland’s offense will offer something that might feel foreign after last year: competency.