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Maryland football needs to improve its pass protection, but run blocking’s been great

This unit could eventually be the team’s best.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Central Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

UCF’s defense sacked Maryland quarterback Perry Hills five times when the teams played two weeks ago, but that shouldn’t obscure the success the Terps’ linemen have had creating lanes for running backs so far in 2016.

While the Knights constantly made their way into Maryland’s backfield on passing plays, the Terps were still able to gash UCF for 246 rushing yards on the day. That is indicative of how the offensive line unit has performed early this season.

Head coach DJ Durkin is quick to note that responsibility for the five sacks allowed doesn’t fall solely on the team’s offensive line.

“There was a combination of a lot of things,” Durkin told reporters Tuesday. “Sometimes when you’re watching sacks on the field it’s not always the offensive line’s fault. Sometimes it’s the wrong read down the field, wrong read by the quarterback, a [running] back not being right in protection and obviously a breakdown of the offensive line. There’s several layers and levels of that.”

Still, the team knows it can’t be giving up five sacks a game during Big Ten play. After last week’s bye, the Terps host Purdue this Saturday.

“You never want to give up a sack as an offensive line, but you don’t go around pointing fingers. It’s a unit,” starting left tackle Michael Dunn said. “We know what happened on it, we watched the film, we know what mistakes were made. All we can do is keep improving, keep working on technique and not let it happen again.”

Here’s the positive: Maryland’s linemen haven’t just been good run blockers this season. They’ve been excellent.

2016 2015
Avg. Rank Avg. Rank
SD Line Yards per Carry 3.48 15 2.93 59
PD Line Yards per Carry 4.77 3 3.48 40

(Numbers courtesy of SB Nation’s Bill Connelly. They’re opponent-adjusted stats, so any arguments about Maryland’s opponents being bad are irrelevant here.)

“Line yards” estimates the percentage of rushing yards the offensive line is responsible for, and Maryland ranks high here. In situations where teams can expect the Terps to pass, Maryland’s blockers have been getting on their defenders and giving any one of the team’s six running backs chances to make plays.

But the unit has had some very real struggles in pass protection, and not just against UCF. Advanced metrics show a decrease in performance from last season, especially on standard downs, when a team hypothetically has an equal chance of running or passing.

2016 2015
Avg. Rank Avg. Rank
SD Sack Rate 7.40% 100 3.80% 40
PD Sack Rate 16.00% 119 9.50% 96

The Terps showed signs of weakness in pass protection last season, and it appears those problems have been exacerbated to begin 2016. Still, it’s early, and it’s entirely possible these numbers could become a distant memory. And as Durkin said, responsibility also falls on Hills and the running backs, who have to make the correct reads and execute their blocks. But against Big Ten teams, this won’t be easy.

Right now, Maryland’s starting offensive line consists of three former walk-ons: left tackle Dunn, left guard Mike Minter and right guard Maurice Shelton; a former three-star in center Brendan Moore; and one of the highest-rated recruits Maryland’s ever signed in right tackle Damian Prince.

But that’s been far from the only five-man group Maryland’s trotted out onto the field. The team used its blowout wins over Howard and FIU to get young offensive lineman some game experience, and that practice continued even when the the Terps were neck-and-neck with UCF. For a time in that game, Dunn moved from his usual spot at left tackle over to the right side so Damian Prince and fellow redshirt sophomore Derwin Gray could get more snaps. This wasn’t new for Dunn, who’s been practicing on each side since the spring.

“We’re rotating guys at about every spot out there,” Durkin said. “You see six or seven receivers; at running back, five, six guys carrying the ball; as well as offensive line we’re rotating guys. I think it’s been good. I think all our guys understand that they have a role. I think they understand that how they practice, how they play affects how big that role is, how many snaps they do get.”

Randy Edsall’s biggest strength at Maryland might have been his offensive line recruiting, and Durkin has already built on that. This unit should eventually be a strength for Maryland, whether that’s this season, 2017 or 2018. With younger players getting experience, that elite offensive line could mesh earlier.

In addition to Gray, heralded former blue-chip guards Terrance Davis and Quarvez Boulware have played in all three games so far. Those two are big pieces for the offensive line’s future, and getting reps can only help with Dunn and Shelton graduating after this season.

“It’s nice knowing that some of the younger guys could get in every once and a while, get some experience so if something happens later in the year, it’s not going to be their first game action,” Dunn said. “Now that we’re in Big Ten play they’re not going to be nervous to go out there for the first time.”