The Maryland football team expects to run the football a lot more this year, and the Terps have the personnel to do it. A deep running back group consists of half a dozen players that could get carries this year, and there’s not exactly a big drop-off from one runner to the next.
"We may not have a really, really, really elite, special guy, but we are really blessed to have a great group of kids," offensive coordinator Walt Bell told reporters on Wednesday.
Senior Wes Brown is suspended for the season’s first three games, so sophomore Ty Johnson will be the Week 1 starter against Howard. Johnson rushed for 250 yards across all 12 games last year, with a touchdown in the first contest and two in the last.
"It’s very exciting [to be the starter]. It got me smiling when I saw it," Johnson said. "It’s been tough, and I read that Coach Durkin said I earned it."
The speedy back from Fort Hill High School in Cumberland is looking to showcase his other skills during his sophomore campaign. To help his team to the extent everyone wants, he’ll have to become more of a complete back, and that involves bulking up. Johnson weighed 180 pounds at this time last year; he now checks in at 208.
"I think the mentality for me to get more physical was getting hit by those linebackers when I was so small, and taking those hits," he said.
Gaining nearly 30 pounds in a year and not losing one’s burst (which Johnson apparently hasn’t) requires lifting, running, and a major diet change. Maryland’s players eat well, and at the request of strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, Johnson has taken advantage of it.
"Coach Court, he came in and said, ‘Eat,’" Johnson said. "I was like, ‘Alright, I’m eating already, so what do you mean?’ And he was like, ‘Eat more’ and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m eating more.’ … It was at a point where I was feeling really disgusting, because I was eating so much."
Johnson also hopes to make strides as a receiver (he caught just two balls for 30 yards in 2015) and in pass protection (again, he was 30 pounds lighter a year ago). He showed improvements in both areas over the course of fall camp.
"Honestly, I thought he kind of started slow, but I think that was just more mentally than anything else," Bell said. "Running backs and tight ends in this offense have an incredible amount of mental pressure put on them, in pass protection, run game, throw game. I mean, those guys have to be able to play three or four different spots, all the while just being called a running back."
Being an every-down back might be a more difficult ask this year because of the breakneck speed of Bell’s offense. Every player on that unit has gone through extensive conditioning to prepare for such a tempo, and even the speedy tailback found himself winded at times.
"During the spring game, my uncle said, ‘You looked a little tired out there. I’ve never seen you tired,’" Johnson recalled. "I was like, ‘Trust me, it’s a little rough out there.’ That tempo is so fast, we get off three plays within 45 seconds."
A back with Johnson’s explosiveness figures to thrive in such an offense, but the high number of snaps means also more hits, which is why depth at the position is so important. Even before Brown comes back from his suspension, the Terps can turn powerful seniors Kenneth Goins and Virginia Tech transfer Trey Edmunds, plus freshman Jake Funk. And maybe others.
"We’re tight with each other, and it makes us strong," Johnson said. "When one of us is messing up, we’re not scared to be like, ‘Look, you’re messing up, you need to get right.’"
It’s a talented bunch, and the internal competition has raised everyone’s game. Johnson’s inside zone running is much improved, and Bell has certainly noticed. Such runs are often called for power backs or shiftier runners, and if Johnson is able to add them to his arsenal, he could become a star in College Park.
"Typically, for real fast, one-cut guys, they want to get it and they want to go, and inside zone is about being patient at the line of scrimmage," Bell said. "He’s started to figure that out, and that will make him a more dynamic back from carry to carry."