It’s now the third week of March, which means March Madness is in full swing. Naturally, it’s time to talk football.
Don’t let the snow and single-degree wind chills fool you: spring practice has arrived. While “spring practice” may sound fairly straightforward, it’s not. There are tons of NCAA rules, odd schedules and more that go into the official start of football season. Maryland had its first practice on Saturday, and will conclude the session with its spring game on April 22.
This is when many players — veterans, youngsters, freshmen who enrolled early — make their first on-field impressions of the season. Here are some Maryland players who can help their case over the next month.
1. Caleb Henderson, junior quarterback: It’s been a long time since Henderson has seen extended, live action on a football field. The former four-star recruit from Lake Braddock High School (Va.) signed with North Carolina as a part of the Tar Heels’ class of 2014.
After a redshirt year at UNC and a freshman season during which he saw limited game action, Henderson transferred to Maryland to be closer to his family and sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules. Now that Perry Hills, Caleb Rowe and Gage Shaffer are gone, Maryland needs a new starter. Hills’ injuries last year thrust Tyrrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager into action probably before they were ready as true freshmen, but they’ll enter next season with some experience under their belts. Still, Henderson may slide right into the starting quarterback spot. He’ll have to stave off incoming four-star signee Kasim Hill, but will have a big head start, as Hill won’t enroll until June.
A strong spring session could put Henderson squarely in the driver’s seat going into summer ball.
2. Markquese Bell, early enrollee safety: Bell’s 6’2, 194-pound frame should allow him to be more physical than your average safety, yet still allow him to move better than your average linebacker. Classified as an athlete coming out of Bridgeton High School (N.J.), Bell could even play offense in a pinch.
Whether it’s at strong safety, linebacker or a hybrid of the two, or really anywhere in the back seven, Bell has the athletic potential to be a difference-maker in his freshman season. Maryland’s defense wasn’t great last season and it likely won’t be again in 2017, but Bell should be a key part of the steady improvement of the unit going forward.
3. Kingsley Opara, senior defensive lineman: Opara was one of few bright spots on Maryland’s defensive line last season. He was second on the team in tackles for loss, with 11.5 totaling 33 yards, and recorded three sacks — a solid number from an interior lineman.
He appeared in all 13 games for the first time in his career while starting nine of them at nose tackle. Despite Opara’s growing role and better-than-average performance on the defensive line, Maryland’s run defense was horrible last season, surrendering 214.8 yards per game.
In his redshirt senior season, look for Opara to continue to elevate his play as he’ll likely be “the guy” in the middle of the line for the Terps.
4. D.J. Turner, sophomore wide receiver: In eight games in his freshman season, Turner wasn’t all that productive, totaling two catches for 19 yards. It was his first season after a nasty leg injury he sustained during his senior season at DeMatha Catholic, so any contribution was a positive, really.
In his second season, Maryland will likely try to get the ball into Turner’s hands more, as he is a dynamic runner with the ball in his hands.
Turner’s small-area quickness should make him a threat out of the slot. Other than D.J. Moore, none of Maryland’s receivers have proven that they deserve a starting spot yet. Six freshmen receivers will arrive in the summer, so reinforcements are on the way, but for the time being, the Nos. 2 and 3 receiver positions are up for grabs.
Turner’s season ended early because he was suspended for violating the school’s student code of conduct, so look for him to come back this spring with a chip on his shoulder.
5. Nick Underwood, sophomore linebacker: Underwood transferred to Maryland this winter after playing junior college ball at Riverside Community College in California. He’s a tackling machine.
Jermaine Carter Jr. was solid last season, but Maryland’s linebacker play was otherwise pedestrian. With strong outings in spring practice, Underwood could find himself starting Week 1 in Texas.
Bonus! One more thing to keep an eye on: The emergence of last year’s redshirts.
Though 16 of them played as true freshmen, there are a handful that didn’t see playing time. Offensive lineman Richard Merritt could see rotational time this season, especially if Maryland tries to go fast on offense.
At 6’4, 208 pounds, Dion Goldbourne has the frame to be an ultra-athletic pass rusher in DJ Durkin’s multi-front defense and could see rotational time this season with a solid spring.