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In a young running back group, Maryland football needs all the leadership it can find

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The Terps are leaning on junior Ty Johnson and sophomore Lorenzo Harrison to be the veteran mentors.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Maryland Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland football’s running back group should be one of the team’s strongest in 2017. The Terps rushed for over 2,500 yards in 2016, return an overwhelming majority of that production and added more firepower in the 2017 recruiting class.

It’s a deep unit, with six scholarship backs expected to contribute this season. It’s also one of the youngest groups on the team.

A year ago, Maryland had three senior running backs in its rotation: Kenneth Goins, Wes Brown and Trey Edmunds. All are gone, and the current crop has no seniors at all. Positional groups normally have one or two upperclassmen around to fill leadership roles. With just one junior, two sophomores and three freshmen in the meeting room, though, that dynamic will be a little different.

The group’s now-veteran leader, Ty Johnson, is a junior coming off a breakout 2016 season. He’s still developing as a college player, but he’s become the guy in the room for freshmen to turn to with football or off-the-field questions.

“Just going in, I have to help the young guys learn even more,” Johnson said. “Last year, I wasn’t the oldest, but I was still helping the older guys help me, and I was helping younger guys also. But now it’s like, I need to make sure I’m on top of my game because these guys are gonna be asking me questions that I’m gonna need to know the answers to.”

Lorenzo Harrison, who was on his way to breaking freshman records before being suspended for the 2016 season’s last four games, is suddenly viewed as a veteran as well. He and his teammates say he’s matured since last fall, and the college experience he does have is enough to pass on to Maryland’s newcomers.

“I would say last year, when I came in, all I was doing was listening to the older guys and just doing things that I learned from DeMatha,” Harrison said. “Now that I’m considered an older guy in the room, I really have to keep [the freshmen] on their game. Sometimes they’ll get frustrated … I just have to tell them to relax and things like that, tell them things that I did to smooth into my freshman season.”

Maryland will rely on its three freshman backs to be impact players right away. Anthony McFarland, Harrison’s former DeMatha teammate, was the most anticipated arrival, but fellow freshmen Javon Leake and Tayon Fleet-Davis have impressed in camp as well. All three hope to challenge Johnson, Harrison and sophomore Jake Funk for playing time this season.

“These three guys that came in, they’re all great running backs,” Funk said. “It makes all of us better. … All the guys who return, it makes us better players because we have to up our game in order to stay where we are.”

At the same time, the competitiveness isn’t leading to selfishness. The veterans know Maryland needs depth at this position, so the more they can do to help the freshmen get acclimated to the college game, the better. For the upperclassmen, being a mentor is simply part of the job.

Johnson is ready for that challenge, and he’s brought the same energy to it that he brings to everything he does.

“When I say I’m a perfectionist, that just means everything,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s in the classroom, in the meeting room, on the field, at home, taking care of my dog, I want to be able to do all the right things.”

If Johnson and the other returning players can fill the leadership void left by last year’s seniors, then Maryland’s young but talented group of running backs will be all the better for it.