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Maryland football leaning on versatility in an inexperienced offense

“Just trying to build Swiss army knives.”

Maryland v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Last season, one of the biggest knocks on Maryland football was its lack of experience, as freshmen and largely untested sophomores were thrown into the fire. A year later, those same players are called upon as veterans.

With its home opener against Towson coming up Saturday at noon, the Terps will have to look for ways to get their new crop of freshmen involved.

“Guys play faster when they know what they’re doing,” defensive coordinator Andy Buh told reporters Wednesday. “It’s no secret to this game, repetition. You get good at football by playing football.”

Last week, junior offensive lineman Derwin Gray blocked the field goal against Texas that was scooped up and returned 71 yards for a score by sophomore nickel corner Antoine Brooks. It’s not just Brooks and Gray, either. Most of the players are involved in two phases of the game; whether they play offense or defense, the clearest path to the field is to make their mark on special teams. Two of Maryland’s offensive stars, Ty Johnson and DJ Moore, have been tasked with reinvigorating the return game as well as shouldering a bulk of the offense.

Johnson accrued 102 total yards last Saturday on two plays, in two phases. After Texas threatened to swing the momentum with a punt return touchdown, Johnson returned the ensuing kickoff 62 yards. He broke through with a 40-yard run on the next series.

The Terps are also doing whatever it takes to get Moore his touches. He finished the first week as the highest-rated offensive player in the Big Ten, reeling in all seven of his targets for 133 yards. He didn’t take any handoffs in the first game, but offensive coordinator Walt Bell said the team has prepared a number of packages to get him involved.

“DJ Moore is bigger than Ty Johnson,” Bell said. “A lot of those little guys, DBs, people really aren’t about tackling, knowing you have a guy that, with the ball in his hands, runs violent like a tailback, he slashes, he’s hard to get to the ground. I think after the catch is where DJ is at his best. ... He’s hard to tackle, that’s the biggest thing.”

Maryland is also calling upon Moore to be the leading punt returner, as well as the No. 1 receiver, to fully utilize his explosiveness. Moore said he returned punts in high school, but not since. In his debut as a returner he was able to return just 1-of-4 punts for a 16-yard gain.

“The coaches have confidence in us to go make the plays back there and catch the ball and not be scared,” Moore said before the Texas game. “And us, we got to have confidence that we know we’re going to catch the ball, whether it’s a punt return that’s high in the sky, and we going to go make somebody miss for that play to get started.”

Johnson and Moore are dynamic threats, and Lorenzo Harrison, Jake Funk, Taivon Jacobs and Jacquille Veii round out a proven core of backs and receivers. However, after that, it’s a bunch of freshmen at the two pivotal skill positions. While Maryland was able to get by Texas by feeding its workhorses and getting contributions from its tested players, that’s an untenable gameplan in the Big Ten.

“We’ve got great weapons on the outside, but we are very thin,” Bell said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep those wideouts fresh, knowing that in terms of older, more mature, have-played-reps bodies we don’t have a lot of.”

At the same time, the Terps are forced to hand the quarterback position to true freshman Kasim Hill. Hill impressed in a quarter of action against the Longhorns, going 3-for-3 for 44 yards and a rushing touchdown to stave off a comeback. With Tyrell Pigrome on the shelf for the season, recovering from a torn ACL, this is Hill’s team for, at least, the next 11 games.

“He prepares the same every day. He’s been like a veteran guy since day one when he got here,” head coach DJ Durkin said Tuesday. “All last week he prepared like he was the starter, and you could see when he went in the game. There was no drop-off.

“He’s the guy. We can do everything we want to do in our offense with him, and we will. We’re going to put that on him. I know he’ll respond. There will certainly be freshman moments or whatever, but Kasim is the right guy you want to be in that spot.”

With Hill as the starter, Max Bortenschlager elevates to second-string quarterback, but with Caleb Henderson just integrating into practice, according to Bell, the picture becomes unclear past that. Maryland has two more quarterbacks on its roster, both untested, in redshirt sophomore Ryan Brand and freshman Legend Brumbaugh. The Terps have also prepared emergency plans, though.

“If we ever got down to it, Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson can both collect the football, run our run game,” Bell said. “[We’re] just trying to build Swiss army knives.”

After Hill and Bryce Brand were the only two freshmen to significantly contribute against Texas, the staff will use the FCS matchup and the bye week to start to evaluate its inexperienced. Maryland has six freshman receivers and three freshman backs that didn’t see action in Game 1. Expect them all to get a shot to make their mark in the home opener.

“We’re trying to do everything we can, be as proactive as we can, because at some point they’re going to have to play, Bell said. “You’re not going to have the same three guys for 70 plays a game for 11 more games. So we’re doing everything we can to ensure that those guys are ready. Some of that is trial by fire.”

Maryland relied on a proven score of skill players to help put up 51 points on Texas, and now the Terps will start to see where Durkin’s new crop of freshman stands, starting against Towson.