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Maryland football didn’t reach its potential in 2018, and now faces a murky future

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The Terps had their moments, but went 5-7 and will now turn their attention toward hiring a head coach.

Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Maryland football’s season is over. The Terps finished 5-7 after losing their last four games. For the second straight fall, a blowout loss to Penn State ended the year on a sour note.

This season was a roller coaster. From Jordan McNair’s death in June to the ugly aftermath that lingered over the program for months, from the dominant wins to the ugly losses, the only consistency was in the absurdity. With the games all played, Maryland will turn its focus to hiring a new coach for the second time in four offseasons.

Over the next couple weeks, we’ll run through the roster trying to make sense of the season that was. We’ll also have plenty of coverage as the Terps’ coaching search heats up. But for now, with the final whistle a couple days in the past, let’s sum up where everything stands right now.

Things that went well

Maryland entered 2018 with more unknown than known quantities at its skill positions. But plenty of talented underclassmen had breakout campaigns. Anthony McFarland was the most notable of the bunch, totaling 1,034 yards and having back-to-back outputs of 210 and 298. Fellow redshirt freshman Tayon Fleet-Davis added 331 yards and five scores, and when sophomore Javon Leake got the ball, he was explosive, scoring seven touchdowns on 34 carries and adding a score on a kick return. Four true freshman wide receivers—Jeshaun Jones, Dontay Demus, Darryl Jones and Brian Cobbs—made serious impacts as the season went on.

The Terps’ defense checked out as above-average, ranking 55th by both S&P+ and FPI. Maryland tied for the national lead with 18 interceptions. Grad transfer linebacker Tre Watson led the unit with 108 total tackles and five picks, while Darnell Savage, Antoine Brooks and Isaiah Davis also produced week in and week out. Maryland was also solid on special teams, placing 21st in S&P+ thanks to top-35 finishes by the kicking, punting and kick return units.

Maryland’s season highlight ultimately came in Week 1, when the Terps knocked off Texas for the second straight year. The victory became more impressive as the year went on, as the Longhorns won their next six games and will enter the Big 12 title game with a 9-3 record. Maryland almost added an upset of Ohio State, but came up one play short in a wild 52-51 contest. (Ohio State then turned around and curb stomped Michigan, in case you thought college football made sense.)

Things that didn’t go well

Last season, the Terps couldn’t rebound from losing both Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill to torn ACLs. Max Bortenschlager started eight games and finished the year completing 51.9 percent of his passes for 5.6 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. Back from injury, Hill started Maryland’s first 10 contests this year ... and completed 49.4 percent of his passes for 6.3 yards per attempt with nine scores and four picks. Pigrome made scattered relief appearances all year and was just as uninspiring, but his performances against Indiana and Ohio State led many to wonder what could have happened were he given the starting job earlier. Bortenschlager didn’t throw a pass this year and underwent season-ending surgery in September.

Injuries hold Maryland back seemingly every season, but while 2017 was defined by major injuries to a few key players, 2018 featured nagging injuries across the offensive depth chart. Ty Johnson missed three of the last four games of his senior year. Lorenzo Harrison III and Jake Funk played a combined six games in the backfield. Offensive linemen Derwin Gray, Damian Prince and Terrance Davis all battled injuries during the spring and summer, and none were the difference-makers Maryland needed them to be.

The defense was much less injury-plagued, but a couple transfers in the secondary thinned out an otherwise strong unit. The interceptions were countered to an extent by blown coverages and pass interference penalties, which seemed to increase down the stretch. The pass rush struggled, posting just 18 sacks (tied for 111th in FBS). Maryland’s run defense, which was a serious weakness in 2016 and 2017, also limped to the finish. Opponents’ top running backs tallied 159, 157, 109, 203 and 128 yards against Maryland in the last five weeks.

The Terps’ losing formula was rather consistent throughout the year. The offense would go silent, and the play count and time of possession differences would catch up to the defense as close games became blowouts. Five different games unfolded just like this in 2018, including in three of the team’s four Big Ten road contests.

Who’s leaving and staying

The two major departures on offense are Ty Johnson (506 rushing yards on 7.7 per carry; fourth in school history in rushing yards and third in all-purpose yards) and Taivon Jacobs (25 catches for 328 yards, both team highs). Maryland will also have to replace four seniors who started for multiple years on the offensive line. On defense, Watson and Savage will be hard to replace, while the defensive line loses Jesse Aniebonam, Mbi Tanyi and apparently Byron Cowart (who’s been listed on depth charts as a senior since the Illinois game). Punter Wade Lees only played three seasons for the Terps, but was honored on senior day.

On the flip side, the bulk of Maryland’s offensive production will be coming back. Every quarterback on the roster has multiple years of eligibility left, even if injuries will bring uncertainty to that position throughout another offseason. The Terps will also return 80.3 percent of their rushing yards and 69.4 percent of their receiving yards. Expect the defense in 2019 to be anchored by Brooks, Isaiah Davis, cornerback Tino Ellis and defensive tackle Adam McLean.

Recruiting through a crisis like Maryland’s had is almost impossible; the Terps’ 2019 class holds just eight members and is ranked 87th in the country. Attrition among current players is a potential concern, although no rumors have swirled on that front yet. The status of both groups probably depends more on who Maryland hires as its next coach than anything.

About that coaching search...

There are precisely two names linked publicly to the Terps’ head coaching job: Matt Canada and Mike Locksley. Both coaches make sense, but neither would be a sure thing.

Canada has drawn praise for holding things together when they could have gone off the rails. The players seemed to rally around him, and giving him the permanent job could bring some semblance of stability to a program that had two head coaches, two interim coaches and three offensive coordinators in the last four years. But Canada has never led a program, and he’s never held a reputation as a recruiter, and fair or not, it’s hard to get excited about an offensive mind whose offense went stagnant so often.

Locksley has vocal support from prominent Maryland stakeholders and several former players. His local recruiting ties are as strong as any potential candidate for this job, and that might allow him to accelerate the rebuilding process while keeping most of the current squad intact. But before inheriting a juggernaut of an Alabama offense this year, Locksley’s coaching history is rather lackluster. Before coming to Maryland and going 1-5 as interim head coach after Randy Edsall’s firing, Locksley went 2-26 in a messy tenure at New Mexico, which included an altercation with an assistant coach and a later-dismissed age and sex discrimination complaint from an administrative assistant. Has he done enough to overcome all of that? It’s hard to say.

Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is reportedly interested, and recently-fired Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury has Under Armour connections, but no candidates have generated the same level of buzz as Locksley or Canada. With no openings at marquee programs this offseason, the Maryland job would normally be among the most promising on the market, but the well-documented athletic department dysfunction surely takes away plenty of the appeal.

Whoever coaches Maryland in 2019 will inherit a talented core but a team still looking to take the next step. More importantly, though, he’ll have to address the off-field concerns and re-establish some level of trust in the program moving forward.