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Maryland football enters spring practice with a loaded group of running backs

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Our spring football positional rundown brings us to arguably the Terps’ strongest unit.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

For several years now, Maryland football has been at its best when it’s running the ball. The injury carousel that has inflicted Terrapin quarterbacks at an inconceivable rate miraculously hasn’t spread through the backfield. Maryland rushed for 1,940 yards in 2017, the exact same number it recorded through the air.

This season, 95 percent of those rushing yards are coming back.

Ninety-five percent. And the rest was from a wide receiver and a quarterback.

It’s a backfield with two established stalwarts in senior Ty Johnson and junior Lorenzo Harrison, who earned the “Presidential Backfield” moniker before combining for 1,497 yards on the ground last fall. Two more backs who outperformed their roles in 2017 also return, and two redshirt freshmen are right in the mix as spring practice begins. This is Maryland’s most loaded position group, and it’s not close.

The excitement starts with Johnson and Harrison.

Johnson was one of the least-hyped 1,000-yard rushers in the country as a sophomore; he would have led the nation in yards per carry had he been given enough to qualify. After two more dominant performances to start 2017, his signature breakaway runs largely disappeared after Maryland lost its top two quarterbacks and opponents started stacking the box. Johnson rushed for 875 yards (6.4 per carry) with five touchdowns in somewhat of a “down year.” His burst hasn’t gone anywhere, and if he can thrive in new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme, his final season has incredible potential.

“It’s just the whole part of coming in, learning [the offense], being able to learn other spots as well, and just adding that to my arsenal,” Johnson told reporters Monday.

Harrison’s numbers took a similar downturn; his 622 yards and three scores were both down from the 633 and five in his freshman campaign, which lasted only nine games before an indefinite suspension for his role in an Airsoft gun incident. But his abilities are still on full display as well. Maryland is entering its third and final season with the tandem, and the Terps are still looking to maximize its potential.

The wild card is now in the mix.

Anthony McFarland is still the second-highest-rated prospect to commit to Maryland under DJ Durkin, behind only former high school teammate Terrance Davis. The nation’s No. 99 overall prospect in 2017 pledged to Maryland right before National Signing Day, but because of an injury he suffered before his senior year in high school, McFarland still wasn’t ready to produce for the Terps right away.

With spring ball now underway, though, he’s on the field and appears fully healthy, and a healthy McFarland was impressive to watch at Monday’s open practice. He’s long been lauded for his versatility and pass-catching abilities, which on the surface makes him a perfect fit for Maryland’s new offense. Aspects of coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme appear tailor-made to McFarland’s skill set, with Pittsburgh’s Quadree Henderson a frequently referenced comparison.

If McFarland stays on the field, he should be an impact player all season. Head coach DJ Durkin has said he can be an “All-American-type player here,” and even if Johnson and Harrison receive the majority of the carries, some of McFarland’s talent should shine through immediately.

The rest of the position is still looking strong.

Maryland went 4-0 last season when Jake Funk scored a touchdown and 0-8 when he did not. The former Damascus superstar seemed to emerge as the Terps’ go-to short-yardage back last year, and it’s hard to envision a scenario where he isn’t an impact player again if healthy. The same can be said for Javon Leake, who received only nine carries as a freshman but averaged 11 yards a pop.

Rounding out the six scholarship backs is redshirt freshman Tayon Fleet-Davis. At 5’11, 231 pounds, Fleet-Davis appears to fit the mold of a power back that Maryland didn’t have last year. It remains to be seen how Canada uses him, and how often, but he shouldn’t be an afterthought.

With nearly six months until actual football games, projecting the depth chart doesn’t do much good right now. At Monday’s practice, Johnson ran most with the ones, while Harrison and McFarland seemed to receive a relatively equal shake behind him. But this competition will be intense for six more months, and the backfield should bring plenty of firepower into the season.