This summer, we’re going position group by position group through Maryland football’s team every week leading up to fall camp. Last week, we looked at the Terps’ quarterbacks. This week, we’re sticking in the backfield, but sliding over to the running backs.
This group was the strength of the offense in 2017.
We’ve explored, time and time again, how ineffective Maryland’s offense was last year. That was mainly due to a slew of injuries at the quarterback position, but also a one-man receiving corps—more on that next week—and an average offensive line that found success almost exclusively in the run and quick passing games.
Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III led with 137 carries apiece, but Johnson’s 875 yards and five touchdowns topped the group. Jake Funk and Javon Leake were the only other running backs to get carries last season. Funk had a nose for the end zone, finding paydirt four times—he added a receiving touchdown against Minnesota—on just 27 carries for 145 yards.
Though the Terps ended up 30th in Rushing S&P+, that ranking is buoyed by big performances against average and below-average teams. Maryland put up 263 and 367 yards in its first two games, respectively. Against Minnesota, the Terps got up to 262. In three games, Maryland failed to break the 85-yard mark. The other six games were less extreme, as the Terps eclipsed the century mark, but only ended up with one win—against Indiana, when 174 rushing yards were just enough.
All of that production is returning in 2018 ... and adding reinforcements.
There was a brief moment when Johnson leaving early for the NFL Draft seemed like a possibility, but luckily for Maryland’s offense, he’ll be back for one last ride as a senior. Harrison should play this season with a chip on his shoulder after he was on pace to crush the freshman rushing record in 2016, missed the last four games due to suspension, and then took a step back as a sophomore.
Beyond the two lead backs, there are a handful of unknowns. Leake looked explosive in limited action last season. He had 99 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries and a couple long kickoff returns. He might be the sleeping in this whole equation.
Funk should resume his role as a short-yardage back and third-down option, but also spent time as an H-back in the spring game. He might be the running back that sees the biggest role change as the Terps transition into a Matt Canada offense. Maryland won every game in which he scored a touchdown last season, so it’d be wise to find a way to get him the ball.
Former four-star DeMatha superstar Anthony McFarland and three-star Tayon Fleet-Davis are each coming off redshirt seasons. McFarland could be the wild card of the entire offense. His versatile skill set as a runner and receiver, in addition to his speed and agility, make him the perfect fit for Canada’s scheme. If there was a list of candidates for a breakout season, he’d probably head that list. Meanwhile, at 231 pounds, Fleet-Davis is the biggest of the bunch, and could see some time at fullback as a result. With such a crowded backfield, he’ll likely have to earn his snaps in short-yardage situations.
It’s Matt Canada’s job to figure out how to use all those guys to make the ground game Maryland’s strength again.
With both Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill coming off season-ending knee injuries and DJ Moore off to the Carolina Panthers, it’d behoove the Terps to take advantage of their deep backfield. Even with a full recovery from either or both quarterbacks, asking them to throw the ball all game doesn’t seem like a recipe for success just yet, and there are a bunch of unknowns at receiver (and Taivon Jacobs).
Canada’s offense has looked different over the years, but he’s typically found ways to maximize the athletic talents at his disposal to run an effective offense. There’s no telling exactly what his offense will look like in College Park just yet, but there will be lots of pre-snap motions, and more than likely two backs in the backfield, and perhaps one in the slot or lined up at H-back.
There are a bunch of intriguing combinations that we could see in the backfield this season—too many to list here. There’s also a chance—it might be a pretty good chance—that Maryland doesn’t utilize all six backs. That’s a lot of mouths to feed and it would be hard to ride a hot hand while also trying to spread the love. Based on the spring game, the most likely scenario seems to involve Funk seeing the field mostly as an H-back, McFarland as a wild card being sent in motion all over the place and Fleet-Davis in short-yardage opportunities. That would leave Johnson, Harrison and Leake as the three main backs, which seems more manageable.
However it shakes out, with all that talent, there may not be a wrong answer. We’ll find out in September and beyond.