COLLEGE PARK — Before preseason practice began in August, Maryland released a preseason depth chart with more talent and experience at key positions — notably wide receiver — than in recent years. "Oh, expectations are high. Absolutely," assistant coach Andre Powell said as the team gathered for its first practice.
Seven games into the season, the Terps (5-2, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) say their goals remain the same. But a look at their injury-ravaged depth chart reveals how much more daunting those aims — including a division title and prominent bowl berth — have become with ninth-ranked Clemson (6-1, 4-1 ACC) coming to Byrd Stadium for homecoming Saturday.
The Terps, who already had lost a handful of key defensive players, enter the game without their top two wide receivers and with the status of their starting quarterback and running back in doubt after last Saturday's 34-10 loss at Wake Forest.
By the time the Wake Forest game had ended, at least 10 Terps listed as first-teamers on the preseason depth chart were injured and unavailable. The list began early in the season and has since only grown. It included the top receivers (Stefon Diggs and Deon Long), top cornerbacks (Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson), starting tailback (Brandon Ross) and two starting linebackers (L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson). Johnson, Robinson (Atholton), Goree and Ross are expected to return this season. Goree had been expected to play against Wake Forest but had back spasms before the game. Ross left with an unspecified injury. Their statuses will be updated in Thursday's injury report.
C.J. Brown is medically cleared to play against Clemson, but coach Randy Edsall suggested Tuesday that he has lingering concerns about the quarterback and isn't yet prepared to name a starter.
Brown suffered a concussion against Florida State on Oct. 5 and missed the Virginia game the following week. He started against Wake Forest, but struggled (two interceptions) under heavy pressure (three sacks) and was later replaced by sophomore Caleb Rowe.
Maryland has indicated that the concerns about Brown's health aren't related to the concussion, but rather to an injury suffered against the Demon Deacons. Brown said he has passed all the tests required by Maryland's strict concussion protocol.
The unspecified injury is marginal enough that Brown can practice. But Edsall appears to have concerns.
Brown, a fifth-year senior, is listed as the co-starter on the depth chart along with Rowe.
Edsall said he won't put players into games "if they're not performing to the standards due to health-related issues."
" I think I owe it to those young men to say that if I'm not sure you can end up doing the things you're capable of doing on the field, then what I have to do is put somebody else in there so I don't further risk a young man to injury," the coach said.
Brown was hit hard on two early possessions by Wake Forest nose tackle Nikita Whitlock. The quarterback remained in the game until the third quarter.
Brown told the media Tuesday: "Obviously, I took some hits in the [Wake Forest] game early, and Coach made his decision. I feel comfortable with my body, I feel good. I can't get into [talking about] injuries or details like that."
NFL teams with injury woes can sign free-agent replacements. Maryland is left to mine the depth chart for raw talent and hope enough depth exists to keep the team afloat. Two of Maryland's next three opponents are ranked in the Bowl Championship Series' top 25: Clemson, which is coming off a 54-14 loss Saturday to No. 2 Florida State, and No. 14 Virginia Tech.
Maryland lists sophomore Levern Jacobs and redshirt freshman Amba Etta-Tawo as the respective replacements for Diggs and Long. "We all understand as football players that injuries are part of this game," Jacobs said. "Things are going to happen during the course of the season."
Jacobs caught a 56-yard touchdown pass on Saturday, but also fumbled. "Knowing that Stefon and Deon are down, I know that [the Tigers] are going to try to come at the receiving corps strong and not really worry. As a group, we are going to have to step up."
Jacobs' younger brother, Taivon, a true freshman, was a highly touted Terps recruit. Despite the injuries to Diggs and Long, Taivon Jacobs still appears likely to redshirt this season, preserving a year of eligibility for the future.
"The one thing that we won't do is burning a redshirt that hasn't played," Edsall said. "That wouldn't be fair to the young man. Everybody has got to step their game up. We've got to deal with it."
After starting 4-0, Maryland entered the rankings at No. 25 late last month. The Terps have since lost two of three games, with the defeats coming by a combined score of 97-10.
Brown said the Terps are clinging to their season-long goals despite their depleted roster . One of those goals, bowl eligibility, would be achieved with one more victory.
The injuries present "more adversity that this team has to face," the quarterback said. "We went through it last year. But we're still a 5-2 club. We can still write our own story. We've got a big game this week."
Before the season, Maryland adopted a new slogan — "Hold the rope" — meant to suggest that the Terps would be there to reel each other in, even during hard times. Brown often wears a wristband with the slogan printed on it.
"Our 'hold the rope' mentality means more than ever now," he said Tuesday.