At mealtime, the South Campus Dining Room on the University of Maryland's campus is more town hall than eating space, a meeting spot abuzz with the goings-on of class, nightlife and, of course, Maryland sports.
So when an electronic "BEAT WILLIAM & MARY" countdown clock inside the dining room began ticking down the days until Sept. 1 earlier this week , the discussion inevitably turned to the beleaguered program expected to dispatch that same Tribe, A.J. Francis listened in.
The nose tackle shook his head at what he heard.
"The sad thing is, every person that talks to me about the team, all they're talking about is these recruits that we're getting," Francis said after practice Tuesday afternoon. "When they get here, they're going to have to earn everything that they get, just like every other freshman that gets here."
The reality facing Francis and his Terps teammates slogging through spring practice, however, is that the face of their program might be a player who hasn't even finished high school.
Quarterback Danny O'Brien is busy figuring out his plans for life after Maryland. Safety Kenny Tate is recovering from a disappointing, injury-riddled season. Defensive end Joe Vellano remains relatively unknown outside the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, his national profile buried by a second 2-10 season in three years.
The Terp who seems to offer fans the most promise for the future, both near and distant? That would be Stefon Diggs, the blue-chip Good Counsel wide receiver who turned College Park's Looney's Pub into a Maryland-red madhouse when he announced his commitment in early February. On a team with a grim past and an uncertain status quo, the next great hope has yet to put on a Maryland uniform.
"I think we put a pretty big buzz out there in terms of what we did from a recruiting standpoint," coach Randy Edsall said Tuesday, turning a question about the program's offseason buzz into a season-tickets sales pitch. "To me, I think if people understand that the kids we signed in this recruiting class and the numbers that we signed from Maryland and D.C., I think that creates a pretty big buzz. And I know this: If I was here in this state, I'd want to get season tickets and buy 'em because I'd want to come out and see these kids play — the kids that we have here, but also the new kids coming in."
Until the Terps' 2012 season opens in Byrd Stadium, quarterbackC.J. Brown knows it will be tough to forget what happened in 2011. Friends still rib him about last season's debacle, their own "Maryland pride" damaged after a season impossible to look back at fondly. When he hears people sarcastically make their own prognostications — "2-10 again?" he remembered one friend joking — he can understand their diminished hopes following a season low on losses and an offseason high on turnover.
But as he saw the red digits blinking down slowly to zero in the South Campus Dining Room, the season opener nearing second after second, he had reason to smile.
"It's not too far away. It's only 200 days" — actually, it's 157 — "but it's still a while," Brown said. "I'm kind of shocked they already put it up. But, hey, it's never too early."
NOTES: Defensive end Keith Bowers suffered heart palpitations and will miss spring practice, Edsall announced Monday in a YouTube video updating practice developments. He said after practice Tuesday that the palpitations did not come during practice and that Bowers is being monitored.
Defensive end Ian Evans pulled his abductor muscle and will miss about six weeks, Edsall said. The injury does not require surgery.
Wide receiver Kevin Dorsey returned to practice for the first time this spring after an unspecified injury. Edsall said the senior ran individual drills and participated in one team session.