COLLEGE PARK — Maryland quarterback Perry Hills saw — and heard — starter C.J. Brown injure his knee on the practice field Tuesday night, and in that moment he knew the course of his freshman season might be about to dramatically change.
"It sounded like a bad injury," Hills said of the torn anterior cruciate ligament that Brown, who was not touched on the play, suffered while making a cut inside Byrd Stadium. "But I mean, I was thinking positive, maybe thinking just something small. Maybe a sprain or something."
It turned out to be much worse — a season-ending injury that catapulted Hills, an unusually poised freshman, into the role of Maryland's starter.
During Saturday's scrimmage — the first of the preseason that was open to the public — Brown limped up and down the sideline wearing shorts, a heavy knee brace and a red T-shirt with an ironic message in white lettering on the back: "All in. All Games. All season."
But it was Hills who was in, leading Maryland's offense in front of a few thousand fans on a sunny Fan Appreciation Day at Byrd Stadium.
The bulky Hills — who he has good size for a quarterback at 6-feet-3, 205 pounds — recorded a number of "firsts." He managed the offense effectively in his first scrimmage. He met with the media for the first time. He conducted his first-ever autograph session for fans.
"Thanks for coming out, man," he told a young fan who approached him on the stadium's new FieldTurf after the scrimmage.
Not all the attention was on Hills, though.
It was hard to miss freshman receiver-returner Stefon Diggs, who scored three touchdowns.
Maryland has said it will find multiple ways to get the speedy Diggs the ball, and Saturday's scrimmage provided a case in point.
Diggs caught his first punt of the scrimmage on the 32-yard line and went virtually untouched for a 68-yard touchdown.
He next took a kickoff on the 2, hesitated, then burst up the middle and angled left for a 98-yard touchdown.
Diggs' third touchdown came on an inside slant pattern from about 10 yards out. He jogged off the field with Hills, who had run into the end zone to congratulate him.
"It was definitely explosive," senior wide receiver Kevin Dorsey said of Diggs' performance. "It was what we expected out of him."
"Stefon performed well, but you have to take in to consideration that that was the scout team that was out there," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "But he's a dynamic player. He's got good instincts, got good football knowledge, he has talent and he's very coachable and very competitive."
While Diggs is expected to be explosive, the biggest surprise from Saturday may have been how Hills hardly seemed nervous.
There may be several reasons for that.
He says his background as a top high-school wrestler helps him block out distractions when he plays. In his senior season, Hills, who attended the same Pittsburgh high school (Central Catholic) as Dan Marino, went undefeated and won the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class AAA wrestling championship.
"I always thought [wrestling] was mostly mental because you're the only guy out on that mat with thousands of eyes on you," Hills said. "And that really mentally prepared me for football."
Hills also has experience with unexpectedly becoming a starting quarterback. In his sophomore year, his high school coaches summoned him to the football office midway through the season and told him they were pulling the senior starter. The coaches said: "Hey, you're our guy the next game," Hills recalled. He never surrendered the job.
Hills led Maryland's first-team offense on a long touchdown drive in his first series Saturday. The offense was conservative — there were few deep balls thrown during the scrimmage — but Hills showed a propensity for taking off on runs during option plays.
"This offense definitely is a good offense for me — throwing and running," Hills said.
Hills seems to have won the job largely because of his poise and ability to manage the offense. It's not clear whether Hills throws the ball with any more accuracy than backup Caleb Rowe, also a freshman.
"I thought Perry [Hills] had a good day," Edsall said. "Of course, there's going to be plenty of things that he could learn from and get better, but I think that we didn't have any issues with delay of game, really didn't have any false starts.When you talk about the mechanics and the operation of the offense, I thought he handled it really well."
Edsall said of Rowe: "I thought Caleb had his moments. You can see Caleb can really throw the football, and what we got to get Caleb a little more in tune to [is] exactly what needs to be done, and that just comes with experience." .
Devin Burns, formerly a wide receiver, also played quarterback during the scrimmage. After Brown's injury, Burns, in his third season, went to Edsall and said he would like to switch over to try to help the team. He had played quarterback in practice as a freshman.
He said he is still learning the playbook. Asked if learning the quarterback position — again — was like writing a bicycle, Burns hesitated.
"More like a unicycle than a bike," he said.
Note: A.J. Hendy, who was playing safety in place of the injured Matt Robinson, injured an ankle. "I don't know any of the severity of it," Edsall said. "We'll find out tomorrow."
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