COLLEGE PARK — Freshman running back Wes Brown sat quietly by himself in the Gossett Football Team House auditorium during Maryland's recent Media Day interview sessions.
Athletic department staff had taped a nametag to Brown's chair for the benefit of reporters. But Brown was like a store unable to attract business on a busy, commercial street. Many media members bypassed interviewing Brown and made their way instead to Stefon Diggs, the highly-touted freshman receiver and kick returner who was Brown's high school teammate.
As he vies for a playing time in a crowded running back competition of freshmen and second-year players, it would be easy to dismiss Brown as merely the other skill-position recruit from Good Counsel. No doubt, Diggs is overshadowing all of his fellow freshmen.
But Brown — the team's largest tailback at 210 pounds — has impressed coaches and stands a realistic chance at quickly earning playing time in the void left by the departed Davin Meggett, who rushed for 2,411 yards in four seasons.
Brown, who was ranked the sixth-best player in the state by Rivals.com, "has got a unique skill set," said running backs coach Andre Powell. "He's a big man and he's got really good ball skills and really good route-running ability. And he's fast. Most of the time when you pair up big and fast in football, it's a pretty good combination."
The tailback competition is among the most tightly contested in training camp. It may be a marquee position, but there is no marquee name.
Topping the preseason depth chart is Justus Pickett, who played behind Meggett and rushed for 294 yards and a 3.7 yards per carry average last season.
Bracing for competition from Brown and others, Pickett has added noticeable bulk this season that he said will help him "run through tackles." He said he gained 15 pounds and now weighs about 195.
"Justus knows that he's got to play. He's competing his tail off every day," coach Randy Edsall said. "There's where I need to get to with our program, where we have that kind of competition at every position."
As a group, the tailbacks are notable for their youth. Pickett is a sophomore. Brown and Albert Reid are true freshmen, and Brandon Ross is a redshirt freshman.
Edsall said he routinely places freshmen on the bottom of the depth chart so there is no undue pressure and because they haven't yet earned anything.
"We [freshmen] feel like we've got a lot of work to do because we see A,B,C and D over the top of you," Brown said. "And they are all veterans ahead of us and they've got the experience of the playbook, so that's where we need to get."
With lots of potential but so little experience, the youngest running backs will rise or fall partly on their ability to assimilate the plays.
"If you ask any of them what's the biggest adjustment [to college], they'll say the speed of the game. But they adjust to that pretty easily," Powell said. "It's the volume of things they are required to know. They've got to be able to protect the quarterback in the passing game. We've got a few more routes than Good Counsel or Friendship Collegiate [Reid's high school in Washington, D.C.] We've got a few more calls on special teams. And it's going to be loud. If they can handle all those things, then they can put themselves in a position to play."
During Friday's practice at Byrd Stadium, it was Reid who made an impression. Known as a darting back at 177 pounds, he slammed into the end zone during a mock scrimmage and was mobbed by teammates.
Pickett hosted Reid during his official recruiting visit, and the two are rooming together. "I have taken all the running backs underneath me since I'm the oldest one," Pickett said. "I told [Reid] I wanted him to come in and push me. If he can take my job, then definitely do it. But I'm not going to allow that," said a smiling Pickett.
Last season, Edsall described Meggett as a "workhorse." But it may be more of a shared workload this year.
"I don't know if it's a three-back rotation or more of a situational thing," Edsall said.
Sophomore fullback Tyler Cierski, whose job appears all but guaranteed, said the more tailbacks, the better. "Having so many guys is an advantage because no one is going to get too tired," Cierski said.
Cierski, who is primarily a blocking back, is a popular player among the tailbacks.
"I'm always thanking Cierski," Pickett said. "Makes him want to block extra hard when I'm back there."
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