Ever since he led the Maryland football team on an impressive 17-play drive late in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s 31-24 loss at Rutgers, much about Ryan Brand’s future with the Terps has changed.
In the immediate future, beginning with Saturday’s home game against Michigan, the redshirt sophomore walk-on could make his first college start if fellow sophomore Max Bortenschlager is ruled out.
Bortenschlager suffered what appeared to be an upper-body injury against the Scarlet Knights after getting tackled hard while trying to get a first down.
Though coach DJ Durkin would not divulge the nature of Bortenschlager’s injury or whom he he planned to start against the Wolverines, offensive coordinator Walt Bell might have given it away this week when he mentioned Brand’s ability to run.
Playing Brand, considered more of a dual-threat quarterback than Bortenschlager, could enable Bell to use parts of the playbook that were all but shelved after Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill suffered season-ending ACL injuries over the first three games.
Considering Michigan is ranked first nationally in pass defense, as well as third nationally in both sacks and third-down-defense efficiency, Brand’s mobility might become a necessity for the Terps at Maryland Stadium.
“Can he run, can he bail us out? Absolutely,” Bell said of Brand. “Would you be scared to run him and make it count? No. Does he run better than Max? Absolutely. Six days a week, twice on Sunday.
“Do you want run him a ton due to some durability issues? Probably not. On Saturday, he’ll probably have to take care of himself — if he’s in there. Is that on the table? Absolutely.”
If Brand does start, it would be the culmination of a three-year, three-school, cross-country journey. He also would become the fourth quarterback to start for the Terps this season, and the first walk-on since Scott McBrien in 2002. Maryland and Michigan are the only Power Five conference teams to start at least three quarterbacks this fall.
A former Elite 11 competition finalist as a high school standout in Detroit, Brand began his college career at Air Force. He left after his freshman year when the team’s quarterbacks coach took another job and the position was left unfilled.
Brand wound up playing last season at the College of San Mateo, a junior college in Northern California.
Oscar Olejniczak, who coached Brand at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, said his former star has often been overlooked because of his size. The only offers in high school for the 5-foot-11, 182-pound quarterback came from Air Force and Indiana State.
Major college coaches “just thought his height was a concern. Everything else, they liked. They also didn’t know how to classify him — whether he was a drop-back passer or an athletic quarterback,” Olejniczak said this week. “They just said he was a great quarterback, but no one really went after him. … He was pretty sold on Air Force, and that’s why some of the scouts just stopped.”
When his brother, three-star linebacker prospect Bryce Brand, flipped his commitment from Arizona and signed with the Terps last winter, the older Brand came along without a scholarship. Going into preseason camp, Brand found himself buried on the depth chart, ahead of only fellow walk-on Legend Brumbaugh.
Brand, who was not made available to reporters this week, finally got a chance to take snaps in practice about two weeks ago. It came after Bortenschlager, who also was unavailable, had been knocked out of three games — with a concussion in the fourth quarter at Ohio State and then briefly with less serious injuries at Wisconsin and at home against Northwestern.
Bell called on redshirt junior Caleb Henderson, whose broken foot in spring practice derailed his own chance at challenging for the starting job that eventually went to Pigrome. During practice last week and the week before, Brand split repetitions with Henderson on the second team.
What Brand did at Rutgers, he has been doing on the practice field.
“He sprayed the ball around a little bit better [than Henderson],” Bell said. “He does give you something with his feet. I just thought those last two weeks of practice convinced us [the coaches] and his teammates that he was the guy to go to in that situation.”
Sophomore linebacker Isaiah Davis said Wednesday that Brand’s performance last week at Rutgers didn't surprise him.
“He’s been doing that since [preseason] camp,” Davis said. “He’s always been a great quarterback. And just like me, he’s been waiting for an opportunity to get on the field and show what he’s got.”
Davis, too, might have inadvertently let the starting quarterback out of the bag.
“He should play well for us this week. I’m not worried about him at all,” Davis said.
Still, what Brand did at High Points Solutions Stadium was a revelation to Bell. He completed eight of 12 passes for 68 yards, He converted three third-down passes and a fourth-down pass before nearly tying the game twice with a 15-yard touchdown pass — the first, to senior Taivon Jacobs, was negated by a holding call, and the second, to junior DJ Moore, went awry after what appeared to be pass interference.
Asked whether Brand’s performance had surprised him, Bell said: “In my heart of hearts, did I think that we would go out there and be as efficient as we were? Probably not, knowing that’s the first Ryan’s been in a game here at Maryland. More than anything, that’s a compliment to him.
“Not that he did something otherworldly or something I had not seen him do before [in practice]. I think that’s a compliment to him. … To see those things transition in a real game … I’m just really proud of him.”
It didn’t surprise his former high school coach.
“He’s always been cool and calm. His football IQ is freakin’ off the charts,” Olejniczak said. “I think that’s what allows him to go into any situation and be able to perform at a very high level.”
Bell said Brand’s performance against Rutgers helped put him in the quarterback conversation going forward. With Pigrome and Hill expected to miss spring practice while they continue their rehabilitation, Brand will continue to get opportunities.
It all began last week against the Scarlet Knights.
“Is that a feather in his cap, and is that something that you’ll always remember about the way he played and the way he rallied those guys? Absolutely,” Bell said. “Will that be a competitive edge for him at some point if push comes to shove? Absolutely, he’s been in there and done that in the most adverse situation you could possibly be in. ... Will that be remembered when we’ve got to make a choice? Yes, sir.”
Michigan (7-2, 4-2) at Maryland (4-5, 2-4)
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Maryland Stadium, College Park
Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM. Also available on Sirius (134), XM (196), TuneIn Radio App
TV: Big Ten Network
Series: Michigan leads 5-1
What’s at stake: Given that last week’s loss at Rutgers likely ended Maryland’s bowl chances, barring upset wins in two of its last three games, the Terps are probably playing more for pride than any tangible goal. After losses at Penn State and to Michigan State, Michigan can’t afford a road upset against the underdog Terps if it still has hopes for making a decent bowl game.
Key matchup: Michigan’s defensive line has helped the Wolverines average more than 3½ sacks a game, tops in the Big Ten Conference and third in the country. While Maryland has done a better job protecting the five quarterbacks who have played this season (25 sacks allowed) than it did last year (49 allowed, second worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision), the offensive line will be under duress against the Wolverines.
Player to watch: Whoever lines up behind center for Maryland’s first snap will be the focal point. If it’s sophomore Max Bortenschlager, it will be interesting to see how often he leaves the pocket and how gun-shy he might be considering all the big hits he’s endured. If it’s redshirt sophomore Ryan Brand, it will be even more intriguing to see how he handles his first college start — against his home state school, no less — after playing so well in relief last week.
Betting line: Michigan by 17