Maryland football coach DJ Durkin seems to get a glint in his eye, not to mention an edge in his voice, when things appear to be stacking up against his Terps.
It happened last season, his first as a head coach, when a 4-0 start faded into the oblivion that comes from playing from the bottom up in the rugged Big Ten East.
It is happening again, after losing quarterbacks Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill to season-ending ACL injuries in a span of six quarters over three games.
In announcing that Hill, the centerpiece of the 2017 recruiting class and a player many considered the future face of the program, had torn his ACL last Saturday against Central Florida, Durkin was also challenging his team.
“Our guys, they’re resilient, they’re going to bounce back. I told the team and I mean it, there’s no one that cares about our problems, and most are glad we have them," Durkin said at his weekly news conference Tuesday. “That’s the reality of it. What are we going to do?
“We’re going to buckle up and go fight and do what we’ve got to do and pick each other up. It’s part of life, it's part of what you learn, it’s the greatest part about football. Here we are. That’s the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s no one’s fault. It’s part of the game, it’s part of what happens.”
Durkin is hopeful that the Terps will respond better than they did when Hill was injured after getting sandwiched between two defenders — one a 311-pound defensive end — in the first quarter of a demoralizing 38-10 loss to the Knights at Maryland Stadium.
The hit Hill endured was felt by his teammates emotionally.
“It was just a hard hit for the team,” sophomore running back Lorenzo Harrison III said Tuesday. “We didn’t respond well to it. Just something we had to go through and we’re just moving on to the next man up now.”
It was far different than the way the Terps played after Pigrome was hurt in the third quarter against Texas and Hill, taking his first snaps as a college quarterback, calmly guided Maryland to a touchdown on his second series and preserved a 51-41 win.
Asked why Maryland didn’t respond well against UCF, Harrison said, “I feel like since it was the same position [quarterback], you know that your starting quarterback got hurt, your backup quarterback got hurt and it was just I guess too much for some people to handle at the time.”
With Maryland (2-1) about to begin Big Ten play Saturday at Minnesota (3-0), Durkin and offensive coordinator Walt Bell are expected turn the reins of what had the makings of a potent two-dimensional attack over to sophomore Max Bortenschlager.
Durkin believes that Bortenschlager will play better than he did against UCF, when he seemed to have problems communicating with his offensive line and receivers. Bortenschlager was sacked five times and intercepted twice, including one that was returned 57 yards for a touchdown.
“Max is a tough kid. He went in a tough spot and I thought it was a gutsy performance. He did really well,” Durkin said. “It wasn’t perfect, but who would expect it to be? He’s tough, he competes and Max has confidence in himself and we have confidence in him.”
Bortenschlager, who was not made available for the media either after the game Saturday or Tuesday, remains the only fully healthy scholarship quarterback the Terps have for now.
Redshirt junior Caleb Henderson was recently cleared to practice after missing around a month with a recurring foot injury and is still not believed to be 100 percent. Redshirt sophomore walk-on Ryan Brand, who played briefly at Air Force, is third-string.
Bortenschlager’s only previous start came late last season on the road at Nebraska, subbing for injured senior Perry Hills. The Terps played conservatively, limiting Bortenschlager to mostly quick reads or handoffs. He finished the game 14 of 29 for 191 yards and a touchdown.
“That definitely helps. It won’t be the first time [playing on the road],” junior center Brendan Moore said Tuesday. “Whenever that happens, it’s good to have experience.”
If anything, it might have been easier for Bortenschlager to play in Lincoln and could be in Minneapolis on Saturday than it was for him at home.
“When you have a week to prepare, know that you’re the starter and go through it all, get more reps [in practice], and get the main share of the reps in what we’re planning on doing and what we’re planning on seeing, your preparation helps you,” Durkin said.
Durkin concedes that the offense might have “some tweaks” to accommodate Bortenschlager’s abilities as more of a true pocket passer than either Pigrome or Hill, but said “our offense can operate just fine with Max there. We’ve shown and proved that before.”
With surgery still ahead later this week, it is not known what the prognosis will be for Hill. After Robert Griffin III tore his ACL three games into his sophomore year at Baylor in 2009, he returned to play a full season in 2010 and won the Heisman Trophy in 2011. Both Hill and Pigrome will be eligible for medical redshirts because they were injured early in the season, according to a team spokesman.
“He'll bounce back,” Durkin said of Hill. “He's got a great future in football both here and beyond. I think that's pretty clear. That guy's a phenomenal talent and doesn't even compare to the type of person he is. He's got a great attitude about it. He's looking this thing right in the face and saying, 'Let's go get it.' He’ll get surgery and rehab and will be back with us when the time allows.”
With a glint in his eye and an edge in his voice, Durkin believes his team will rally around the injured players.
“Kids, players, men are resilient, they’re going to rally,” Durkin said. “That’s just part of it. That’s just great lessons for all of our guys. Piggy’s down, Kasim, Jesse [Aniebonam, who broke his ankle at Texas]. All those guys had big injuries that are going to put them out for a long time.
“You see them every day, you look them in the eye. They’re ready to go, they’re ready to attack it. The team is ready to respond, too. It’s part of it. It’s part of the game, unfortunately. When it happens at the same position, that makes things a little tougher. But it’s part of life and it’s a great way to learn.”