They know their wildly talented quarterback could break the sort of dazzling run that has so far been confined to the practice field and to his own mind. Or he could bungle the play call. He's prone to doing that, too.
Offensive coordinator James Franklin shakes his head and smiles when contemplating the dizzying range of Portis' possibilities - good and bad. "When Portis comes on the field, there are two people that are nervous - me and the [other team's] defensive coordinator," Franklin said.
Three games into Maryland's season, the grand Portis experiment is entering a critical phase. Portis, who sat out one season after transferring from Florida and was suspended for another for cheating on a quiz, is growing impatient waiting for his moment - that big play he just knows will change the course of his season and perhaps his career.
"It's frustrating sometimes, you know," said Portis, who set a school quarterback record by running the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds in 2006. "God blessed me with a God-given ability. I'm happy for my teammates - Da'Rel [Scott] is breaking one, Darrius [Heyward-Bey] is breaking one. I haven't broken one yet."
The soft-spoken Portis closes his eyes, as if imagining touchdowns yet to be. "Oh man, it's just a matter of time," he said. "I'm just ready to explode."
Perhaps the outburst will come when Maryland hosts Eastern Michigan today. But the litmus test of Maryland's confidence in Portis occurs when the team's Atlantic Coast Conference schedule begins at Clemson next Saturday. Coaches will have to decide whether his talent outweighs his potential for error when the games matter most. "We still have faith in him," coach Ralph Friedgen said. "As long as he's productive, we're going to keep putting him in there."
Trying to surprise opposing defenses, coaches have inserted Portis 13 times, mostly on first and second downs. His biggest gain has been 16 yards. He usually comes out after one play, returning to the sideline as starter Chris Turner trots back in.
Portis has thrown one pass, completing a 4-yarder to wide receiver Danny Oquendo, who said of Portis: "If he doesn't break four or five this season, then something's wrong. He has all the ability to do it."
Oquendo and other teammates delight in rehashing the quarterback's practice-field exploits, which include weaving downfield runs and incorrect play calls - sometimes on the same play. Rangy at 6 feet 4, Portis has an effortless, loping stride.
"He's just all over the place," running back Morgan Green said. "He makes guys look crazy out there. He's really elusive."
His coaches have sometimes found him elusive, too. They have spent hours trying focus his attention on mastering the read-and-react West Coast offense put in place by Franklin, who was hired in December.
Portis lost his 2007 eligibility after being reprimanded for cheating on a pop quiz before the season opener. "I didn't do the right thing, but I can be a man and say what I did was wrong," he said.
Portis, a cousin of Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis, has honed his play-calling with a computer program that is a cross between a simulator and a John Madden football game - joystick and all.
Coaches say Portis has become more adept at managing the offense than earlier in the year. But no coach says Portis is challenging for the starter's spot. "He'll be going along and doing something good and then he'll do something stupid," Friedgen said.
Portis was meeting with the other quarterbacks during spring practices when Franklin asked him to diagram a play. Portis grabbed a black pen and began writing "O's" on a white, erasable board.
Portis was still drawing when Franklin interrupted. "No, stop. Stop, stop, stop, stop," said Franklin, who began tapping spots on the board to illustrate routes that Portis should have identified.
"I don't care if the camera's here or not," Franklin said, referring to a crew member from Terrapins Rising, the team's reality television program that captured the meeting. "I'm going to hold you guys accountable every single time."
Portis, who ran for 163 yards in his only season at Florida in 2005, made his Maryland debut in the opener against Delaware, finishing with 10 yards on four carries. Friedgen said Portis called the wrong play on at least one carry - a 3-yard loss.
Portis, who ran well in the second game against Middle Tennessee State, entered in the first quarter against California last week and ran for 2 yards. He faked an end-around to Heyward-Bey and made an inside cut with a chance for daylight before being tackled by a lineman who had slipped a block. Friedgen and Portis agreed the play could have been a touchdown with better blocking.
But his next play, in the second quarter, was nearly a disaster. Portis fired a pass over the head of Isaiah Williams along the line of scrimmage. It was ruled a fumble and went out of bounds - Franklin said it should have been ruled an incomplete pass - costing Maryland 6 yards and almost the ball.
Portis' teammates all but promise he will do better.
"People have got to understand he hasn't played in years," Heyward-Bey said. "It's going to take a little while. But once he gets going, you guys are going to see something amazing."
Today, 1 p.m.
Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM
Line: Maryland by 21 1/2
Matchup: Eastern Michigan (1-2, 0-1 Mid-American Conference) at Maryland (2-1, 0-0 Atlantic Coast Conference)
Time, site: 1 p.m., Byrd Stadium,
Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM
Line: Maryland by 21 1/2
Series: Maryland leads 3-0
Last meeting: Maryland won, 37-13, on Sept. 27, 2003, at Eastern Michigan.
Maryland offense vs. Eastern Michigan defense: The Eagles have given up 83 points in losing their past two games to Michigan State and Toledo. They surrender an average of 182 rushing yards. With leading rusher Da'Rel Scott (shoulder) questionable, freshman Davin Meggett is next in line as Maryland's go-to running back.
Maryland defense vs. Eastern Michigan offense: Maryland has practiced hard and often against this sort of hurry-up, spread offense since losing to Middle Tennessee State. Eastern Michigan likes to run senior Terrence Blevins, who has 251 yards. Two quarterbacks have played in each game - junior Andy Schmitt and sophomore Kyle McMahon.
using josh portis
The numbers show Maryland quarterback Josh Portis is usually being used on safe, early downs and primarily as a runner. He has been used two plays in a row just twice - both times against Middle Tennessee State.
Took snaps on: First down (four times), second down (five times), third downs (three times), fourth down (once)
Passes: 1 (a throw behind the line ruled a fumble not included)
Completed: 1 for 4 yards
Longest run: 16 yards