COLLEGE PARK — When Maryland began its inaugural season in the Big Ten Conference a year ago, it faced a flurry of questions about how it could compete among the nation's college football bluebloods, a group of leaders and legends steeped in tradition.
And the Terps more than acquitted themselves to the conference's rigors with a .500 record in conference and its second straight winning season.
But the questions and the doubts Maryland seemed to put to rest with its performance last season have popped up again. The Terps are in the same division as reigning national champion Ohio State. Michigan State has been a consistently tough program over the past five years. Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh to be its coach, while Penn State continued its success on the recruiting trail.
All of those developments have helped to push the Maryland back to where it was a year ago: an afterthought. And while a tough schedule awaits the Terps, they've made it clear there's a fuel driving them forward this season.
"We're just going to bring the hunger to the team," wide receiver Levern Jacobs said. "The team's already hungry. Going into last year, no one gave us a chance last year in our first year in the Big Ten, and I think it's the same this year. Everybody is expecting us to not do so well, and they expect our offense not to contribute that much. I think we just got to go out there on Saturday and show them what we're about."
One of the driving forces behind this year's team is the expected contributions of a number of players missed last season because of injury or suspension. Jacobs (suspension), wide receiver Taivon Jacobs (knee injury), safety A.J. Hendy (suspension) and defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson (knee injury) are all listed on the two-deep for Saturday's season opener against Richmond.
Starting quarterback Perry Hills sat out 2013 and watched from the sideline for most of last season after starting games as a freshman in 2012, and the Terps have a crop of wide receivers who have played but haven't had the opportunity to step into star roles with Stefon Diggs and Deon Long ahead of them.
"We're all hungry to get back out there," Jefferson said. "We've seen what it feels like to just sit down and that humbled all of us. We needed that. I know when I get out there — I know Levern himself too — we're not going to leave any plays on the field. I think we're going see a lot of guys playing hard and leaving it all out there."
Many of the Terps have pointed to a more cohesive team as a reason for optimism this season. The talent and experience Maryland lost from a year ago — sixth-year quarterback C.J. Brown, Diggs, Long, a host of players in the defensive front seven — is undeniable, but it's left a group of players who bided their time and now have the opportunity to step up into more prominent roles.
"It's more heart," defensive end Jesse Aniebonam said in August. "It's more energy. It's more dependency on each other. Last year, we had a few star players here and there. This year we're more of a solid defense, solid offense. We're just trying to pull together in order to be great. We all just have to keep pushing each other. I just feel more of a chemistry between all my guys. We just have to keep pushing."
Coach Randy Edsall said during camp that the coaching staff worked to establish credibility among the players through a merit-based system. The players who performed the best earned starting roles. He minimized politics and repeated often that his decisions weren't based on popularity or preconceived expectations.
That's how Hills worked and played himself into the starting role. Players said he took control of the offense during his first-team reps during camp in such an infectious manner that his energy even carried over to the defense. And by the time Hills was named the starter, his teammates weren't surprised.
While there's a tough road ahead for the Terps, especially an October slate featuring games against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State (with a bye week thrown in), they're adopting a similar mindset that they used last season. There's not much belief in them from the outside, so they're leaning on each other.
"This group, we're one of the biggest families through the years," Hills said. "Everyone's really close and the leadership, I think Coach Edsall has mentioned, is really good on this team right now. So I think we can really do some special things."