Brandon Ross and Wes Brown's conversations this August haven't been big picture talks centered on their competition for Maryland's starting running back position or their increased responsibility after the attrition at the position since the end of last season.
Instead, they've focused on the micro, asking questions about the tiny differences they see on plays, little things that could be the difference between a stuffed run and a long touchdown. And though Brown and Ross are both competing for the starting job, the duo views its competition as a chance to boost an overall Terps running game that has struggled at times.
"The competition is the defense, not us," Brown said. "We're working together to beat that."
Brown said Ross and he fashion themselves as "lightning and thunder," a combination that complements each other and could give defenses fits if both are hitting their stride. Last season, Brown solidified himself as the Terps' thunder, a bruising short yardage back effective near the end zone. Last season, the longest of his six touchdown runs was two yards. In road wins over Penn State and Michigan, Brown scored crucial touchdowns in the fourth quarter of both games.
Meanwhile, Ross established himself as a speedier, big play threat for the Terps. He took a screen pass 90 yards for a touchdown against Syracuse and reeled off a 44-yard run against Rutgers in the regular season finale. Overall, he ran for 419 yards — second on the team only to quarterback C.J. Brown — and averaged a career-high 4.9 yards per carry. Fumble issues, however, helped keep Ross off the field for stretches.
"They're going to determine who emerges," coach Randy Edsall said. "But regardless if one guy emerges, he can't play every snap so you're going to at least have two, and what you do is try to take advantage of your personnel and do as many things as you can with the people who can play, but somebody will emerge. I don't know who it's going to be."
Both Wes Brown and Ross have flashed their potential to be feature backs. As a freshman in 2012, Brown rushed 25 times for 121 yards against N.C. State and seemed poised to build on that campaign before he was suspended for the 2013 season. Ross led the Terps with 776 yards in 2013 and set his career high with 149 yards against Old Dominion that fall.
But between injuries, fumbles and general ineffectiveness, neither has emerged as a go-to feature back in offensive coordinator Mike Locksley's system.
"I had a few hiccups last year," Ross said. "I just need to make sure I'm seeing the holes, hitting them fast, getting four yards a pop every play. I just want to improve my consistency big time. That's what has to happen."
As opposed to some of the other position battles happening this month, the running back battle is unique because no matter who starts the season opener against Richmond in three weeks, the other will likely still see a sizable portion of playing time because of the grueling nature of the position.
The pressure to perform and stay healthy, though, will be on the duo. The graduation of C.J. Brown coupled with the transfers of Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii thinned out the depth considerably. Freshman Ty Johnson and junior Joe Riddle, who has never had a collegiate carry, are working with the second team behind Wes Brown and Ross.
"All the backs, we just try to help each other out, make sure we can be the best we can be," Ross said. "At the end of the day, me personally, I'd rather compete against one of the other opponents we got coming up so I don't even pay attention to the position battles on the team. I do what I can in practice and whatever decision coach makes, he makes."
No matter who starts this season, the running game will be counted on to improve on the team's 3.7 yards per carry mark from last season to help take pressure off the passing game. The offensive line has beefed up to deal with the rigors of the Big Ten Conference, and that could provide a boost in the running game.
But the onus will still to fall on Ross and Brown to continue their conversations, searching for the perfect way to break through a defense.
"They're football players," running backs coach Terry Richardson said. "They don't shy away from too much. They have tons of ability, tough, and I think they love the game. They really love the game of football and I think that's the biggest thing that stands out. Between the two, we can accomplish whatever we need to accomplish in terms of running the football. I have no [reservations] about neither one of those guys."