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Five things to watch in Maryland's season opener against No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field

Five things to watch in Maryland's season opener against No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field
Maryland quarterback Kasim Hill running the ball in the first half of an NCAA college football game last season against Central Florida in College Park, Md. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

Given that Maryland has shut off its football team from the media during preseason camp, it’s hard to get a feel for how the Terps have adjusted to interim coach Matt Canada and how far quarterbacks Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome have progressed coming off ACL injuries.

It should be apparent Saturday, when Maryland opens its 2018 season against No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field. While the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair in June from heatstroke could fuel some early emotions, it’s going to come down to the coach and his quarterbacks.

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“It all starts at quarterback,” Canada said Tuesday. “When your quarterback is happy, everybody is happy. So what he does well, we're going to try to focus on that and do a good job with that.”

Here’s are five things to look for in the opener:

1. If 100 percent healthy, is Kasim Hill ready to be a star?

Before that fateful twisting run against Central Florida that cost the talented quarterback much of his freshman year, Hill had shown Maryland fans that he might be the real deal.

Whether it was the way he came off the bench to score a touchdown and help the Terps beat the then-No. 23 Longhorns in Austin, or his 13-for-16, two-touchdown performance against Towson, Hill had it.

Now the redshirt freshman must show he is totally recovered from the knee injury. According to those familiar with his progress, Hill was ready to go in the spring.

Though Pigrome will likely play against the team he tore to shreds before he tore his ACL in last season’s opener, Hill has shown he has the pocket presence and arm strength to be a terrific pro-style quarterback.

2. Byron Cowart could be the most important player on defense.

It’s not clear how far outside linebacker Jesse Aniebonam has come since breaking his ankle in last year’s opener. He didn’t do much in spring practice and his reps in preseason are not certain.

If Aniebonam is close to his old self when he became one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten, when he led the Terps in sacks and led the league in quarterback hurries by a 3-4 linebacker, that’s probably going to mean some double-teams.

That’s where Cowart comes in. A huge disappointment in his first two years at Auburn, Cowart should have some room to move if Aniebonam is healthy. If he can get pressure on the quarterback, that will also help Aniebonam.

In any case, Maryland should have a much better pass rush if the pair can stay healthy. Given that they had 16 sacks all of last season, the Terps couldn’t be much worse.

3. Canada will help bolster his passing game by going to his running backs.

With Maryland having to replace one of the best pass catchers in school history in DJ Moore, there will have to be strength in numbers in the group of receivers who will get a bulk of the work.

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Unless one of the freshman backups emerges early, the Terps are mostly relying on veterans who have spent much of their careers as backups themselves.

Not that sixth-year senior Taivon Jacobs is a slouch, but he caught a fraction more than half the passes that Moore did last season (47 to 80). DJ Turner and Jahrvis Davenport had some flashes, but nothing crazy.

Having the type of depth and athleticism at running back Maryland possesses, Canada could use several of his ball carriers in the slot, such as freshman Anthony McFarland, or at H-back, such as junior Jake Funk.

Assuming Hill is the starter at quarterback, Canada’s need to stay in the pocket will likely lead to quick West Coast offense passes to his backs, as well as using the threat of running with play-action to go deep.

4. Both-legged kicker Joseph Petrino could become something of a cult figure.

With the problems Maryland had at times with its kicking game the past two seasons, the arrival of the 5-foot-11, 175-pound freshman is expected to give the Terps someone who is consistent and also possesses a big leg.

Or in Petrino’s case, two big legs.

Once featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter for being able to kick 50-yarders with both feet, Petrino could become an instant hero in College Park if Saturday’s game comes down to the wire.

If Petrino can stay healthy and get stronger, Maryland’s kicking game can become a weapon that it was when Brad Craddock was having his Lou Groza Award-winning season as a junior.

5. Texas could have the same motivation Central Florida did last year.

A year ago, Maryland’s most devastating loss was a 38-10 defeat to Central Florida, which was on its way to a perfect 13-0 season and a “national championship.”

It also was the game that knocked Hill out for the season.

The Knights came into Maryland Stadium motivated by the memory of a tough double-overtime loss at home the previous season to the Terps, a game won on a 24-yard run by the then-freshman Pigrome.

This time, the Longhorns come into FexEx Field trying to erase last year’s opener and the ruinous debut of coach Tom Herman. Texas went on to a 7-6 season and the pressure will be there for a while.

Given the losses both teams suffered on defense, this could turn into a similar shootout to last year. It might come down to which team has more playmakers — on defense.

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