In crowded Maryland backfield, running back Anthony McFarland finding his way to play

Anthony McFarland during warmups in 2017. Credit: Maryland Athletics
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College Park — As Maryland heads toward the end of spring football practice with Saturday's annual Red-White spring game, one thing appears clear about the rotation of running backs third-year coach DJ Durkin and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada plan to use.

With senior Ty Johnson as the marquee player, it's a deeper pool of talent at the position than the Terps have had in quite awhile — maybe in their history. At least part of the reason is redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland.


How big a part won't be evident until the season begins Sept. 1 against Texas at FedEx Field, though the 5-foot-8, 195-pound McFarland has already started to think about that day. In truth, it is something he has thought about for many years.

"It's going to feel good, playing in front of my family, my friends. I'm from here, [so] every time I step on the field, even my first game, it's going to mean a lot to me," McFarland said Thursday after practice. "That's kind of my dream and what I always wanted to do and dreamed for."


McFarland, a former four-star prospect who sat out last season while fully recovering from the leg injury that kept him out his senior year at nearby DeMatha Catholic High, has shown throughout the spring that Durkin made a prudent decision redshirting him.

Asked how different it feels this spring than it did last summer, McFarland said: "It feels a lot different. Coming in last year, still coming off my injury from high school, I kind of had to sit back and understand I wasn't ready to come and play like they wanted me to.

"There were days when I first came in, I was down because I knew I wanted to play. But at the end of the day, guys like Ty and Jake [Funk] and good leaders of the team came and wrapped their arms around me and told me that everything was going to be OK … and keep working."

McFarland acknowledged that the inactivity led to his weight shooting up with his own version of the "freshman 15" that seems to affect many new college students. It wasn't until winter workouts, when he started to drop the pounds and get his speed back, that McFarland started feeling like himself.

"When I was hurt, that was like a depressing time for me. All I was doing was lifting and putting bad things in my body," he said. "I had to mature and get better and understand that I had to treat my body right. I felt my twitches [in his legs] come back to normal."

With both Johnson and junior Lorenzo Harrison III, a former DeMatha teammate, being given fewer reps in the spring so that Durkin can better assess the depth behind them, McFarland's quickness to burst through holes and his ability to make defenders miss in the open field will add to a rotation that also features Funk, a junior, and sophomore Javon Leake.

"They're all pushing each other, and Anthony really finally looks his old self right now," Durkin said after a practice last week. "He's been tremendous at practice … And now he's finally looking like the guy that we all knew who he is. He's explosive. He's dynamic."

Said senior center Brendan Moore: "He can make some people miss, man. That guy, he can get a little sauce on people. It's pretty crazy if he gets a linebacker or a safety squared up. It's going to be hard to take him down."


Still, based on what Johnson has done in leading the Terps in rushing the past two seasons and what Harrison demonstrated early in his freshman year before being suspended, as well as in spurts last season, McFarland is going to have to be patient.

It is not something new to him.

DeMatha coach Elijah Brooks recalled Thursday how he told McFarland the same thing when he was coming out of middle school. At the time, the Stags had three Division I prospects at running back in seniors Taiwan Deal and Mark Allen, as well as Harrison, a sophomore.

"At the time, Anthony knew the obstacles he would face, but he chose DeMatha because it was the most realistic situation to what college is going to be," Brooks said. "He knew that he was going to be an All-American [in high school] and he was going to be courted by all the top universities around the country and no matter you go, they have talent."

It didn't faze McFarland, then or now.

Nor does he come into his first healthy college season big-headed.


"Ever since I was a kid, I was used to playing against players just as good as me … so I never want people to think I'm coming in thinking I want to be that guy. I just want to make plays and help my team win football games," McFarland said. "It's one of the big reasons I came here."

By his sophomore year at DeMatha, as he was rushing for 1,124 yards and averaging better than 10 yards a carry, the offers started pouring in. Ranked the No. 3 running back in the country as a junior, McFarland eventually chose Maryland over Penn State, Alabama and Georgia.

Even after he broke his leg before his senior year, McFarland knew he wanted to be a Terp.

"Everybody knows I was up here all the time after school," he said. "I would be, 'I'm just going to go up to Maryland and chill with [assistant coach] Aazaar [Abdul-Rahim], Durkin, some of the team. I kept doing that and I would go home and realize, 'I feel comfortable here.'

"It's not like I'm going to visit somewhere like Miami or Alabama, just going somewhere and popping up on them one time. They would know I'm coming and they would prep to do this or do that. I just popped here all the time, sometimes I didn't even call Aazaar and say I was coming."

The scheme Canada installed since being hired in January was welcomed by McFarland.


"The offense kind of reminds me of what we ran at DeMatha my sophomore year," he said. "I feel like I fit well, it'll still early. I don't know what they're going to do or how they're going to use me, but I hope to have a big role and show that versatility.

"When Matt Canada came and kind of showed us how we're going to use our backs, I was a little happy about it, showing us off and not playing one back [at a time], having three backs on the field at the same time. It's a pretty good deal and I'm excited about the offense."

Exactly how McFarland is used will continue to evolve, but there have been indications that he could line up as a slot receiver or be used in a jet sweep as often, or even more often, than as a traditional running back, at least during Johnson's final season.

"That's how we used him," Brooks said. "He's so versatile. We used him in the return game, we used him in the backfield. Then when Lorenzo was in the backfield, we would put Anthony at the slot. It creates a tough matchup for defenses."

While the opener is still more than five months away, McFarland has already started to envision what it might be like. After growing up rooting for the Terps — "watching Stefon Diggs, Vernon Davis and Shawne Merriman" — McFarland is ready to be the next in line.

"I want to be a role model to kids and show that you can do what you want to do in your backyard," he said, "You can win national championships in your backyard, you can win Big Ten championships in your backyard. You just got to get everybody from here to stay home, just like these other universities do … and they come and do great things. I definitely feel confident that we can do that here."