When newly hired football coach Bobby Ross asked him to be Maryland’s offensive coordinator in 1982, Ralph Friedgen wanted to know more about the team’s quarterbacks before accepting the job. He called Jerry Claiborne, who had just left the Terps after 10 seasons to coach Kentucky.
“He said, ‘We only have one quarterback that has a chance [to be any good], and that’s Stan Gelbaugh,’ ” recalled Friedgen, who was then Frank Beamer’s offensive coordinator at Murray State. “I go out on the first day of spring practice and I thought, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got three guys that can play.’ ”
Claiborne failed to mention the team’s returning starter, junior Boomer Esiason, and sophomore Frank Reich. Along with Gelbaugh, a promising freshman at the time, they helped the Terps win three straight Atlantic Coast Conference titles (1983-85) and start more than two decades of strong quarterback play.
But in the eight seasons since Friedgen was fired following a 9-4 record in 2010 — helped by an unexpectedly strong performance by Danny O’Brien, who was named ACC Freshman of the Year — the play of Maryland’s quarterbacks has been spotty at best.
It’s why Mike Locksley knew that improving the level of talent in the quarterback room was a priority after being named coach of the Terps last December.
“I knew it had to get to this point, which is why we put a lot of energy and effort into recruiting,” Locksley said after practice Tuesday night.
Though unsuccessful in enticing Jalen Hurts to join him after the former Alabama quarterback visited College Park before choosing Oklahoma, Locksley brought in Virginia Tech graduate transfer Josh Jackson and signed four-star prospect Lance LeGendre.
Locklsey also saw improvement from redshirt sophomore Tyler DeSue in the spring and redshirt junior Tyrrell Pigrome in preseason camp this month.
“The grad transfer market we were heavily involved in, and were fortunate to be able to bring in Josh,” Locksley said. “The high school market, a guy like Lance was still out there that we were able to [sign] because of previous relationships. It was huge. And Piggy’s development, I think to me that has probably been the biggest storyline of camp.”
That is also why Locksley’s most important decision to date will be naming his starter for Maryland’s Aug. 31 opener against Howard. It appears that Jackson, who was among the top freshmen quarterbacks in the country two years ago with the Hokies, will win the No. 1 job, though Pigrome has made a strong push in recent weeks and could supplant him.
If Locksley learned anything in his three years at Alabama, it’s not to go into preseason camp with any preconceived notions about who the starter should be.
“I think our players understand this and we find this out pretty quickly — you’re judged by what you do today and what you do now,” Locksley said Tuesday. “Competition is always going to be there. We’re going to always recruit the best players we can possibly recruit every year.
“For a guy who feels like he’s established, everybody should have a little bit of competition and I think it’s been really healthy. I think it’s what’s pushed and improved Piggy. Again he’s probably one of the guys that’s benefited most from bringing in the competition because he’s really risen to the occasion.”
Locksley said in the spring that much of his offensive philosophy is derived from the time he spent as a member of Friedgen’s staff, serving as running backs coach and eventually recruiting coordinator from 1997 to 2002.
“It starts first and foremost with what your quarterback is capable of doing,” Locksley said. “If I have a quarterback that’s not a great thrower, I would not be very smart as a coach to incorporate a whole bunch of passing concepts until I develop him in that area because our goal is to develop our quarterbacks to be able to do both [pass and run], obviously.”
Friedgen said that how a quarterback transitions from high school to college — or from one college team to another, in Jackson’s case — is among the most difficult things for coaches to project.
“In recruiting quarterbacks, it’s more than just evaluating their physical talents,” Friedgen said. “You can get a guy who can throw the ball, he can be pretty accurate, might be mobile. But if he can’t read defenses or he can’t handle the playbook, it doesn’t matter how talented he is because he can’t function.
“I always thought your quarterback had to be one of your tougher kids. Not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. He’s got to be able to take a hit and get up and he’s got 10 other [pairs of] eyes on him to show he’s one of the boys, he’s going to play. And he’s been able to handle the criticism, and some can’t handle that.”
A stretch of success
It’s fair to say no quarterback wearing a Maryland uniform has made a lasting impact on the program since Shaun Hill and Scott McBrien. They helped Friedgen’s 10-year tenure as the coach of his alma mater get off to a rousing start, with three straight double-digit win seasons beginning in 2001.
“I got lucky with the two of them,” said Friedgen, who retired from coaching after spending the 2014 and 2015 seasons on the staff at Rutgers.
After Hill, who transferred to Maryland from junior college, led the Terps to a 10-3 record, an ACC title and a berth in the Orange Bowl in his only season as a starter in 2001, the No. 1 quarterback job seemed to be up for grabs.
It opened the door for McBrien, who had been passed over by former Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden despite leading DeMatha to a 13-0 record without throwing a single interception as a senior. A backup at West Virginia as a freshman, McBrien was told by new coach Rich Rodriguez that he wouldn’t be playing much in the future.
Bill McGregor, DeMatha’s longtime coach, called Friedgen to see if he would take McBrien, even as a walk-on.
“I didn’t know anything about the kid,” recalled Friedgen. “I took him because Bill McGregor was the coach at DeMatha, so why would I want to piss off the coach at DeMatha?”
Three weeks into spring practice, Friedgen had seen enough of McBrien running the scout team to give him a scholarship.
After the Terps started the 2002 season 1-2 with blowout losses to Notre Dame and No. 5 Florida State, McBrien helped Maryland to an eight-game winning streak and a No. 18 national ranking. The season was punctuated with a 30-3 victory over Tennessee in the Peach Bowl, giving the Terps 11 wins for the first time since 1976. McBrien was named Peach Bowl MVP.
He followed it by leading Maryland to another 10-win season in 2003 (and earning another MVP award in a 41-7 win over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl), finishing his career in College Park with 5,169 passing yards, 34 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
He also became the benchmark against which all future Terps quarterbacks were measured.
Few since have even come close to putting up the kind of numbers the left-hander did, and no one has even approached the kind of success the team had during Friedgen’s first three seasons, including Friedgen himself.
Since McBrien graduated, only O’Brien has had a comparable stat line for one season (throwing for 2,438 yards with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2010). C.J. Brown is the only quarterback since to lead the Terps to back-to-back winning seasons (7-6 in both 2013 and 2014), the only modestly successful stretch since Friedgen’s departure.
The last Maryland quarterback to be taken in the NFL draft was Scott Zolak, a fourth-round pick of the New England Patriots in 1991.
“A lot of these kids they recruited were rated to be high quarterbacks,” Friedgen said. “The one kid from Gilman [Shane Cockerille] was supposed to be a great quarterback and ended up playing linebacker. And they’ve had injuries to quarterbacks the last couple of years, and that can happen. It happened to us and even if it’s not for the whole season, it’s not the greatest situation.”
Sam Hollenbach, who started two seasons, was the last Maryland quarterback to play in every game in a season when he led the Terps to a 9-4 record in 2006. Injuries the next two years derailed the promising career of Jordan Steffy and most recently did the same to Kasim Hill.
Hill, a four-star prospect who played his first three high school seasons at Gilman, appeared to be a potential college star when he came in after Pigrome tore his ACL in the opener at Texas in 2017 and preserved the lead in a road upset of the No. 23 Longhorns. Two weeks later against Central Florida, his season was also lost to a torn ACL.
Hill came back to beat out Pigrome for the starting job last season and led the Terps to another opening-game win over No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field, but played inconsistently before suffering a second torn ACL at Indiana. He has since left Maryland.
Unless Pigrome wins the job, the Terps could start the season with a different quarterback for a third straight year. And with players seemingly putting their names in the NCAA transfer portal if they don’t see a future as a starter at a particular school, it makes the idea of developing talent seem almost like an ancient practice for coaches.
“The coaches that survive are the ones who embrace this free agency, if you will,” said Big Ten Network analyst and former Division I coach Gerry DiNardo, who is in favor of the portal. “I do think the quarterback is different, because it’s a single position and it’s very important. The only solution for coaches is to embrace it and figure it out.”