Maryland football coach DJ Durkin has always used competition in practice to determine the pecking order on his team's depth chart. It doesn't matter whether the head-to-head battles were taking place at spring workouts in April, preseason camp in August or at the end of his first season last fall.
A year after then-senior Perry Hills emerged from a goup of quarterback candidates and was quickly named the starter in preparation of the season opener against Howard, the battle to be No. 1 on the depth chart this season likely won't be decided until right before the Sept. 2 opener at Texas.
It comes down to a simple factor.
"Just the best guy, the guy that gives us the best chance to win," Durkin said Tuesday, the day before the team opened practice.
What this year's group of candidates — redshirt junior transfer Caleb Henderson, sophomores Tyrrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager, as well as true freshman Kasim Hill — lack in experience, Durkin and offensive coordinator Walt Bell said they make up for in potential.
Still, there's mix of uncertainty and excitement surrounding what is arguably the biggest question mark for the Terps going into the 2017 season. And it could ultimately determine whether Maryland can improve on — or even match — the six games the team won last season with a more difficult schedule in Durkin's second year.
Those vying for the job bring different attributes to the position.
Pigrome, who served as Hills' main backup for most of last season and started against Minnesota, is more of a runner. Bortenschlager, who was a surprise last-minute starter at Nebraska in the regular season finale, is a pro-style pocket passer. Henderson, who was a backup for two years at North Carolina, as well as Hill, can do both.
"The way our offense is structured, if we can get a guy that can run and throw, that's great, that helps. If it's a more pocket-type passer, that's fine. We'll structure it that way too," Durkin said. "There a lot of different ways we can do it.
"The good news is, if you look at the quarterback position and the four guys competing for it, you go out and watch them all throw, watch them run, you'd say I'd love to have any one of them. To me, it's the guys who make the best decisions, who are the best leaders and have that 'it' factor."
Junior running back Ty Johnson said that it's not shocking to see so much attention paid to who'll be Maryland's starting quarterback since many other teams, including the Longhorns, could have similar battles ensue over the next few weeks.
"That's just what people label it in general, as the most important spot," Johnson said at last week's Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. "I think our guys are making great strides with their performance on and off the field. When it comes camp time we'll see."
The biggest buzz surrounds Hill, the centerpiece of a 2017 recruiting class ranked in the top 20 nationally. Durkin has no qualms about the possibility of starting a true freshman, especially one as talented as the former St. John's College High star.
While Durkin acknowledges that "there's a difference with that position, in many ways, no matter what," compared to starting freshmen at other spots, he quickly added, "We won't make this decision on 'he's a freshman, he's not ready.' It's going to be what he's done on the field."
Hill attended spring practices "about every day" and also was part of a small group of incoming freshmen to enroll for the first semester of summer school in June, allowing him to participate in informal workouts and start developing chemistry with his receivers.
"He's locked in, he's studious, he understands the game, when he's there, he's not just sitting there hanging out, he's watching what's going on and learning," Durkin said of the former four-star prospect. "That'll certainly serve him well and help him for sure."
Hill's presence at spring practice might have been special motivation for Pigrome, who Durkin said has come further than any of those he's competing against.
"He's head and shoulders above beyond what he was last year," Durkin said of
Pigrome. "Going through the spring, he just feels at ease in the spot. I think he had a great spring. He has tremendous ability."
Durkin doesn't believe that splitting the reps among as many as four quarterbacks in the next few weeks will hurt whoever wins the job when it comes to gaining confidence in himself and with his teammates.
"We have a plan for how we're going to handle the reps going into camp, we don't have it that by this day, narrow it down to two, I'm going to let it sort out on the field," Durkin said. "The greatest part about having competitions at positions and having competitive practices is that the players decide it. ... Sometimes you don't until you get to a game."
What seemed clear last season was that because of Hills' inability to throw downfield as well as a penchant to stay in the pocket too long, the Terps could not take full advantage of having a talented receiver such as junior D.J. Moore. It also made defenses load up on Maryland's running game, led by Johnson and then-freshman Lorenzo Harrison Jr.
The Terps were 10th in the Big Ten in passing with 178.2 yards a game, compared to fourth in rushing at 199.5 yards.
"You've got to be able to throw the football vertically and stretch the field," Durkin said. "It's our job to help our running game by being two-dimensional, by creating more plays down the field with the passing game, by throwing the ball on the perimeter, throwing the ball downfield, stretching the field, opening it up."
Said Johnson, "They all have an arm, so there always is that downfield threat. We have receivers like D.J. Moore and Taivon Jacobs, guys that can run downfield and just catch anything. It's going to show up as different than in previous years. ... They're going to give us more weapons in our arsenal to compete with."