After Adam McLean tackled Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey for a one-yard loss late in Maryland’s 42-39 win over the Hoosiers on homecoming last month, the sophomore defensive tackle raised his arms and celebrated with a few of his teammates.
It was not the first tackle McLean had made since finally getting on the field on a regular basis earlier in the season for the Terps, yet it brought a different feeling than the others. Given that Maryland was holding onto a 35-33 lead at the time, it meant something to the team and McLean.
“It definitely is a confidence builder, it makes you believe you can really be out there,” McLean said Wednesday. “Coming from seeing a couple of reps in previous games to making big-time plays, that did a lot for me. It made me feel like I belong in this position.”
The play was similar to many McLean had made at Quince Orchard High in Montgomery County before his career there ended when he tore the ACL in his right knee midway through his senior year. For a former four-star prospect who was among the highest-rated players in DJ Durkin’s first recruiting class, it was a bumpy road back.
Along with the conditioning program under strength coach Rick Court that helped him drop the weight he gained after the knee injury — the now 295-pound McLean had ballooned to 340 last year — what also served as a catalyst were the end of the team’s Monday practices.
A year ago, Durkin had started using the last period of his team’s first practice every week for players who had either not played a single down or were not getting many reps during the team’s game preparation. Durkin began holding mini-scrimmages for the last 12 to 15 minutes.
While it doesn’t sound like much to get a player prepared for the speed and physicality that he might encounter in a real game, Durkin believes it has become a vital part of the rebuilding of the Maryland football program.
Durkin had seen it done in different ways at other schools where he worked.
“You’re always making sure that the young guys are continuing to develop, their only reps are not just scout team reps where they’re trying to give the look of another team,” Durkin said during his teleconference with local reporters on Thursday.
“With the way our team is set up right now, we’re very heavy with young, talented guys that need to come along and learn about college football. We spend a really good amount of time with them. We do a full practice with them, we do individual, we do group, we do team just with those guys.”
Durkin and his staff keep count of how many snaps each player has taken during the season both at practice and in games.
“I’m just trying to keep our snap count somewhat similar so that when you go through the season, you can say everyone got a fair opportunity of improving and make themselves better at their position,” said Durkin, whose team plays at No. 22 Michigan State on Saturday.
Traditionally, teams cut down on the amount of hitting they do at practice as injuries mount. In this case, Durkin was allowing promising players such as McLean to get the kind of experience they weren’t quite ready for on Saturday.
“For the guys that would scrimmage and go full pads, that would be like our game,” McLean said. “If you didn’t travel on the weekend or play in the game, you’d have a Friday [weight] lift and then you were off. You knew on Monday, you’d have a scrimmage and the rest of the team was out there watching.”
McLean admitted that playing in front of the veteran players could be a little nerve-wracking.
“It’s a different kind of pressure, because you want to also show the guys what you could do,” McLean said. “If you’re not traveling or if you’re on the scout team, you’re not getting reps with the guys who are playing. You kind of show what you can do.”
In his case, McLean showed enough to slowly work his way into the rotation on the defensive line earlier this season. His reps increased, as did his role, to the point where McLean made his first start as a college player last week against Michigan.
“Adam’s doing really well, he’s really coming on,” Durkin said after Maryland lost to the Wolverines, 35-10. “He’s practicing well, just go throughout a week of preparing, just get yourself ready to play, both on the field and off the field, knowing your assignment.”
Said McLean, who after not playing in three of the first four games this season has now played in the last six, “I feel blessed to get the opportunity. … This is where I was supposed to be the entire time. Just having fun with the team and making plays.”
Durkin has often said that it’s more difficult for linemen to see playing time as true freshmen, and what offensive guard Terrance Davis did last season, starting his last nine games, was a rarity. Even this year, four-star defensive linemen Cam Spence and Breyon Gaddy have yet to get on the field.
Even if he wasn’t coming off knee surgery, it likely would have been the same for McLean last season.
“As a freshman, you don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. “It’s a different ballgame, it’s a different speed from high school and you kind of rely on the older guys to kind of paint the picture as to how things are supposed to work. … It all comes with time and maturity.”
Redshirt freshman Brian Plummer has also started to see some playing time, though the former three-star prospect from Westminster (South Carroll) has more competition in front of him on the offensive line than McLean has on the defensive line.
Not only did the Terps bring back four of their five starters on the offensive line from last season, but the addition of three former four-star prospects in freshmen Johnny Jordan, Marcus Minor and Jordan McNair (McDonogh) has kept Plummer from getting many snaps.
Plummer, whose appearance against Michigan was the second of his career, believes the competition will help him improve.
“It’s definitely motivational, and it’s like a good kind of pressure,” he said. “There’s always people trying to get playing time. It’s good that we have a lot of well-recruited guys and me being like a pretty small-time recruit, it’s good playing alongside those guys.”
Plummer has come to appreciate the last period of practice every Monday.
“As a redshirt freshman now, you realize that not everyone can play in game, it’s good to have that time to get those reps and get better, build yourself up … and get used to the feel of the game,” Plummer said. “Getting to play with the fast-paced offense, those scrimmages really help.”
Plummer admits that getting whatever playing time he has received this season is a reward.
“It’s a great feeling, because you practice and put in all the time, then you finally show everyone what you can do and contribute to the team in a bigger way,” Plummer said.
A year ago, McLean played a few snaps in the season opener against Howard when his surgically repaired knee flared up. Now healthy and in the best shape of his life, McLean is hoping to use those Monday intrasquad battles as a catalyst to a successful college career.
Once known mostly for his social media presence as the recruit behind #TheMovement to get local players to stay home, McLean wants a lot more than a few retweets.
“This is where I was supposed to be the entire time,” he said. “Just having fun with the team and making plays.”
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.
Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM; Also available on Sirius (83), XM (83), TuneIn Radio App
Series: Michigan State leads 6-2
What’s at stake: At this stage, the Terps are trying to play spoilers when it comes to teams near the top of the Big Ten East jockeying for bowl bids. The Spartans probably have vivid memories of last year’s loss at Maryland and will be looking for a little payback against a wounded team.
Key matchup: With the forecast for windy and wet weather impacting the game, the key battle will be in the trenches. Maryland has run the ball pretty well for much of the season despite not having a running quarterback. The Spartans pass better than they run, so that could help the Terps.
Player to watch: As a freshman last season, Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke struggled throwing against Maryland, completing just 11 of 24 passes for 156 yards. But he also had 79 yards on 10 carries rushing, and with the bad weather expected, could be trying to do that again.