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Maryland's new offense could turn deep pool of running backs into receivers

Maryland running back Ty Johnson carries the ball against Indiana in a Big Ten game at Maryland Stadium. Johnson, the team’s top rusher the past two seasons, is expected to be more involved in the passing game under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Maryland running back Ty Johnson carries the ball against Indiana in a Big Ten game at Maryland Stadium. Johnson, the team’s top rusher the past two seasons, is expected to be more involved in the passing game under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

COLLEGE PARK — Amid the change on the offensive side of third-year Maryland football coach DJ Durkin’s staff is stability from the stable of returning running backs new coordinator Matt Canada is given.

Led by senior Ty Johnson, the team’s top rusher the past two seasons, it is the deepest and probably most talented position group on the team. So why change what has worked fairly well under former offensive coordinator Walt Bell?

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For the simple reason that it might even be more productive and more explosive under Canada.

“You look at our running backs and the depth of position,” third-year coach DJ Durkin said before practice Thursday. ”I mean we have a significant number of guys in that room that I feel are dangerous with the ball in their hands as well as can do other things. To me, as a staff, it’s our job of figuring out different ways to get them the ball.”

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Defenses no longer will be able to load up the box on Johnson, Lorenzo Harrison III and others as they did last season, when the Terps dropped from fourth in the Big Ten in rushing (199.5 yards per game in 2016) to eighth (161.7).

Canada will also try to use his rotation of running backs, which will likely include sophomore Javon Leake and redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland, as slot receivers.

With two- and even three-back sets lining up behind a quarterback who no longer will play exclusively out of the shotgun, Johnson can see the short passing game becoming an offshoot of Maryland’s running game under Canada and new running backs coach Jafar Williams.

Maryland's new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, second left, talks with running back Tayon Fleet-Davis during the team's first spring practice at College Park.
Maryland's new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, second left, talks with running back Tayon Fleet-Davis during the team's first spring practice at College Park. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

The best player plays. It’s about winning. I told them, ‘Sometimes the [No.] 2’s hot, sometimes it’s the situation.'


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Said Johnson: “Other backs are going to have learn different spots. That means if you’re in a different spot, there’s a possibility of [pass] routes coming into [play], so there’s definitely going to be a big chance of running backs catching the ball out of the backfield, lining up in the slot or something like that.”

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As effective as he’s been running the ball in his career, Johnson has also shown ability as a receiver, though in a much more limited role. Among his 16 catches for 206 yards as a sophomore was a 66-yard catch-and-run touchdown against Penn State.

Asked if he is looking forward to expanding his game with Canada’s offense, Johnson said: “I hope to do that with any offense. Just the whole part of coming in, learning it, learning other spots as well and just adding to my arsenal.”

One who might benefit the most from the short passing game is junior Jake Funk. Used primarily in short yardage and goal line situations last seasons — as well as a stalwart on special teams — Funk has shown an ability to catch-and-run in space.

“Jake’s doing a lot of things for us, as always,” Durkin said. “He’s one of those guys that can play about anywhere you want him. He picks up on it and does really well. He’s playing a lot of positions for us. He’ll certainly be a guy that’s in the mix a lot for us, offensively.”

Canada might also do something Bell rarely did: go with one workhorse back, depending on the matchup.

“The best player plays,” Canada said after practice Monday. “It’s about winning. I told them, ‘Sometimes the [No.] 2’s hot, sometimes it’s the situation, the team we’re playing, what they give you.’ ”

All those possibilities are intriguing to Johnson, who saw his production dip last season in the aftermath of the injuries to Pigrome and Hill.

After gaining 1,004 yards on 110 carries — breaking a 51-year-old school record with 9.1 yards an attempt — Johnson ran for 875 yards on 137 carries last season. Johnson is not taking anything for granted in his final season at Maryland.

“There’s a lot of guys and a lot of talent here, so obviously you’re going to have to scheme up everything based on who we’re playing and their defense, ” Johnson said Monday. “I think whoever is going and whatever is working, he’s going to stick with that until the defense stops it and go from there.”

Canada’s recent history suggests that he could go in different directions in terms of his approach.

At Wisconsin in 2012, Canada relied mostly on senior Montee Ball, who rushed for 1,830 yards, the third most in the Football Bowl Subdivision, en route to winning the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back.

While the Badgers relied on their running game because of inconsistent quarterback play — including from Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien, who started the first three games before being benched — Ball got nearly twice as many carries (356) as sophomore James White and freshman Melvin Gordon combined (187).

Canada had 1,000-yard rushers in his past two seasons — at Pittsbugh in 2016 (James Conner with 1,092 and 16 TDs on 216 carries) and at LSU last season (Derrius Guice with 1,251 yards and 11 TDs on 237 carries).

For Johnson, this marks the third offense he will be part of in his career at Maryland — and a third playbook he has to learn.

In his fourth job in as many seasons, Maryland offensive coordinator Matt Canada knows that the health of his quarterback will be the key to the football team's success in 2018.

“I’ve done it twice before, so another time is not going to make a difference,” Johnson said. “I think learning two prior playbooks have really helped me learn how to understand and study a playbook so I could learn it quicker, so it’s been really good learning this one.

“I’ve actually taken my time, picked out parts, made like little hints and tips about how to remember a play, how it’s blocked. It’s not really such a big deal. It’s just kind of annoying to learn another one but I’ve done it twice before, so another time is not going to hurt.”

As is his nature, Johnson took the departure of Bell in stride. While he acknowledged that the thought of forgoing his senior year, as wide receiver DJ Moore and cornerback JC Jackson did, was a consideration, Johnson returned for several reasons.

“My degree is very important to me and I just thought one more season of developing and getting school out of the way wouldn’t be such a bad idea,” Johnson said. ““It was a lot of things pulling me to leave and everything, but I’m glad I decided [to return].”

Canada is hoping that the versatility of his backs — from the speed of Johnson to the shiftiness of Harrison to the power and speed of Leake — will make it tough on opposing defenses, which he hopes to put at an immediate disadvantage.

“I think it’s a lost art a little bit,” Canada said. “It’s not like every week you run the same plays. You find Waldo. Wherever the weakest player on the [defensive] team is, every team has one. ... We would have to say, who gives us the best chance to move the ball? That’s what we do.”

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