COLLEGE PARK — It was the second half of last Saturday's 21-16 loss to Georgia Tech and quarterback Danny O'Brien stood on the Maryland sideline wearing a headset and signaling to the offense.
It's not where he had expected to be.
Midway through Maryland's season, the struggles and subsequent benching of O'Brien — last year's Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year — may be the most surprising development in a season of change.
O'Brien could still start today's Homecoming game for Maryland (2-3, 1-1 ACC) against Clemson (6-0, 3-0 ACC). Terps coach Randy Edsall said the starter won't be announced until game time, but some insiders believe the swifter C.J. Brown — a redshirt sophomore like O'Brien — has the edge based on what they observed during the week's closed practices.
O'Brien's difficulties — he has six interceptions compared with eight all of last season — have occurred as the team has transitioned from dismissed coach Ralph Friedgen to Edsall and his mostly new staff. Thirteen of Friedgen's players with eligibility remaining are no longer with the team. Multiple sources say more players are expected to transfer after the season — a scenario not unexpected given the shakeup of the staff from last season and the new schemes put in place.
O'Brien was expected to provide continuity. He became one of the team's most recognizable personalities after last season, and his youthful face appears on Maryland promotional literature.
Maryland did not make O'Brien or Brown available to the media during the week. Those who know him expect O'Brien, who interned in marketing last summer at Under Armour, to handle the matter with poise.
Asked how O'Brien was faring emotionally, Edsall said he was competing for his job like other players.
"I think his attitude is just like everybody else," the coach said.
Maryland ran a variation of the West Coast offense last season. O'Brien's top receiver and deep threat from last season, Torrey Smith, graduated and is now with the Ravens. His second-favorite target, Adrian Cannon, is also gone.
This season, Maryland often spreads the field and goes no-huddle under new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, who is fond of screen passes. The offense also contains options for the quarterback to run. (Brown runs a 4.42-second 40-yard dash.)
O'Brien completed 31 of 44 passes for 348 yards in the season-opening victory over Miami. While the Terps have run effectively in recent weeks, Maryland's passing yardage has declined in each succeeding game.
O'Brien has been victimized by dropped passes, and he has seemed less comfortable than last season.
He was joined on the bench against Georgia Tech by injured safety-turned-linebacker Kenny Tate, the only Terp selected to the preseason All-ACC team by the media.
Tate did not play at all last week and he's listed as doubtful for Clemson, which is led by quarterback Tajh Boyd, who leads the ACC in total offense.
Two people who know Tate describe a nagging injury that has required a procedure to drain a buildup of fluid. Maryland won't say if it's a knee injury or disclose its severity. Tate warmed up last week before the game.
"It's just killing Kenny because he wants to get on the field and play," said Bill McGregor, who was DeMatha's coach when Tate played there. "You get one senior year, but it's been taken away a little bit."
Last meeting: Clemson beat Maryland, 31-7, on Oct. 16, 2010 in Clemson, S.C..
Maryland offense vs. Clemson defense: Maryland fans likely won't learn until game time whether quarterback Danny O'Brien will give way to speedy C.J. Brown. O'Brien started Maryland's first five games. Clemson has wins over Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech. Tigers rank third in ACC in scoring defense (19.5 points per game). Senior defensive end Andre Branch leads conference in sacks (6) and tackles for loss 91.57 per game).
Maryland defense vs. Clemson offense: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd leads ACC in passing (290.3 yards per game) and has thrown 15 touchdown passes with only two interceptions. Freshman receiver Sammy Watkins is averaging 103.8 yards per game. Maryland will be without injured linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield, its leading tackler (10.2 per game). Linebacker Kenny Tate is doubtful. Defensive tackle Joe Vellano had 20 tackles in Maryland's 21-16 loss to Georgia Tech.