5 things to watch for Maryland football spring practice

The disappointment of the Maryland football team’s 4-8 record last season and the sting from a 66-3 home loss to Penn State in the finale could serve as a catalyst for a turnaround for the Terps in 2018.

It probably took third-year coach DJ Durkin a couple of months to get over both — if he has yet. Durkin and his revamped coaching staff will get started Monday with the first 15 spring practices.

Here are five things to look at between now and the Red-White game on April 14:

The improvement on the defensive line

If there was a consistent weak spot for the Terps last season, it was the lack of penetration along the defensive line after Jesse Aniebonam broke his ankle in the season opener at Texas.

Aniebonam, who remains a redshirt senior after being granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA, will certainly help a line that recorded just 16 sacks, among the fewest in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

If Aniebonam is fully recovered and returns to the level he played at in 2016, when he led Maryland with nine sacks despite not being an every down player, he could lead a much improved defensive line.

If transfer Byron Cowart can start living up to the hype that made him the No. 3-ranked player coming out of high school before two disappointing years at Auburn, it will prevent opponents from doubleteaming Aniebonam.

It will also be interesting to see if redshirt freshman Breyon Gaddy is ready to be a starter or rotational player, as rising junior Adam McLean became late last season.The Terps will have to wait more on redshirt freshman Cam Spence, who is reportedly out for the spring after surgery.

The depth on the offensive line

With three of last year’s starters sitting out the spring following off-season surgery — right guard Terrance Davis, left tackle Derwin Gray and right tackle Damian Prince — there will be plenty of reps for rising sophomores Johnny Jordan, Marcus Minor and Jordan McNair (McDonogh).

All three got experience last season, especially when the injuries started mounting up after the line played most of the year intact. Jordan, who backed up at both guard and center last season, could likely wind up in the middle of the line with senior Brendan Moore moving over to guard.

Aside from Cowart, two of the most intriguing players this spring are a pair of offensive linemen.

T.J. Bradley, who transferred in after being the No. 5-rated junior college offensive tackle in the country (at Lackawanna Junior College, where he played for former Terp and NFL player Mark Duda), is considered a bit raw but has size (6-foot-7, 285 pounds) reminiscent of former Terp Jared Gaither.

So does 6-7, 300-pound Tyran Hunt, who redshirted last season but still impressed the coaches. Hunt will likely get most of the reps this spring at right guard, but will could end up at left guard, which is the direction Maryland’s running backs often went in Walt Bell’s system. It isn’t known where they will go under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

Replacing DJ Moore

Filling the void left by all-Big Ten receiver DJ Moore could be the biggest question going into next season, so all eyes will be focused this spring on a host of possible replacements for a player who caught a single-season school record 80 passes for 1,033 yards and eight touchdowns.

Taivon Jacobs, who like Aniebonam was granted a medical hardship from the NCAA for injuries that sidelined him two years earlier in his career, is the most experienced receiver back and has shown flashes of being a primary target.

Rayshad Lewis, the son of Ravens legend Ray Lewis, caught 40 passes for 477 yards as a freshman two years ago at Utah State. Sophomore Tahj Capehart, junior DJ Turner and senior Jahrvis Davenport all showed potential in limited roles last season.

While it will likely wind up more a No. 1 receiver by committee, one name that has been mentioned as a potential slot receiver is redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland, who sat out last season trying to get fully healthy after high school.

Though McFarland was recruited as a running back, Durkin and Canada might want to get him on the field this season. With a crowded backfield led by senior Ty Johnson and junior Lorenzo Harrison III, look for McFarland to get his touches — and possibly touchdowns — if Canada uses the jet sweep as much as he did at LSU.

Tight end sightings

One of the strangest situations regarding Bell’s offense, especially given the team’s lack of a strong-armed quarterback, was that Maryland’s tight ends did not catch a single pass last season and barely were a factor during Bell’s two seasons in College Park.

Part of that was the fact that he didn’t have many weapons at his disposal. But the well-traveled Canada, who has relied on his tight ends as receiving targets wherever he has coached, should be able to get more productivity out of the position than Bell did.

Senior Avery Edwards couldn’t have been that upset about Bell’s departure to Florida State. As a freshman under Mike Locksley, Edwards caught 14 passes for 115 yards, including his only two touchdowns in a win against South Florida. He caught one pass for 23 yards as a sophomore.

Given the lack of tight ends on the current roster, there should also be plenty of competition this spring. Sophomore Noah Barnes and freshman Chigoziem Okonkwo, one of the team's early enrollees, will get a long look from Canada heading into the summer.

New coaching synergy

One of the more interesting developments this spring will be to see how the new members of Durkin’s staff gel, not only with the head coach but with each other as well as the players.

The most high-profile hire was Canada, who adds Maryland to a list of stops that includes six other schools in the past eight years. Some of those moves involved the head coach getting fired, but others did not, including the most recent one in Baton Rouge. .

Though Canada won’t be able to put his full imprint on the offense until injured quarterbacks Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill return this summer after sitting out the spring while continuing to rehab from ACL surgery, the pace of the offense could become apparent.

While the offensive line will miss Tyler Bowen, who spent one season at his alma mater before moving on to Penn State, it will be getting an accomplished leader in Bryan Stinespring, who spent two seasons at James Madison (going to the FCS title game both years) after 26 at Virginia Tech.

Another interesting off-season addition is Chuck Heater, whom Durkin worked with at Florida and was brought in to coach the safeties. Heater spent the last five years at Marshall, but his resume includes being on Urban Meyer’s staff when the Gators won national titles in 2006 and 2008 and on Lou Holtz’s staff at Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish in 1988.

While Andy Buh still holds the title of defensive coordinator and Jimmy Brumbraugh came in last season to replace Mike London (now head coach at Howard) as defensive line coach, Heater is expected to have a voice in reshaping a defense that has been among the worst in the Big Ten.

Former Terps wide receiver Jafar Williams returns to take charge of the team’s deep rotation of running backs, but given the experience of players such as Johnson, Harrison and rising junior Jake Funk, Williams might be looked on more as a recruiter until he gets settled.

 

 

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°