It's Maryland week! This also means it is "sweet dammit please don't make me shed tears again" week. I caught up with Ben Broman from Testudo Times to talk about changes to the Terps' coaching staff, alterations made necessary by C.J. Brown's injury, and the improvements made by the Terps' defense. My answers to Testudo Times' questions will be up at their place this morning.
1.) Last season was rough on Randy Edsall and the Maryland football program, which dealt with a lot of defections. He seemed to lose a lot of fans in the process as well. Has the 4-2 start to 2012 swayed opinions within the fan base? Renewed hope for what Edsall can accomplish in College Park?
I don't know how many people are buying into the Randy Edsall "vision", to the extent that he has one, but the vast majority of people have put away their pitchforks and torches and are willing to see what happens. I always thought that Edsall could be a competent program CEO, because he works hard on the trail and can set the tone of the program rather well, but he needs recruiters and coaches below him. Last year, he didn't have that. Firing both coordinators and replacing them with talented recruiters who can coach - which isn't cheap, but it's worth it - has helped him immensely, and most fans realize that. Thing is, all he's done at this point is start to dig himself out of his own hole, so he's not really winning people over to his side as much as he's just getting them to give him time. He needs to get a fifth or sixth win this season, and then elevate that to about eight next year to get people to believe he's the long-term answer.
2.) Did you guys have any idea that the defense might be this much better in 2012? What's been the difference on that side of the ball?
People expected it to be improved, but maybe not as good as it's been. There are two major differences between last year's porous defense and this year's stout one: health, and a new defensive coordinator. Maryland had to deal with a ton of injuries to key guys last season - especially at linebacker, where Kenny Tate, Demetrius Hartsfield, and Darin Drakeford all missed multiple games - and they usually had to plug in freshmen in their place. They didn't have the depth to absorb that. This year, injuries have been kept to a minimum, especially among key players, and they're reaping the benefits.
The other big change is that Todd Bradford - not-so-lovingly known as To Brafor around these parts - has been replaced with Brian Stewart as defensive coordinator. Bradford, originally hired as linebackers coach, was an emergency promotion last year after Randy Shannon hit some contract snags, and it showed: he was a really, really, really bad coordinator, as bad as I've seen at this level. Stewart, formerly the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, is nothing if not competent, and he's allowed the talent and experience Maryland has to shine through.
3.) What should we expect to see from Perry Hills?
A gritty, tough-as-nails former wrestler who has command of the huddle but is erratic and may not have an ACC-starter arm. Hills walked into a tough situation, and in a perfect world he wouldn't have seen the field for another two to three years. So he's probably doing as well as anyone could expect, especially with no running game to help him and a bad offensive line to block for him. And in some areas, he's actually exceeded expectations: he's weirdly good with his back against the wall, especially in the fourth quarter, and has no problem taking hit after hit in the pocket.
But that can be cold comfort when Maryland's offense struggles, as it has been doing lately. Hills can deliver an amazing throw every now and again, but he can miss short passes and he doesn't have a lot of yardage on his deep ball, which is usually floated and just crying out to be intercepted. The bigger problem, though, is how he struggles with reads, whether on the zone-read option or a regular pass play. He has trouble getting through his progressions, and sometimes misses a defender in the area or doesn't hit a wide-open man elsewhere. These are things that can be improved with time, but right now Maryland doesn't have that. He's starting to limit mistakes, but he's still not good enough for an offense to run through him.
4.) Stefon Diggs can be lethal, but he's only averaging 3.5 receptions per game. Is that a reflection of Hills' limitations/inexperience, or is there something the coaching staff could do to get Diggs more involved offensively?
A little of both, but I think I have more qualms with the playcalling than I do Hills' execution of it. There are certain throws Hills can't make - everyone knows that, including Maryland's staff. At the same time, I'm sure they know that Diggs needs at least seven touches every game, and they're not doing much to get him the ball even though they know Hills can only be relied upon up to a point. They're starting to give him more routes where he's the primary receiver, thankfully, but defenses are keying in on him more and Hills has trouble threading a needle, so relying on that hasn't worked particularly well. He's at his best down the field, but they might need to sacrifice that a bit and start giving him the ball more on quick slants and bubble screens.
To their credit, they're also experimenting with a little Wildcat-lite type of scheme, with backup quarterback (and former wide receiver) Devin Burns coming in on a few snaps against Virginia. He runs a lot better than Hills and is much better at reading the zone-read option, and they can get Diggs more easily involved there. He can come around and be available as a pitch option for Burns, or move into the backfield, get direct snaps, things like that. It's encouraging that they're looking to get more creative, but no one knows if that will work just yet.
5.) Ignoring the recruiting aspect, are you happy with the transition in offensive coordinators from Gary Crowton to Mike Locksley? What sorts of adjustments did Locksley and the rest of the staff have to make in the absence of C.J. Brown?
Locksley's pretty vanilla as far as offensive coordinators go - he runs a dime-a-dozen spread, throws in some pro-style looks, hasn't really yet shown any particular playcalling nuance that makes you think he's an offensive genius. That's okay, though, because at least he isn't batshit crazy like Crowton was. And when I say crazy, I don't mean the fun type of Mike Leach crazy. I mean the bad crazy, the "does he have any idea what he's doing?" type of crazy. Making Danny O'Brien run zone-read options was a cruel joke, and then when he gets in C.J. Brown, who actually can run that, he tries to turn him into a pocket passer. I will simply never understand what went on in Crowton's head. Locksley might be boilerplate and uninspiring, but I can work with uninspiring once the talent catches up. He's a fairly common-sense guy, and he can recruit enough talent to beat most ACC teams straight-up with a vanilla offense. He won't beat himself in the way Crowton did, at least.
Hills is actually similar to Brown in a lot of ways, at least superficially - he has decent wheels and a questionable arm - so I'm not sure they really changed the scheme that much. Very few alterations, except maybe a bit more in the way of pro-style looks, were made compared to what we expected to see. Problem is, they crafted the scheme for Brown with certain assumptions, mainly that they could rely on the zone-read all day long, and Hills just mentally can't make those reads. They also planned to rely on the running game to take the pressure off Brown's arm, which would work with Hills too except for the fact that they can't seem to run the ball against ACC defenses. So at some point they're going to need to adjust to Hills' shortcomings (the zone-read) and the offense's (can't run the ball), maybe going with a sort of West Coast spread - a mini-Air Raid, as it were - to help get the ball in their playmakers' hands underneath, letting Hills throw the ball where he's most comfortable (intermediate routes over the middle). Whether that happens, I don't know, but running the Brown-inspired scheme with Hills simply doesn't appear to be viable anymore.