The single biggest reason Maryland went 6-7 rather than, say, 8-5 or 9-4 last year was that its tissue-thin offensive line simply could not afford any injuries and the proceeded to suffer plenty of injuries.
Guards Andrew Crummey and Jaimie Thomas broke legs. Tackle Scott Burley was receiving what he euphemistically and mischievously described as “tape jobs” on his sprained ankles every week. Freshman Bruce Campbell got hurt, too. And all of these woes came less than a year after Donnie Woods and Garrick Clig passed on coming back for their fifth years and man-child Jared Gaither finally found himself in academic trouble he couldn’t climb out of.
It wasn’t that the line fared poorly; it actually did better than could be expected under the circumstances. Line coach Tom Brattan stitched together his unit enough to produce a couple stirring performances in the second half of the season (Boston College, N.C. State), and that was enough to get the Terrapins into the Emerald Bowl. But it was not a group designed to take a week-in, week-out pounding, and Maryland topped 100 yards rushing in only three of its last eight games.
The best part for the long-term was Maryland used only one of its plethora of true freshman – guys who should be varying degrees of prepared to help out this year.
Of the five anticipated second-teamers this fall, three of them played plenty last year and another one – redshirt freshman Lamar Young – probably would have if coach Ralph Friedgen had grown a bit more desperate at guard.
And with that in mind, the best reason to believe Maryland could win eight or nine games in 2008 is its offensive line.
There is a chance Maryland (if healthy) will start five fifth-year seniors on its line. Another possibility is four fifth-year seniors and one fourth-year junior. Either way, it’s a fantastic situation for new offensive coordinator James Franklin to inherit.
If the success of Wake Forest over the last two years has taught anything, it’s the value of having decent players who have the luxury of developing over five years instead of four. And there simply isn’t a position where that matters more than on the offensive front.
It doesn’t matter that two of the Terps’ top six linemen – guard Jack Griffin and tackle Dane Randolph – started their careers on the defensive line. They’ve still had the chance to mature physically, and are set to be part of a unit that is especially designed to plow over opponents in the run game.
The Terps have to be especially comfortable at tackle, where Burley and Randolph are the likely starters. Campbell, at 6-foot-6, will be used plenty on the left side, while Griffin and walk-on Paul Pinegar should be capable of filling in for Randolph when necessary.
Thomas is fully healed from his broken fibula and will be fine at left guard, with Young a sure bet to secure some time on the field. Junior Phil Costa and Griffin will make for an interesting camp battle at right guard. Costa’s had more offensive line work over the course of his career, but the difference between the two probably isn’t large. Whenever Friedgen finds a situation like that among his linemen, some sort of timeshare usually follows.
The durable Edwin Williams – who has started every game over the last two years – is back at center. It’s anyone’s guess who would really step in to replace him, and it’s probably not a scenario Friedgen would like to consider. The best bet would be Costa, with Griffin sliding in at right guard and the Terps proceeding with the hope they don’t lose another lineman.
The uncertainty is minimal with this unit, a particular plus with a new coordinator, new tailbacks and a toss-up at quarterback. In fact, the most fascinating subplot is whether Maryland can get its linemen of the future enough playing time to make 2009 a less harrowing endeavor.
It’s not hard to envision Maryland’s front five (from left to right) a year from now including Campbell, Young, Costa, redshirt freshman Joe Faiella or one of this year’s true freshmen (Justin Lewis, perhaps?) and redshirt freshman Stephen St. John.
That could be an inexperienced group. Or it could be a unit that gets the chance to see the field enough this fall to assuage concerns about losing five seniors. Maryland hasn’t made a habit of blowing opponents out in the last four years, and expecting that trend to change simply isn’t wise.
But maybe Friedgen, who has long talked about his dream of having a second-string line he can substitute en masse, can find a series or two for many of his younger guys each game. Investing 10-15 plays a game in a Campbell, Young or St. John now could pay off significantly in the years to come.
Either way, this is an unquestioned strength. But there’s a chance the Terps could learn if it will continue to be beyond this year, and it is an opportunity Friedgen and Co. would be smart to take advantage of should it arise.
Coming Tuesday: Quarterbacks