Maryland positional preview: Offensive line

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One last Maryland positional preview before the ACC Kickoff commences tomorrow, and there were four remaining units.

I like saving quarterbacks for the end, and there’s a solid couple of hours of research I need to do before vetting the wideouts.

So that leaves the running backs and the offensive line. And since the assessment of the backfield has been the same since the end of last season, it seems like the offensive line is the most appealing option to take a peek at.

Except for the fact, you know, that the reconstructed unit is the trigger for either a surprising season of ACC contention or a slide to the bottom of the conference.

Actually, that makes it a superb choice, especially since Chris Turner and Ralph Friedgen figure to be asked about it a whole lot in Greensboro over the next couple days.

The basic plot is obvious to all: Maryland graduated five fifth-year seniors from its offensive line, and five of its top seven linemen overall. While center Edwin Williams had an all-conference season and Jaimie Thomas got drafted in the seventh round, as a group the O-line fell short of lofty expectations and were, put bluntly, mediocre for much of the season.

Which prompts a rather frightening question for Terrapins fans – if those veterans who left were underwhelming, how good are the guys who couldn’t get on the field ahead all of those departed seniors?

Indeed, this thought has loomed for some time. Since before spring practice. Since before signing day. Since before the bowl game, really.

This had to be a thought for any forward-thinking fan when Maryland was getting limited to negative rushing yards against Boston College and Virginia Tech, and when it was getting stifled by a reeling Virginia team early last October.

Especially since, as with a lot of teams, there is some correlation between returning starts and overall record – and especially returning starts and yards per carry.

Typically, these charts are presented chronologically, but bear with me – this is sorted by yards per carry for demonstration purposes:

YearStartsYards/GYards/CRecord
200296198.84.711-3
200180220.74.610-2
200376191.34.510-3
2008113144.04.38-5
200662130.83.89-4
200537134.83.435-6
200749137.53.366-7
200470119.52.95-6
200927

I don’t know where to start with this, it’s so interesting. But there’s five bowl teams at the top of the list in yards per carry, and they are among the top six in returning offensive line starts.

(As a few extra notes worth mentioning:

* C.J. Brooks alone accounted for 39 starts entering 2004, so that group wasn’t as experienced as the 70 overall starts suggests.

* Stephon Heyer brought 25 of the 37 starts into Maryland’s camp in 2005 and suffered an ACL tear. In turn, that bunch was probably the least experienced unit this decade.

* In 2007, both Andrew Crummey and Thomas went down with broken legs in midseason. The yards per carry – and probably the record – would have been better than the 2005 mark had both made it through the year).

Back to the chart. Maryland’s best seasons under Ralph Friedgen came with a powerful running game, a fact that has a the-pope-is-Catholic quality to it. Last year’s “disappointment” was actually better than recent vintage, though the bar was set rather high coming in and there were some blatant stinkers tossed in to dramatically diminish the perception of the unit.

The best years also came with experienced lines. And with just Phil Costa (19 starts) and Bruce Campbell (eight) coming back with any substantial experience, there is serious reason to wonder how well things are going to work out.

Costa, the short (for an offensive lineman) and stout type, will probably be better off at center than as a slightly undersized guard. Aside from the seemingly weekly false start penalty, Costa was one of Maryland’s more reliable line options last year and will be so again this fall.

Campbell is a behemoth, and Maryland’s ability to protect quarterback Chris Turner’s blind side is a significant reason to think a unit that is extremely green overall might be able to do a reputable job. But he needs to have a consistent season, or things could get dicey in a hurry.

From there, it’s nothing but question marks with no answers in sight until Sept. 5. Justin Lewis would seem the likely choice at right guard; he redshirted last season, and Friedgen had to hold himself back from tossing the imposing South Carolinian into the fray.

Even assuming Lewis is good to go, there’s still two other holes that figures to occupy a lot of time as Friedgen, offensive coordinator James Franklin and line coach Tom Brattan figure out just what the heck they’re going to do.

Left guard would seem to be a toss-up between Lamar Young (two career games) and the unheralded Andrew Gonnella, a pair of sophomores. Right tackle is even murkier, with Tyler Bowen, R.J. Dill, Paul Pinegar and Stephen St. John all possibilities.

All are dicey options. Is Bowen’s ever-injured foot finally healed? Is a redshirt freshman like Dill the best bet at a tackle spot? Is Pinegar, the one guy in the group with legitimate playing experience, large enough at 6-4 and 280 pounds to hold up for a dozen games? Will St. John ever develop into an ACC-caliber tackle?

Don’t look here for answers just yet. There isn’t a way to really know until the season starts, and that has to be the scariest thing facing a coaching staff with no interest in having a questionable offensive line drag them to a fourth losing season in six years.

If those three holes are satisfactorily answered, Maryland will be talking about its fourth straight bowl game – a first for the program since the Bobby Ross years. But the Terps will need some unknowns to deliver, and that’s not always a good thing to cast your fate with.

It is much easier to imagine a 2004-style debacle than a return to the beginning-of-the-decade running game dominance that defined Friedgen’s early teams. Avoiding that brand of inertia up front is the single most important facet of ensuring a season that ends around Christmas rather than Thanksgiving.

Can it be done? Maybe. Serious doubt exists, and there’s no reason to ignore it.

But at the same time, there’s no way for anyone outside the program to know for sure. The same is probably true for those on the inside as well, making it an unanswerable question despite the frequency with which the topic will surface in the weeks to come.

Patrick Stevens

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