Maryland positional preview: Running backs

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Now the time comes to turn to the position that features arguably the most valuable player on Maryland’s offense, if not the entire offense.

He was nicked up at times last year, the logical result of the severe battering of his position. When he wasn’t 100 percent, the offense quite clearly dipped as a result.

You think it’s Da’Rel Scott. I say it’s Cory Jackson.

Scott’s return after a 1,000-yard season as a sophomore is heralded as the biggest reason Maryland can maintain or improve upon its 8-5 season of a year ago. And certainly he’ll play a substantial role.

But Jackson was the guy who frequently held things together last season, and his absence at fullback against Virginia Tech and Maryland’s anemic rushing game that night (minus-12 yards) were directly related.

Clearly, there is a divide between Jackson (who is recuperated from surgery that kept him out of spring) and backups Haroon Brown and Taylor Watson.

That’s bad in that Jackson has essentially missed games the last two years (he sat out a loss to Clemson in 2007 and he did not play much against Virginia Tech last fall), and good in the sense Maryland probably has one of the nation’s elite fullbacks (if there’s a way to really quantify that).

Jackson is a vital weapon, especially since he is a de facto extra offensive lineman who returns for the Terps. And Maryland, you might have noticed, is a little iffy on the O-line.

The rugged West Virginian will be blasting linebackers and opening holes for the same group of tailbacks as a year ago. Scott, certainly, will be the starter, with Davin Meggett and Morgan Green filling in behind.

And while coach Ralph Friedgen was not inclined this week to say a freshman would absolutely play, he did mention Caleb Porzel’s blazing speed.

The standard-operation season preview would look at Scott’s fine 2008 (1,133 yards) and superb performance in the Humanitarian Bowl and assert he’s due for bigger and better things as a junior.

Here, though, it is time to look back a year when tailback was a worry spot to some folks.

[Scott and Green] should be an efficient pair in 2008 (though with plenty of end zone visits to go around). The greater concern will come in 2009, when despite all their “experience” and “knowing how to play” and whatever nonsense anyone wants to throw out, they’ll be less likely to have room to maneuver.

It seemed pretty obvious that even if Maryland’s line didn’t entirely live up to expectations, the tailbacks could thrive because it was running behind some big, older boys.

The guess here remains the same as a year ago: The Terps’ running backs will struggle to find holes (especially early) and Scott is far less likely to crack 1,000 yards this time around than last season

The untested line also brings into question whether a starting tailback will go wire-to-wire with the job. There are injury concerns (Scott was understandably banged up last season but missed only a garbage game against Eastern Michigan) and stylistic issues as well.

Scott improved dramatically last season in churning out tough yards, but speed remains his strength and he is most dangerous in open spaces. That space, though, might be hard to find this fall.

Perhaps it is worth looking at how Scott fared against nonconference opponents, in ACC wins and in ACC losses – a pretty substantial progression that starts with plenty of open space and ends with quite little. Each category includes four games.

OpponentAtt.YardsYds/CYds/GTD
Nonconference705818.3145.35
ACC wins
934044.3101.03
ACC losses
461483.237.00
Total2091,1335.494.48

Scott is good, but not good enough to overcome a bumbling offensive line.

Should Scott get hurt (or running straight into a pile become the most effective way for the Terps to run), it would open the door for Meggett and Green. Both are built like wrecking balls, though neither is quite as quick as Scott.

All three will have their chances, especially since Maryland has yet to get through a season with a single back taking the most carries in every game in Friedgen’s tenure. Scott did it in all 12 games he played (a big plus), and took at least 20 handoffs on four occasions – and the Terps went 4-0 when he did so.

Clearly, the worst-case scenario is an ugly picture for Scott and the rest of the tailbacks. But the line could always be better than expected, and Scott could enjoy the sort of season that prompts premature NFL whispers.

It’s not wise to bank on such a sunny forecast, but doomsday very easily can be averted as well. Scott’s willingness to fight through injuries is an excellent sign for the Terps, and the guess here is he plugs through similar aches and rolls up between 800 and 1,000 yards.

It’s hard to hit 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons; Scott only got to 1,000 last season in the second half of the bowl, and only one player in school history has consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (Charlie Wysocki).

Getting there is a possibility, even with Green and Meggett around to vulture touches. But should Scott enjoy another fine season, he’ll most certainly owe some thanks to Jackson – a man whose presence, perhaps more quietly than Scott’s, figures to greatly define how successful Maryland’s offense is in 2009.

Patrick Stevens

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