As his first season as Maryland’s starting quarterback wound down, Sam Hollenbach quickly would survey the field before throwing to explosive playmaker Vernon Davis.
It wasn’t an illogical decision — good things tended to happen when the tight end had the ball — yet the predictability led defenses to double team Davis.
Still, the throws went his way, with some of them winding up among the eight interceptions Hollenbach tossed in his final four starts.
So if there were two things Hollenbach knew he needed to improve as a senior, it was locating the free safety after taking a snap and rationally progressing through his reads rather than latching on to a particular receiver.
His work at both has helped Maryland (6-2, 3-1 ACC) secure bowl eligibility for the first time in three years while keeping the Terrapins in a division title chase. And despite reports he was to undergo an MRI exam on his right knee after last week’s victory over Florida State, Hollenbach said yesterday he would “be good to go on Saturday.”
That’s when the Terps visit No. 19 Clemson (7-2, 3-2), a team with a staunch run defense. Should Maryland be forced into passing more than it has in recent weeks, Hollenbach will be ready to spread his throws evenly among more than a half-dozen options.
“I really try to go through reads,” Hollenbach said. “There comes a point where you need to look at your matchups, see what you have, see if you have a balanced coverage and go to who you think is going to win. I feel I’m trying to go based on reads and let my reads take me to the right place, whether it’s a tight end or a receiver.”
Five Terps players have been Hollenbach’s most frequent target in a game this season. Hollenbach has thrown to Darrius Heyward-Bey more than anyone else, but the redshirt freshman was the intended receiver of only 44 of Hollenbach’s 186 attempts this season (23.7 percent).
As a result, Hollenbach has generated greater variety in the passing offense, finding opportune spots to involve 6-foot-7 tight end Joey Haynos, deep threat Isaiah Williams and slot receiver Danny Oquendo. He’s also better this season at dumping the ball off to tailbacks Lance Ball, Keon Lattimore and Josh Allen while under duress.
Coach Ralph Friedgen praised Hollenbach’s improved decision-making even before he threw three touchdown passes against Florida State. That came after a series of practices in which Hollenbach completed 70 percent of his throws, something Friedgen said had not happened since he arrived in 2001.
“Right now, some of the throws, Darrius is the guy who’s been making some plays, so obviously I put him as the first or second read, but he’s been doing a better job,” Friedgen said. “I don’t think he picks guys out like he did before. … He’s managing the game. He’s throwing the ball out of bounds. He’s not taking sacks. That’s why we’re winning.”
The unpredictability also helped Hollenbach cut down on his turnovers. He has thrown nearly twice as many touchdowns (nine) as interceptions (five) and hasn’t committed a turnover in his last 11 quarters. Not surprisingly, the stretch coincides with Maryland’s three-game winning streak.
“He’s not really going in the huddle and pointing and saying, ‘This is the receiver I want to throw it to,’ ” Williams said. “He’s really going out there, looking at his reads and making the best throw he thinks we have a chance to be successful with.”
It’s especially true in the red zone, a place a quarterback easily can fall into the habit of trying to find a specific receiver. Hollenbach has spread his 25 red zone throws among nine receivers, with five targeted at least twice but none more than six times.
It’s quite a turnaround from a year ago, when a throw to Davis at crucial juncture was borderline inevitable.