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Maryland preview: Keeping QBs healthy would make all the difference for Terps
The truest sign a team has struggled with the injury bug is when the return of its starting quarterback bolsters its linebacking unit.
Welcome to Maryland football.
When the Terrapins hit the field at Byrd Stadium on Saturday, they will do so with sixth-year senior C.J. Brown back under center. Injured before the start of the 2012 campaign, Brown was granted a medical waiver.
"I'm excited," Brown said. "I'm really excited to be back here with the guys and just to get back on the field to compete and do what I came here to do: play football."
It is a welcome turn of events for a team that foundered to a 4-8 record, thanks in no small part to ACL injuries that felled Brown and his three backups, Perry Hillis, Devin Burns and Caleb Rowe.
Those maladies led coach Randy Edsall to call on true freshman linebacker Shawn Petty to handle the duties during the Terrapins' final four games, all defeats.
"It's more comforting knowing that C.J.'s there," Edsall said. "I think he has had just an outstanding preseason. He's thrown the ball better than he ever has since I've been here."
If there was a silver lining to Brown's injury, it was that he could spend the season soaking up offensive coordinator Mike Locksley's scheme. The former New Mexico coach returned to Maryland as coordinator in 2012 after 10 seasons away, including stops at Florida and Illinois.
"It was good to be able to step back from the game and kind of see things from a different angle," said Brown, who added that he now has "a better appreciation for the game as well as developing more knowledge of the offense."
Maryland has seven returning starters on offense and five on defense. Where the Terrapins were painfully young a season ago, they now boast necessary depth. Sophomore Stefon Diggs should improve upon his 848 receiving yards as a freshman with Brown under center. A trio of sophomore running backs (Brandon Ross, Wes Brown and Albert Reid) each started at least one game in 2012.
Defensively, Maryland will be stacked in the secondary with the return of cornerbacks Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson, as well as safeties Anthony Nixon, Sean Davis and A.J. Handy.
Those returning players, along with the knowledge Maryland lost four games by seven points or less, has some prognosticators tabbing the Terrapins as a trendy dark horse in the ACC.
But there is a hurdle for Maryland to overcome. Rather, it's a trench.
The Terrapins are inexperienced along the offensive and defensive lines. Gone are offensive stalwarts Bennett Fulper and Justin Gilbert. Also missing are defensive linemen Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis, who combined to start 72 games. The only returning defensive lineman with significant experience is Darius Kilgo.
Senior Nick Klemm has stepped in at tackle to fill one spot on the offensive line while sophomore Andrew Zeller is currently listed as starter at guard. Their progress has been a focal point of the preseason.
"The offensive line will be fine," Brown said. "It's great to be around the guys, and I have all the trust in the world in them."
Ross, who will start at tailback on Saturday, said the group was a work in progress.
"I see a lot of guys in and out, but I see a lot of guys working hard," Ross said. "You know, the growth of the O-line is an everyday process. They're getting better each day, every practice, so I think they're coming along, personally."
Even if the offensive line and the defense's front seven come together and the Terrapins get production from their running backs, the season will hinge on what Brown and Diggs bring to the table as the team's top two playmakers.
Diggs' prowess comes from sheer athleticism as a receiver, punt returner and kick returner.
"I think the biggest thing with Stefon is he wants to be the best in whatever he does and he works at it," Edsall said. "He's gotten bigger and stronger. He's put on 10 pounds. ... You talk about a guy who's got a chance to be unbelievable in whatever he does."
In Brown, the Terrapins have a leader it was lacking a year ago.
"You see how the guys rally around him and listen to him," Edsall said. "It's good to have the veteran presence."
Maryland opens its final ACC season with home dates against Florida International and Old Dominion before traveling to face Edsall's former team, Connecticut. That sets the stage for a game against West Virginia at the Baltimore Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium and the conference opener at Florida State.
"The guys are tired of hitting one another and I'm anxious," Edsall said. "As a coaching staff, we're anxious to see them play because they put in a whole lot of hard work since last year."
And who knows, Petty might get to play linebacker after all.
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