Welcome once again to the Maryland positional breakdowns series, an accounting over 10 parts of just where the Terrapins stand heading into camp.
Obviously, there’s a lot to be figured out the team (as well as any other) in the coming weeks. But for now, it’s just a flavor of what fans will be talking about in the months to come.
For fans of other schools, I offer my sincerest apologies for not going quite so in depth. The truth is, it’s hard enough to cover one program adequately, let alone three or four. So there will be Navy and Virginia and Virginia Tech items as the summer rolls along.
Just don’t ask who the third-string middle linebacker is, since those are the sorts of things you know only by being around a team regularly or being obsessed with the latest version of NCAA Football. (By the way, Maryland’s third-string middle linebacker is tentatively Avery Murray).
In any case, the first item on the docket is a place Maryland will be in excellent shape: Kickoff returns.
After all, sophomore Torrey Smith set a school and ACC record with 1,089 return yards, including a sizzling first-quarter score against Nevada in the Humanitarian Bowl.
While new special teams coach Charles Bankins pointed out in the spring no position is guaranteed, the Terps probably aren’t going to tinker too much with something that worked ridiculously well.
Perhaps some historical perspective is in order. With Smith coming back, it’s only the seventh time Maryland has gone into a season with a player possessing at least 700 kickoff return yards —- and the Terps certainly had the opportunity to bring back a lot of kicks in the past:
* A bit of fine print: Lawrence had 714 return yards in his career, 706 between 1990 and 1991 before Jermaine Lewis arrived. So he might have had 714 yards, but he had at least 706 entering his final season.
Anyway, Smith has an excellent chance to have his name at the top of this list three times, which is rather astounding. He’ll likely become the first Terps to lead the team in return yardage in consecutive years since Suter, and needs only 431 yards and 30 returns to match Covington’s school records in both categories.
It’ll be interesting to see what impact Bankins’ arrival has on the position. He came from Richmond, which was 78th out of 118 teams in the former Division I-AA last year in kickoff return average.
But that’s mildly misleading. The Spiders averaged 21.95 yards (which would have ranked 26th nationally) a return in their first six games, then dipped to a 17.31-yard average the rest of the season. That’s a severe decline (21.1 percent), enough so that it makes sense to figure opponents quit kicking it deep all the time.
Richmond’s regular return man, Justin Rogers, averaged 20.6 yards but took only 34 of the 51 team attempts. While that doesn’t guarantee anything, it’s probably safe to assume Smith will be just fine this fall.
The Terps’ punt return situation isn’t quite as clear, and much of that is because the team’s risk/reward philosophy doesn’t leave room for much of either.
That’s basically why the sure-handed Danny Oquendo handled those duties the last three years. As underappreciated as Oquendo was as a receiver, his greatest skill as a return man was not dropping, muffing, fumbling or otherwise messing up to the point Ralph Friedgen started pulling out what little hair he still has.
Oquendo was one of the Boise Seven, and as such sat out the first half of the bowl game. Redshirt freshman Tony Logan stepped in and rolled up 49 punt return yards, nearly half the total (104) Oquendo managed all season.
Perhaps that is enough to earn Logan, an underutilized former high school quarterback, a regular spot on the field. Of course, the Terps might also give an extended look to man-child/safety Kenny Tate. Or veteran cornerback Anthony Wiseman could snatch a chance.
Either way, Bankins’ track record with punt returners is good. Richmond averaged 12 yards a return a year ago, while the longest one the Terps managed all season was 15 yards. Clearly, there’s some improvement to be had in that particular area.
Of course, it’s been a long time since Maryland returned a punt for a score —- New Year’s Day 2004 to be precise. Since Steve Suter‘s 76-yard return in the Gator Bowl, the Terps have rolled up some unwanted numbers in that category.
For example, Maryland has gone 145 returns over 312 opponent’s punts without busting one for a score.
In that span, Suter, Rich Parson, Jo Jo Walker, Josh Wilson, Oquendo, Christian Varner, Wiseman and Logan have all had multiple return attempts.
Logan, shifty, small and quick, might be the guy to end that streak. And maybe, just maybe, he can make the Terps’ punt return unit as formidable as its kickoff crew this fall.
—- Patrick Stevens