STS: Losing 4 QBs to season ending injuries is unheard of. Now Maryland brings a freshman linebacker, Shawn Petty, to Death Valley to start at QB. I didn’t get to see too much of the GT vs UMD game last week, so fill us in on the offensive game plan that Maryland will employ with Petty at the helm.
TT: Petty came in and did pretty admirably against Tech, all things considered, though obviously not as well as Maryland would want out of a first-string quarterback. He's got a nice arm on him that can surprise defenses, and his pocket awareness is a bonus, too. Right now there are some mental things that are standing in the way, as you'd expect with any true freshman and in particular a linebacker, but there's not really anything Maryland and Mike Locksley can do about that. The idea against GT was, I think, to try to protect Petty using the running game - a variety of option plays in particular, from zone-read to speed and everything in between - but Maryland's line has struggled and the running game hasn't been productive enough this season to be truly effective. So Maryland aired it out a bit early in an attempt to get GT to back off, but most of those attempted passes were incomplete and didn't open up the ground game, which is why the offense struggled so much.
I expect more or less the same gameplan to apply come Saturday: don't be afraid to let Petty toss it around in short/intermediate passes, but rely on the ground game to take as much pressure off him as possible. The only big difference should be involving Stefon Diggs more in any way possible: reverse options, motioning him into the backfield, screen passes, just get the ball into his hands somehow. He's really Maryland's only shot at a dangerous offense, and I think Locksley is realizing as much.
STS: Talk a little bit about Stefon Diggs. We got into a fun debate the other day about whether you’d take Diggs over Hopkins and/or Watkins. What is it about him that makes him so special? Are there any areas where he needs to improve?
TT: Diggs is, first and foremost, an athletic specimen, nearly unparalleled. He doesn't have the straight-line top-gear speed of someone like Sammy Watkins, but I'd put his explosiveness from a standing start up against anyone's in the country. He can stop on a dime and get to top-gear nearly as quickly, and changing direction doesn't slow him at all. If a defender slows down or stops in an attempt to corral him, Diggs has already won the battle. And like any good receiver he's shown very reliable hands and a willingness to mix it up physically with cornerbacks. He also has exactly the mentality you’d want from a big star: he’s already a leader in the locker room, and plays with an intensive, contagious energy all the time.
There’s little he genuinely needs to improve on, aside from the usual freshman things. His intensity can work against him at times when he gets frustrated or down on himself too easily, and he can still tighten up his routes and become a little stronger. But the flaws are very minor. Whether or not he's "better" than the likes of Hopkins or Watkins is a difficult question for anyone to answer - obviously it largely depends on the pieces surrounding them. But he's in that same stratus and deserves the hype he's been getting.
STS: Maryland’s defense has been rock solid for the most part, outside of the GT game last week. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this unit?
TT: The front seven has been pretty fearsome all year long, anchored by five seniors (four of which are fifth-year seniors). The secondary has been something of a weak spot throughout the season, although that's improved in recent weeks as Maryland's gotten healthier. (Still, they're good for at least one busted coverage over the top every game.) But most of Maryland's opposition, save West Virginia, have had poor offenses, and even WVU has shown themselves to be far from the powerhouse they seemed earlier in the season. Maryland’s hitting the meat of the schedule at a bad time, as they're wearing down physically and mentally, plus losing contributors - Kenneth Tate and Joe Vellano were both playing hurt against GT, and leading tackler Demetrius Hartsfield went down to (another) ACL tear. There's not that much depth beyond those guys, so containing Clemson will be a challenge.
STS: Randy Edsall has been a polarizing topic of conversation among UMD fans. It seems a lot of fans were down on him immediately because a) he wasn’t Mike Leach, and b) the large number of transfers that occurred under his watch. I’m assuming he gets at least 1 more year because of all the injuries UMD has suffered this year. What does he need to do in year 3 to hold down the fort?
TT: He certainly had a tough sell after the Leach fiasco, but after he beat Miami in the opener there were people proclaiming that he'd be Maryland's Frank Beamer - he was given a pretty fair shot by the fanbase, I’d say. The bigger problems were the consistent media blunders, the losing record, the poor recruiting effort (until he cut loose Gary Crowton and hired Mike Locksley), and, yes, those transfers, which have left Maryland starting youngsters and without depth to absorb their injuries. He was always going to get at least three years just based on the financial state of Maryland's athletic department, regardless of the injuries, but patience will be wearing thin. The final three games could get ugly, and if they do casual fans won't care about the injuries; they just won't buy tickets next season, and Maryland doesn't have enough in the bank to absorb that. Edsall needs a bowl game in Year 3, without a doubt; anything less and Kevin Anderson will probably have to cut bait.
STS: What are the expectations for Maryland’s program moving forward? FSU and Clemson have started to separate themselves from the pack in the Atlantic, using their recruiting base, resources, and SEC-like fanbases to stick out the past 2 seasons above their counterparts. Do Maryland fans expect to compete with FSU and Clemson for conference championships year in and year out, or are bowl game appearances enough to satisfy the fanbase?
TT: Maryland football's an underrated job and a sleeping program, to some degree; between Under Armour and a fertile recruiting ground, I actually think that they could challenge on a semi-regular basis with the right guy and a little bit more development of facilities. But Maryland's a basketball school and always will be, so consistent bowl appearances will probably be enough for anyone to be safe. Over a five-year period, I think the baseline would be one season where they at least make a little noise and challenge for the Atlantic, another three bowl games, and one year with a losing record. Any coach is probably going to be safe with that here.
STS: The original line for the game this weekend has Clemson favored by 31. I don’t care who your QB is, that’s a big number. If you were/are a betting man, which way would you pick this game?
TT: My instinct is that Maryland can cover that spread, but I have plenty of doubts upon closer inspection. Clemson's defense has its question marks, sure, but Maryland's offense hasn't looked a thing like being able to test any defense in its current form. And I fear there's a perfect storm coming for Clemson against the Terps' defense, which is tiring, perhaps a tad overrated, and missing key contributors. Maryland probably covers late in the game once Clemson's taken off their starters, but that line isn't as radical as it seems at first glance.