COLLEGE PARK — Like their fellow college athletes around the country, the Maryland Terrapins are excited to kick off the college football season Saturday, interim coach Matt Canada said.
Unlike other programs around the country, however, the Terrapins will be balancing the long-anticipated action on the field with remembering the tragic death of teammate Jordan McNair.
“Our players did a tremendous job (during camp) of focusing on each other, focusing on sticking together, continuing to think about, talk about and find different ways to play for Jordan,” Canada said Tuesday. “That’s something our entire program is doing and we’re very proud of the way our players are handling that.”
Players have not been made available for interviews ahead of Saturday’s marquee non-conference game against No. 23 Texas, but they did announce last week the many ways they plan to honor McNair. Among them, there will be a moment of silence in his honor before kickoff Saturday at FedEx Field in Landover, and another when the Terrapins play their first game at Capital One Field on Sept. 15.
While the future of suspended head coach DJ Durkin hangs in the balance, an entire season still lies ahead for the program.
Chief among the questions for Saturday’s game is whether Kasim Hill or Tyrrell Pigrome will start at quarterback. Canada said he has decided which of the young quarterbacks will get the nod, but did not divulge who it will be.
Pigrome started last year’s season opener against Texas, but tore his ACL. Hill, a true freshman at the time, filled in for him. He ran for a touchdown and led the Terrapins to an unexpected 51-41 upset win in Austin.
Two games later, however, Hill also tore his ACL. Both Pigrome and Hill were granted medical redshirts for their lost time.
The running game starts the season as a question, too, but a much better one. Maryland is stacked at running back with Ty Johnson, Lorenzo Harrison III and Jake Funk. Johnson was named to preseason watch lists for three national awards, including the Maxwell Award for the top FBS player regardless of position.
Canada, an offensive coordinator by trade, coached Derrius Guice at LSU last year and is known to use multiple, inventive offenses. It’s not out of the question that the Terrapins will line up with Johnson, Harrison and Funk on the field at the same time.
“They can catch the football out of the backfield, they all can protect and they all are unique runners in what we ask them to do,” Canada said. “We’re excited to see them on the field, and again, we’re going to see them in different positions than just standing back there behind the quarterback.”
Defensively, a former No. 1 overall recruit could make a big difference in the front seven. Byron Cowart will start at defensive end for Maryland after transferring in from a community college last winter. The top recruit in the Class of 2015 according to ESPN, Cowart originally attended Auburn, but left the school due to a health issue his mother was facing as well as a lack of playing time.
The Terrapins will also need pass rusher Jesse Aniebonam back healthy. Another player who was hurt far too early in 2017, the “Buck” linebacker should be back after fracturing his ankle against Texas last September. He did not wear a non-contact jersey at Tuesday’s practice after wearing one earlier in the summer.
After two more non-conference games at Bowling Green and hosting Temple, Maryland hosts Minnesota Sept. 22 to kick off the Big Ten slate. Michigan the next week may be its toughest road test, while it hosts Ohio State in the home finale Nov. 17. The Terrapins avoid having to play No. 4 Wisconsin as one of their Big Ten West opponents, instead hosting Minnesota and Illinois and traveling to Iowa.
But it all starts Saturday at FedEx Field. Canada has actually coached a collegiate game at FedEx Field before, when he was at Indiana in 2010. While his players are excited to go to the NFL venue, it will not require much of an adjustment once the quarterbacks find the location of the play clocks, Canada said.
“It’s an advantage for us. It’s close for us,” he said. “We’re staying in our same home hotel we always stay in, so the routine for our players will be the same as it is for a home game, other than the bus will go to a different spot.”
And once they arrive in Landover, with much of the offseason turmoil behind them, another season of college football will begin.
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