Positional Previews: The Maryland Terrapins Wide Receivers

 

Mandatory Credit: Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

90′s Song Comparison: Blackstreet – No Diggity

2012 in review:

Without a doubt, the most promising aspect of the Maryland Terrapins football team last year on the offensive end was their receiving unit. Even with QBs who had arms that looked like they’d been pre-soaked in turpentine before every game, 2012 saw the emergence of some very talented receivers and gave fans hope that they would eventually turn into a dangerous cast of characters. Namely, Mr. Stefon Diggs.

As you likely already know by now, Diggs accomplished things on the football field that were simply unheard of for rookies. Not only did he immediately emerge as a team leader, he simply wasn’t afraid to do whatever it took to help the team win. Catching balls up the middle, returning kicks, lining up at running back and quarterback, even coming up with clutch scores. Anything you asked of Diggs, he was more than willing to do and do with much aplomb. 1,896 total yards and 15.7 yards per play (he ran 21 of them) is nothing to scoff at for a freshman.

Last year also saw the emergence of Marcus Leak as a definitive, can’t-miss talent that everyone figured he would eventually become. Leak was second on the team in receiving yards with 393 total, despite getting hurt and missing half the season. In four of those games, he went for 65 yards or more, and had he been healthy there may have been a tiny bit of controversy about who is actually the head honcho at WR. Leak was the type of receiver that you loved to watch because of how aggressive he played. When the ball was in his hands, he looked more like a running back with the ferocity in which he ran the ball.

Unfortunately, Leak isn’t on the team anymore, and the loss of both Kevin Dorsey (3rd on team in receiving yards), Matt Furstenburg (4th on team in receiving yards), and Justus Pickett (5th) leaves the team with far fewer proven options at receiver than last year. So can they produce at a higher than expected rate? It all starts with…

Stefon Diggs:

What Stefon Diggs did last year was nothing if not superhuman. Really sit down and appreciate what exactly Diggs did:

1.) He was a true freshman being asked to be WR1.

2.) He lost his starting QB due to injury before a regular season snap was taken.

3.) He had a former wrestler-turned-QB, a two-star QB, a wide receiver, and a linebacker throwing him the ball.

4.) He was singled-out by every single defense he faced.

5.) He returned kicks and punts better than most in the nation.

6.) He only played in 11 games, only caught 54 balls, and still had nearly 1,000 yards.

7.) I don’t even need to continue.

You get the point with Diggs. It’s evident that Maryland is on a three-year rental with the kid, and maximizing his potential in 2013 is probably their number one priority. The more times Diggs can get the ball in the Maryland offense, the better the Terps will be, plain and simple. He gives the Terps more than a chance to win; he can sometimes win a game for you all on his own.

Almost understandably thanks in large part to the hype surrounding Diggs, expectations are unrealistically high. This offseason I’ve heard things like “1,500 yards receiving, 12 TDs, and 2,500 all-purpose yards” tossed around by fans and pundits alike. That’s along with a Heisman candidacy to worry about as well, since he’s on everyone’s watch list for virtually every award he’s eligible for. What remains to be seen is whether or not he will live up to these expectations.

When I say that there’s no way he will (which is what I believe), that doesn’t mean I don’t think he can get close. Mostly, I just think expectations should be grounded in reality. And yet here I am, thinking about what Stefon Diggs does on a field, and wondering if he actually will get close to some of these numbers. Diggs is such a big play threat that there’s no telling what he’s capable of. First maybe we should try to put some parameters on what Stefon Diggs is.

At 6’1, 185-pounds, Diggs is considered a slot receiver. He’s somewhere between DeSean Jackson and Tavon Austin in terms of comparative upside and playing style, but that’s not the whole story. The reality is that the things I saw Diggs do on the field last year are just unheard of for rookie receivers in any era, period. Variance of speed on routes, veteran-like vision, running with tempo, extreme balance and agility, breakaway speed and elite acceleration, phenomenal in traffic. You name it. His abilities in the open field, you just can’t teach that stuff. Game after game he made defenders look foolish; at times, it looked like you’d have a hard time catching Diggs in a small closet.

The only real limitation Diggs had last year was the Terps inability to get him touches on offense. They tried to throw him in the backfield on end-arounds with moderate success. They targeted him a fair amount, but were limited by the quarterback situation. If we’re nitpicking, Diggs was at his best when Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe were running a more pro-style offense to get him the ball. It’s no surprise then, that all his 100+ yard games came when those two were throwing the ball from traditional formations (Boston College, Wake Forest, West Virginia). That’s not to say Diggs wasn’t spectacular other times, either, but he was still better when you lined him up outside or in the slot and let him run crosses or slants to get him in the open field.

But seriously, you could throw Diggs into just about any offense and he would thrive. He’s sort of like a Percy Harvin-type player in that regard. So really, the only thing limiting Diggs next year is what offense Maryland employs. If Maryland runs a spread-offense like they’re expected to, with CJ Brown at the helm, then there’s a good chance he’s going to be the primary target, but his touches may be limited by how accurate/inaccurate Brown is. After all, if there’s one knock on Brown, it’s that he’s inaccurate as heck. Throwing the ball 42 times in a game and connecting on under 50% for less than 200 yards is not encouraging.

Diggs could thrive in a spread, though, but it has to be a balanced attack. Much like Juice Williams used Arrelious Benn back in 2008, or Tebow used Percy Harvin in 2007, CJ Brown would likely rely on one target in a variety of ways: Diggs. I could see Brown and Diggs absolutely demolishing on play-action passes. Conversely, I could see Diggs getting screens and taking it to the house.

But I could also see Brown’s short route inaccuracy becoming an issue unless he’s fixed that up in a major way. As I said before, it’s the QB and the offensive scheme that will limit Diggs production. Personally, I wish Maryland ran a traditional offense, but we can’t have everything. For now, you settle with Diggs

Deon Long:

Deon Long is the real X-factor in this offense, mostly because there’s not a huge body of evidence to use in gauging his production. At the JUCO level, Long was unheard of in terms of greatness; so much so that he was deemed the best JUCO player in the country last year. Not since 2005 with Larry Brackins has the top Rivals.com rated JUCO transfer been a wideout. And for good reason.

Long amassed incredible stats last year in junior college: 1,626 receiving yards, 135 yards per game, 100 receptions, nine touchdowns. All of this while not even playing in the fourth quarter’s of games. In all honesty Long had no business playing junior college football. He runs a 4.3 40-yard dash, he has superb hands, and he’s a very physical receiver as well.

But how good will Deon Long be? Rivals analyst Mike Farrell thinks he’s a first round draft pick in 2015. Others expect him to be just as good or better than Diggs (though I don’t agree with that notion). But how good can he be next year?

Well if we’re looking at some of his games in 2011 at New Mexico, the answer is “really freaking good”. Long had some pretty darn good games at New Mexico with Locksley: 4 receptions and 47 yards against Arkansas, 3 receptions for 139 yards against Texas Tech, 8 receptions for 96 yards against Boise State. Mind you, he was a freshman doing all this. That year alone, against some decent opponents, on a woefully bad New Mexico team is enough for me to think he’s going to be an absolute stud this year. Given how much football he’s played since then, and how much stronger he’s gotten, you can take that to the bank.

But again, the offense is something that might limit Long’s production. I truly do not know how potent this offense can be, but I do know that Deon Long almost had 1,000 yards at New Mexico with B.R. Holbrook and Tarean Austin throwing him the ball. Never heard of those two? Neither has anyone else, because they did nothing except give Long the ball. He can thrive with any quarterback, and he’s probably going to get open for whoever is throwing him the ball.

Long makes your life a lot easier in that he’s willing to go after every ball, and he’s blazingly fast. I’m not sure what his final stat line is going to be, but with Stefon Diggs alleviating some pressure on him, I don’t think there’s any way he does anything less than 800 yards receiving.

The rest of the cast:

Nigel King, Amba Etta, Levern Jacobs, Taivon Jacobs and Tyreke Cheeseboro round out the rest of the unit. Right now, King stands to be the next in line for balls after Diggs and Long given how highly touted he was coming out of high school, with everyone else being a crapshoot.

King showed flashes last year (91 yards of total offense against UNC in the last game of the season) of being a pretty solid receiver, but because Maryland was so bad at passing it was hard to get a good feel for his talent level. With King, the only certainty is that he’s a huge kid who possesses absolutely raw power. He is a physical receiver, and has enough speed to give defenders fits.

With Long and Diggs, King should really start to flourish in the offense, especially since Marcus Leak won’t be playing this year. King is going to have to work hard for balls to get thrown his way, though. I can’t imagine him having a 50 catch season simply because of the style offense Maryland will run, so he’s going to have to take advantage of every ball that gets thrown his way.

Fortunately for him, he’s going to be wide open a lot as defenses struggle with the amount of weapons on this team.

Conclusion:

To conclude, it’s really hard to say what to expect out of the Terps receiving game outside of acknowledging that they have more than enough talent to be successful. Their only limitation will seemingly be the guy taking snaps under center. If Brown can effectively get them the ball, this offense could easily cause some games to get out of hand early. There are very few teams in the nation that can boast the amount of talent Maryland has at receiver (they’re in the top 20 talent wise), but there are other factors involved in helping them live up to that bill.

For that reason I have to temper my expectations for what these guys can do. I’m still not completely sold on Brown being able to deliver them the ball as much as they deserve it. I don’t know if Locksley will be too comfortable with a predominantly air-based spread offense, but then he’s shown to be relatively versatile in his time at College Park.

Either way, the sky is the limit.

Topics: Deon Long, Maryland Football, Maryland Terrapins, Stefon Diggs, Terps

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