I spent an entire weekend trying to think of an opening for this article, but it’s impossible. There are really so few players like Stefon Diggs that’s it’s hard to encapsulate his importance to Maryland in a sentence, a paragraph, a sonnet.
Football is a game that’s predicated on the success of the team, not an individual player. But if you ask any Maryland fan who the face of the franchise is, they aren’t going to say Randy Edsall, C.J. Brown, Brandon Ross, or any other player on the field who serves as an equally essential component to the Terps success. They’re going to say Stefon Diggs, or they’re not a Maryland fan.
I’ve got two friends who I’d argue are bigger Maryland fans than anyone I’ve ever encountered in their under-30 age group (Gary and Mike); they breathe and consume Maryland athletics, and in particular football. Every single game, rain or shine, they’re at it and every message board post they’ve read it. They’re also mild historians of the game, and can harken back to older era football pretty easily for comparison’s sake.
I asked the two if there had ever been a player like Stefon Diggs at Maryland, who meant more to the football program and athletic program as a whole, at least over the past twenty years or so.
For Gary, he acknowledged past Maryland stars:
“[Scott] Milanovich was a pretty big deal. So was Boomer, but mostly because of his success at the pro level. Having said that, I don’t think any individual (recently) has been revered to this extent, excluding guys like Bias and Juanderful (Juan Dixon).
Greivis was huge while he was here, but he was special in a different way. He was ours. Not super well known until the end of his career, but he was our little firecracker. But I can’t think of anyone that means as much as he does and is as nationally recognizable for the football program over the past twenty.”
For Mike, there was a definite understanding of all that Diggs means to the university:
“Maryland isn’t a stranger to having guys who have put together incredible college and professional careers, but for whatever reason the success of individual players hasn’t translated into long term growth for the program as a whole. People have long dreamed of the “Stay at Home Movement,” but Diggs appears to be the first player to successfully lead this idea past the blue print phase.
This is actually happening, and I think a lot of that has to do with Diggs being a remarkable talent, but I think even more of that has to do with the fast paced environment of college football recruiting. Not only is what Diggs doing on the field garnering a lot of attention, but thanks to Twitter, YouTube, and the big four recruiting sites, people are constantly exposed to his promotional efforts to top tier player to College Park.
Guys like Boomer, EJ [Henderson], Torrey, Mojo Rawley (edit: he was joking about the last one) etc. all of them were unique talents but none of them had the additional platforms besides what they did on the field to push people to Maryland. Diggs does, he uses them well and it is generating a lot of additional excitement from fans, and giving top recruits the sense that Maryland is a place where they can be successful.”
Perhaps that’s what makes Diggs so special. In an age where every player is dissected, analyzed, chopped down into pieces and fed to a processor, it’s still hard to put a finger on that “it” factor Diggs seems to possess. He manages to still live up to the hype in spite of a lack of absolutely eye-popping stats. Perhaps that is attributable to his connection to the fans. He’s so much more than just a receiver; he’s a recruiter, a publicist, a kick returner, a punt returner, an emotional leader, a role model. Talk about wins above replacement.
——– What’s he done so far
With Diggs, it’s difficult to size up what he’s capable of because no one has seen him in an environment that’s conducive to players, well, thriving. His freshman year, Diggs was hampered (a little) by an ankle injure and (a lot) by some of the worst quarterback play you’ll see out of a program. During his sophomore season, Diggs was definitely improved from the season prior and unquestionably on pace to do great things despite a more limited role, but he broke his leg in an unfortunate accident against Wake Forest.
When you’re accounting for Diggs, you have to factor in that he’s gone into every season so far against a stacked deck. It’s hard to say what he’s capable of when his starting quarterback has only thrown him the ball in four games and his team has faced rashes of injuries throughout both seasons. We as media members give him a pass in that regard; we use the term “if” or “when” to give Diggs more credit than on-field production might suggest, because you know if he had a Geno Smith, he’d be the best WR in the country. You have a “feeling” that when the rest of the team clicks, Diggs will explode.
But that’s not fair to other players. No situation is perfect or ideal. Diggs is what he is, and that’s what we’re looking at statistically. And the numbers are still fantastic.
Diggs Career Yards From Scrimmage:
|Stefon Diggs Yards From Scrimmage||Receiving||Rushing||Scrimmage|
|Stefon Digs Punting and Kicking||Kick Ret||Punt Ret|
Why yards from scrimmage? Because there’s no other way to look at Stefon Diggs. His biggest asset is his versatility, and that he can return, receive, and rush lend credence to his game. In terms of overall numbers, we did see a regression, but a logical one: Diggs played in half the games, so he has almost half the stats. He was also taken off of punt and kick return duty because you don’t go off-roading in a Lamborghini if you don’t need to.
Still, 1,400 yards over two seasons? That’s absurd. Here’s how many yards he would need to pass the three best Terps receivers next season in total yards from scrimmage:
Darrius Heyward-Bey: 809 yards
Torrey Smith: 687 yards
Jermaine Lewis: 1,401 yards
Diggs could very well beat both Heyward-Bey’s and Smith’s records in the first half of the season next year, and those two are the second and third best receivers in Maryland history in terms of receiving yards. Jermaine Lewis is first on the list with 2,995 total yards, but is 1,401 yards even out of the question for Year Three of the Diggs experience? Maybe, maybe not.
I added those punting and kicking statistics though because Diggs impacts rushing, receiving, and special teams in a major way each year. These versatile players are way more than the mere yards from scrimmage numbers suggest. They’re the Percy Harvin’s, the Tavon Austin’s, the Sammy Watkins’s. Harvin was a runner and a receiver; Austin and Jackson were returners and a receivers; Sammy Watkins was all three. So how far off is Diggs from those guys, even with the limited playing time last year?
(Note: in Austin’s case, this is through his first three years in college football)
Percy Harvin: 973 yards (36 games over three seasons)
Sammy Watkins: 2,298 yards (36 games over three seasons)
Tavon Austin: 1,568 yards (39 games over three seasons)
DeSean Jackson: 447 yards (36 games over three seasons)
Randall Cobb: 293 yards (36 games over three seasons)
Jeremy Maclin: 2,801 (28 games over two seasons)
Even having only played 18 games, Diggs is set up pretty nicely to beat out both Harvin, Cobb and Jackson very early. He isn’t going to touch Sammy Watkins or Jeremy Maclin, that much is certain, but you get the picture with Diggs. He does so much on the field that mentioning him among these immensely versatile group isn’t ludicrous. It’s actually understandable. If he finally plays a full season and gets to a bowl, Diggs total games will be at 31. Keep that in perspective when considering what he could do.
——What should he be able to do?
Take on the entire Roman Empire? Beat 2048 on the first try? You get the feeling a lot of fans want Diggs to break every receiving record and be placed as a top five guy in the nation in receiving yards, total yards, and so on. As the harbinger of bad news, I would suggest tempering those expectations quite a bit.
Diggs just doesn’t play in an offense that’s going to produce big-time receiving stats which merit huge award considerations. Randy Edsall has never coached a receiver who has hit 1,000 yards during his entire career; Mike Locksley, as an offensive coordinator and head coach, had only one of his receivers hit the mark one time (Arrelious Benn in 2007). Realistically speaking, regardless of how good Diggs is, he’s going to have to be insane if he wants to exit the confines of this offense.
The read-option, though, is forgiving statistically only to the #1 option at receiver, and fortunately Stefon Diggs is that guy. But the bad news (only from a numbers perspective) is that there are so many other options on the field that Maryland’s going to spread the ball around. The Terps have three receivers who could be the best- or second-best receiver on half the college football teams in the country (Diggs, Long and Jacobs), and they’re going to want to use them. But Diggs is already close to that 1,000 yard mark if you stretch his stats out over 12 games. Diggs averaged 83.85 yards per game last season, and if you assume he plays 12 games, he hits 1,006 yards.
The rest of his game is going to suffer, though. Diggs is an amazing return man, there’s no question about that. But Will Likely might be just as good.
Here’s Diggs from his freshman year, and here’s his sophomore season along with Likely and Jacobs:
Now here’s Diggs abilities in the punt return game:
And here we see Likely:
Maryland’s fortunate enough that they really just don’t need Diggs, because they’ve already got a top twenty return game (literally). Likely or Diggs, Maryland is going to get fantastic production out of that position. It only makes sense to limit the amount of hits Diggs takes, despite how amazing he has been. So that guy who was eighth nationally in terms of total yardage his freshman year with 172.4 yards per game? He’s gone, and he’s probably not coming back. But that’s a really good thing for Maryland overall and speaks to the depth of the program.
——–He’ll still be a big play threat
Diggs remains a top 20 “big play” threat in college football. Through August and September of last year, he was 14th overall in yards per play with 18.9 Y/P, and his 17.26 average yards per catch on the year would have placed him firmly within the top 25 of receivers in that regard. His open-field decision making is and probably always will be top-notch, and the ability to line him up in both the slot and outside only allow him to be more dangerous.
But can Diggs make that leap from top twenty, which is more than fine, to the best five receivers in college football? It’s certainly plausible. Diggs focus will be nearly entirely on being the best receiver he can be for Maryland, and that kid is scary focused. When’s the last time you hear “Stefon Diggs” and “limited” in the same sentence? Me either. As has been said before, good luck finding a comparison for Diggs as a receiver in terms of playing style and career trajectory.
Diggs has had 50 or more yards from scrimmage in 15 of his 18 games through his career, but he’s only caught for 80 or more yards in nine of those games, too. As a pure receiver, the fact is that there’s room for improvement if he wants to continue to build on that hype. Unquestionably you have to take into account who’s been throwing him the ball at times, but again, no scenario is perfect.
There’s a good chance Keenan McCardell could be a miracle worker with Stefon Diggs if he can impart some of his knowledge on the kid. Diggs isn’t an amazing route runner yet, but McCardell knows just about all there is to know about the position. Diggs release off the line is phenomenal, but his cuts aren’t where they could be.
All that comes with time, though, as we’re talking about a true junior wide receiver. Diggs should have his best receiving year of his career if he can come back healthy, and while it may be subdued compared to his miraculous freshman year, it should well be a noticeable leap from promising youngster to legitimate wideout threat. At this level and the next.
Diggs hasn’t even scratched the surface of his true potential, and Maryland is hoping they’ll be able to finally maximize it for a season, next year.