Prior to Saturday’s 37-0 victory over West Virginia, I had read a quote from Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen about the biggest differences between the (then) Big East and the Big XII. Speaking to Yahoo! Sports Radio back in July, Holgorsen had this to say:
"“Probably the biggest difference is you really didn’t need your second-team guy very much in the Big East,” he pointed out. “You need that second-team guy to be as good or as close to being just as good as the first-team guy because you are going to get to the second-team guy a lot, because of depth issues..”"
Depth is such a huge factor to success, and it is even more important when playing big time football in a power conference like the Big XII or the Big Ten. How well your team performs isn’t just predicated on how high your tallest building stands, but rather the foundational materials on which that tall building was built. Injuries and fatigue are a part of football, and the programs that are capable of overcoming them are the truly special ones.
As I watched A.J. Hendy, a backup being forced into a starting role because of injuries sustained in the secondary, intercept Ford Childress and rumble 28 yards into the end zone for a pick-six, the quote popped up in my head once more. Then when Hendy forced two more fumbles in the Terps most dominant performance in over 10 years, the quote carried weight.
Seeing Hendy come in and play as a competent starter without missing a beat is a telling sign about the program under Randy Edsall. Despite having only won a meager ten games during Edsall’s career at Maryland thus far, one attribute the coach seems to have imbued on the team is the next man up mentality. He alluded to exactly that during his press conference after the game:
"“We just have to keep preaching that everyone has to go out and practice like a starter, because you never know when your opportunity will rise.”"
If last year taught the Terrapins anything, it’s that you have to continue to compete regardless of who goes down. If you followed the team in 2012, you knew that even after the four quarterback injuries, Matt Robinson going down, Demetrius Hartsfield bowing out, and the standard dings and nicks that kept players out, Edsall had these Terps competing every single game. So when Jeremiah Johnson and Dexter McDougle were injured, why did it surprise anyone that Maryland hasn’t really missed a beat?
And while we can credit Edsall’s inspiring coaching style a bit, you have to go back to Holgorsen’s quote again to figure out exactly why Maryland is performing so admirably regardless of who is hurt week after week. The biggest component to that success may well be the depth chart, and the fact that the recruiters at Maryland have been filling roster spots with players that are rich in talent but not so in heraldry.
Considering how many superbly talented players the defense lost due to attrition, how they’ve performed so far has been nothing short of admirable. Drakeford and Vellano, NFL bound. Hartsfield and Tate, gone. Obviously, as we mentioned before, A.J. Hendy was spectacular in his lone start, but true freshman William Likely has come in and performed as one of the best players on the defense already. As it stands, he is playing himself into becoming a full time starter for his career in College Park. That’s saying nothing about the staff bringing in Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil, who had an INT against WVU and now has 16 tackles and three sacks. It also ignores how great Marcus Whitfield has stepped in in his first season as a full-time starter (he has 5.5 sacks). That’s all depth, and that’s all coaching.
And here I am, harping on the defense, when the reality is the offense has been just as impressive. The depth at skill positions is huge. When Marcus Leak left the program over the summer, it was expected that Maryland would recover from that just fine with the firepower they had at the wideout position. Then when Nigel King went out against Connecticut, there were even more concerns. But Levern Jacobs has come in and is now fifth on the team in total yards from scrimmage. At the tight end position, Matt Furstenburg left for the NFL, but Dave Stinebaugh is starting to look more and more like a legitimate target for CJ Brown.
Oh and the running game? Losing the best running back on the roster in Wes Brown seemed like a pretty substantial hit to start the season, but the next man up mentality has proven true here as well. Brandon Ross has two touchdowns so far and is averaging 83 yards on the ground and five yards per carry. Obviously the boost from CJ Brown has ignited the running game as well, but Jacquille Veii and Albert Reid are both averaging nearly five yards per carry as well, and have given the offense multiple looks.
Maryland’s depth has been tested in all areas of the game, and so far this season they’ve taken everything in stride. To an outside observer, the injuries are completely irrelevant because the players on the field have all looked like legitimate starters. The difference between option one and two on the Terrapins depth chart is starting to dwindle to the point that the line has become more blurred than a Robin Thicke song.
As Maryland heads into a Big Ten power conference next year where, as Holgorsen pointed out, you can never have enough depth, the Terps look like they are well poised to compete in that regard. Teams like Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State have no problem re-upping when injuries arise. The Buckeyes even lost their starting quarterback this year and arguably look even better than before. Michigan played with the oft-dinged up Denard Robinson for years and still managed to find on-field success. Penn State, well, they had a mass exodus following their Paterno scandal yet still managed to finish with eight wins. That’s the Big Ten, that’s what the Terps are going to be up against week after week. So far, it appears the people pulling the strings upstairs understand that.
That’s a credit to Edall, Locksley, and everyone else on the recruiting trail ensuring that no matter what Maryland will have enough guys on the roster to make due. If you were looking for indicators on how healthy the program is, and which direction it’s trending, look no further than that depth chart (the defense in particular), which right now is the team’s biggest strength.