The puzzle that is the Maryland backfield


With the spring Red-White game in the books, the next time the Maryland football team takes the field in front of a home crowd will be September 5 for the 2015 season opener against Richmond.

Aside from one inexcusable interception, junior quarterback Perry Hills looked pretty darn impressive. Granted, it was against his own team, but he looked sharp and managed to hook up with wide receiver Marcus Leak for three touchdowns before halftime. Though coach Randy Edsall has stated that injured quarterback Caleb Rowe is his guy to start the season, the talk among the fans and local radio talk shows over the summer months will likely be focused on the quarterback position and what each quarterback brings to the table. While this is certainly an intriguing topic for debate, there is a much, much larger question looming over an important skill position next season.

What running back will step up to lead the Terrapins’ rushing attack?

The term “rushing attack,” doesn’t exactly portray what the Maryland running backs accomplished in 2014. Love him or hate him, former quarterback C.J. Brown was the Maryland rushing attack most games as he led the team with 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. Astonishingly, only once all of last season did a Terp running back hit the 100-yard plateau in a single game. Senior Brandon Ross accomplished this typically not-so-elusive feat in the final game of the season against Rutgers on just 10 carries. Ross, who started often last season, finished the season with just 419 yards on 85 carries. This comes out to a very respectable 4.9 yards per carry in somewhat limited action.

So why didn’t Ross statistically have a better season? Well, there are several answers: Wes Brown, Albert Reid, and Jacquille Veii (and of course, C.J. Brown). All of these running backs are great athletes and can produce if given a meaningful opportunity. Last season, however, Edsall’s obsession with getting multiple backs involved every game actually prevented any rusher from finding a rhythm or getting a hot hand. Consequently, the backfield in 2014 was inconsistent and comparatively a non-factor compared to their opponents in most Big Ten matchups. While other headlines took the spotlight much of last season, including the quarterback controversy involving Brown and Rowe, the puzzling story of the Maryland backfield took a backseat.

All of these running backs are still with the team for the 2015 season. Having so many athletic options at a skill position would typically be a blessing for any team. However, Edsall could instill similar game plans next season, and continue trying to get too many running backs involved in each game.

While the running game was an issue for Maryland all of last season, one game in particular stands out to me from the rest. In the Terps’ heartbreaking loss to West Virginia after a furious comeback, Maryland finished the game with 163 rushing yards… 161 of which were gained by quarterback C.J. Brown. Maryland running backs gained a mere two total yards on the ground that entire game. Two. Even more baffling is that these two rushing yards were gained on nine total carries by four different running backs. Yes, the Mountaineers jumped out to an early lead and Maryland needed to somewhat abandon the run. But after the Terps clawed their way back into the game, the running game should have been used to keep the ball out of the hands of the potent WVU offense. And four running backs splitting nine carries? Come on, Randy.

The story was much the same throughout the season: a talented running back corps that was not used enough, not used appropriately, or both. Here are a few stats from last season I find quite telling:

  • Four Terp running backs were used in a game eight times last season, and three backs saw time in the same game four times.
  • 12 carries were split among four running backs for 60 total yards against Ohio State
  • In a close road win against Penn State that was decided by a late Brad Craddock field goal, just 17 total carries were split among four running backs for only 28 yards. 24 of those yards came from Wes Brown.
  • Just 11 carries were split among three backs for a mere 11 yards against Michigan State. Making this one particularly difficult to get my head around is the fact that the Terps were in this game, down only 16-7 at the half.

Fullback Kenneth Goins Jr. should be getting occasional goal-line carries and not taking handoffs at midfield. Veii had a few decent runs last season including two rushing touchdowns, but he also converted from running back to wide receiver before last season for a reason. Albert Reid looked great in the Terps’ spring Red-White scrimmage, but has been inconsistent throughout his collegiate career. He has struggled at times holding onto the ball and simply hasn’t seen the field enough to be reliable.

Ross and Wes Brown are Maryland’s two best options in the backfield. Wes Brown saw more carries last season (103 to Ross’ 85), but did less with them than Ross (3.5 yards-per-carry compared to Ross’ 4.9 yards-per-carry). Ross also looked solid in the Red-White game, including ripping off a 56-yard touchdown scamper at the start of the second half. These two backs will be atop the Terps depth chart come this fall, but the question remains if one will step up and claim a more traditional starter’s role.

But maybe the question isn’t which running back will step up; maybe the more compelling question is will any running back truly have the opportunity to?