Terps Football Q&A With Steven Lassan
Spring ball has passed, and the countdown to the beginning of DJ Durkin’s second season as the Head Coach of the University of Maryland is underway. To preview the Terps, Baltimore Sports and Life (BSL) has reached out to Steven Lassan (Athlon Sports).
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
BSL: With Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State; the Big Ten East figures to feature 3 teams in the Top 12 or so Nationally when the initial rankings come out. Beyond that trio, the division also includes a Michigan State team which will be looking to rebound (and of course Indiana, and Rutgers). Big Ten West opponents this year for the Terps includes Minnesota, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. Out of Conference, MD has games vs. Texas and Central Florida.
Point being MD is facing a difficult schedule. Here in Year 2 of the DJ Durkin era, is the best way (on the field) to judge how MD progressing looking for more competitive showings vs. the elite?
Lassan: I think that’s a fair assessment of where this program is in coach DJ Durkin’s second year. Maryland was better last season in Durkin’s debut but lost five games by 21 points or more against programs that won at least nine games. It’s no secret the Terrapins are going in the right direction, but it will take some time to close the gap on the rest of the Big Ten East Division. For 2017, I’d say the bar is set again at a bowl and six or seven wins. Crossover games against Wisconsin and Northwestern are tough, and a non-conference matchup against Texas is another obstacle to getting to six wins. Even if Maryland falls short of a bowl trip, just being more competitive against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State would be a good sign.
BSL: MD just landed a Top 20 recruiting class. The New Cole Field House (Practice Facility) is nearing completion, and being billed as the best on-campus training facility in college athletics. There is a sense locally that momentum is building for the program. Is this optimism you share?
Lassan: Absolutely. I think Maryland is a program on the rise. With the money flowing into the Big Ten Conference, combined with what the program is doing with facilities and on the recruiting trail, it’s easy to see the momentum Durkin can utilize over the next couple of seasons. On the flipside, I think it’s fair to ask what is a realistic expectation for the program. Maryland is in a brutally tough division and this is probably the fourth or fifth best job (depending on who you ask) in the East. Considering the level at which Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are recruiting, it’s going to be tough for the Terrapins to unseat any of those three programs on a consistent basis. However, eventually contending for a spot in the top 25 on a consistent basis or at least winning eight/nine games seems like a reasonable expectation if Durkin continues to reel in top 20 classes.
BSL: The MD Offensive Line has good quality (at-least by their previous recruiting rankings) and depth. Last year the O-Line graded well as run blockers, but struggled in pass defense. Based on what you see as the projected starters and the depth behind them, how does this unit grade compared to the rest of the Big Ten?
Lassan: I have Maryland’s offensive line around the middle of the Big Ten. If this group takes a step forward in pass protection, then finishing a few spots higher isn’t out of the question. I do like the pieces in place for this group and new assistant Tyler Bowen. Center Brendan Moore started all 13 games last season, sophomore Terrance Davis is a promising guard, and tackles Derwin Gray and Damian Prince came to College Park with a ton of recruiting hype. I think Prince is due for an All-Big Ten-type of season, and Gray seems poised to anchor the all-important left tackle spot. This group has promise but a jump into the top half of the Big Ten in offensive line rankings is probably at least a year away.
BSL: Offensive Coordinator Walt Bell is also entering his 2nd year in the program. He values tempo, running the ball, and getting a lot of people involved. Skill position wise, he’s got a lot of strong options at RB, and speed to burn at WR. How do you grade these units? What do you like and / or question from what you’ve seen from Bell?
Lassan: I’m a big believer in Walt Bell and think he is one of college football’s top coaches on the rise. His impact on Maryland’s offense was noticeable last year and the players now have a full offseason to grasp the scheme. In terms of skill players, the one-two punch of Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison is one of the Big Ten’s better combinations. The conference is deep with talent at running back this year, so Maryland could be a top 25-30 running back corps nationally – but rank sixth/seventh due to depth in the conference. At receiver, losing two of last year’s top three targets is huge, but I think the Terrapins are still in relatively good shape. D.J. Moore should push for all-conference honors, Jacquille Veii is back after a transfer to Towson and Taivon Jacobs should be healthy after missing 2016 due to a knee injury. That’s a solid trio to build around for 2017 but it probably ranks in the second half of the conference.
BSL: If the offense is to take a leap, the O-line will have to pass block better, and the QB production has to improve. MD is entering ’17 with better options than they’ve had in sometime. Is it reasonable to think MD can get Big Ten league average QB play this year?
Lassan: I think that’s pretty reasonable. I think it’s notable how much Perry Hills improved under Walt Bell’s direction last year. That’s a good sign for Maryland and the development of the quarterbacks on the roster. I also think it’s fair to argue the quarterback – whether that is Caleb Henderson, true freshman Kasim Hill or sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome – probably has more raw talent than Hills. Finding the right mix under center and within the offensive scheme may take a few games, but I think Maryland will get solid quarterback play in 2017.
BSL: Defensively, the D-Line still looks average-ish at best overall, with a chance to exceed current expectations if Adam McLean, Cam Spence, and Melvin Keihn are ready to contribute. The starting LB’s look okay, the depth is thin. Even with the loss of Will Likely, there is talent to be found in the Secondary.
There aren’t many elite college defenses. It seems like defense in college is mostly about getting key stops, and creating turnovers. From the personnel you see, how far away is MD from having a league average defense?
Lassan: After giving up 5.6 yards per play and ranking 11th in the Big Ten in points allowed last season, Maryland’s defense still has a ways to go for 2017. On the positive side, six starters are back, and safety Denzel Conyers returns after missing most of last season due to injury. However, this unit gave up too much on the ground (214.8 ypg in 2016) and surrendered 17 passing plays of 30 yards or more. With a handful of the returning starters entering their senior season, this may be more of a two-year process for Durkin. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this group improve slightly in 2017. But 2018 looks like a young defense/rebuilding year (at least right now).
BSL: MD is pushing hard in recruiting. They are improving their facilities. Is the next key another (further) investment in their Assistant Coaches?
Lassan: This is going to be critical for Durkin and for the program’s hopes of climbing higher in the Big Ten and on a national level. Assistants like Bell or Pete Lembo could get a look for head coaching jobs in the near future, Chris Beatty is always regarded for his recruiting ties, and Aazaar Abdul-Rahim is another coach that has moved quickly through the ranks. Overall, Durkin’s first staff is a good one and keeping this group intact needs to be a priority. I’m sure Durkin could reload if he loses a few coaches, but it’s never easy to replace assistants you have a good rapport with, have spent significant time building a program or developing a scheme. Investing in assistants is something that was instrumental in Clemson’s rise under coach Dabo Swinney. Maryland would be wise to do the same.
BSL: You’ve joined Coach Durkin’s staff. You are tasked with bridging the gap between MD and the existing Big Ten East powers. What’s the argument you are articulating to recruits? Are there scheme adjustments you would advocate? What are you pushing Durkin to focus on?
Lassan: This is an interesting question. I think the biggest selling point for Maryland should be opportunity. The program is trending up, has better facilities on the way, the Under Armour connection and just an opportunity to make a difference. While a five-star recruit can go to Ohio State and compete with other five-stars, if you go to Maryland, you have an opportunity to start right away and have a chance to build a new tradition. It’s certainly a tough sell over Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, but there are some angles to pursue when recruiting against the big teams. And of course, I think there is the location angle. Keeping local recruits at home has to be a priority. In terms of scheme, I think Maryland is getting there on offense with the spread/tempo looks of Bell. The defense certainly has room to improve, but the 3-4/4-3 hybrid seems like a good fit for the program. And in terms of focus, I think this has to be an incremental improvement on a year-to-year basis. There’s just not a lot of things programs can do in order to win at a high level right away. So that means looking at facility, recruiting, scouting, building relationships all across the state and within the target area for prospects. I’d also say this program shouldn’t be afraid to think a little outside the box. Alabama has a large staff of former coaches to help with planning and recruiting and Michigan takes spring break trips that draw a lot of attention. I’d set attainable goals and meet/exceed them (on-field and off-field) and push for a little outside-of-the-box decisions or ideas.
BSL: A year from now, are we looking at MD as a program on the rise, or having stalled from what seem to be the current gains?
Lassan: I definitely don’t think the momentum at Maryland is going to stall out in 2017, but I do think it’s reasonable to think this team may have trouble getting to six wins. Assuming the Terrapins lose to the top three teams in the East Division, Wisconsin and Texas, there is very little margin for error (which is why just being more competitive in conference play is essential). Regardless of what transpires in terms of wins and losses next year, my feeling is most will still view this program as one on the rise – especially if Durkin reels in another top 25 class next February. I think the 2017 season is more of a foundation-type year, where this coaching staff is building the depth and talent level for a bigger push in 2018/2019 once some of the recruiting classes are in place.