Terps Football Q&A with Tim Strachan
The Maryland Terrapins football team is approaching the beginning of their spring practices, and will be looking to improve on their 7-6 (3-5 ACC) mark last season. They’ll also be entering a new conference, which brings its own set of challenges. This past week, Baltimore Sports and Life (BSL) was able to speak to Terrapin Sports Radio Network analyst Tim Strachan about the team and what he expects from them in the Big Ten.
BSL would like to thank Mr. Strachan for taking the time to provide his thoughts on this Maryland football team, and for his insightful responses.
(Discuss this article on the BSL Message Board here.)
BSL: Last season, the Terps finished with a record of 7-6 (3-5 ACC) including a 31-20 loss to Marshall in the Military Bowl. The team was hurt by injuries all season, especially to their wide receivers and cornerbacks. C.J. Brown was also hurt for a few weeks in the middle of the season, which seemed to hurt his performance even when he was able to play. What were your general impressions of the 2013 season for the Terps, and do you think they could have done better given the situations they were placed in?
Strachan: Overall, I think the 2013 season was successful. Yes, going through several scenarios it could have been even more successful, especially when talking about the crucial injuries this team suffered again for the second year in a row. Had not both corners, and not to leave out [Yannik] Cudjoe-Virgil’s absence for the majority of the season as well as other injuries to linebackers, like Cole Farrand and Alex Twine, that forced younger and inexperienced players to fill in, I believe things could have been much different. Then you look at the injuries at wide receiver, losing arguably the two best football players on the team in [Stefon] Diggs and [Deon] Long and C.J. Brown being dinged up periodically, it makes any Terp fan frustrated at what could have been if they were available and healthy the whole season.
That said I feel the team did well, but could have had a couple more wins even with those injuries. The Terps hit a lull in the middle of the season with losses to Wake Forest, Syracuse and Boston College that they could have won with the players that were on the field. Then you look at the Clemson game that they very well could have won had it not been for a few plays in the latter stages of the game. Finally, there was the signature win of the season at Virginia Tech where reserve players and starters alike put it all together for an inspired, gutsy win.
So, even with injuries this team could have, and even arguably should have, pulled out at least two more wins, but Terp fans ought to happy with the final result given the pure fact that progress was made once again. Anytime the team gets over the .500 mark and makes it to bowl game should be considered successful, despite the outcome of the bowl game and final record. This team made another step in the right direction of becoming a winning program and has gained momentum toward more success in the future.
BSL: The Terps are entering a new conference in 2014, and the schedule is a tough one for the football team. There are many differences of opinions on how well the team will fare in the Big Ten, with some saying they’ll be fine and some saying they’d be lucky to win a conference game. How well do you think they’ll do this season, and who needs to step up in your mind to make it a successful year?
Strachan: Personally, I’m not as frightened by the Big Ten move or the schedule they will be playing as some have projected. I don’t think it will be much different than what we have experienced in the ACC. The top teams in the ACC – Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Clemson – get replaced by top teams in the Big Ten – Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska – and the remaining teams don’t pose any more of a threat than the rest of the ACC teams. Penn State is not the program they have been historically and maybe with Franklin they eventually make it back to the top echelon. However, my point being the remaining teams on the schedule and others in the Big Ten – Indiana, Wisconsin, Penn St., Iowa, Rutgers, Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue – don’t pose that much more of threat than the remainder of the ACC – Georgia Tech, Boston College, Virginia, North Carolina State, North Carolina, Duke (Conference Championship runner-up in 2013 to the eventual National Champion), Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest. Thus, I think the Terps will do fine in the Big Ten and may even surprise people in 2014.
No team in the Big Ten has far more superior talent on the edges than Stefon Diggs, Deon Long, Wes Brown (coming back), Taivon Jacobs (can’t wait to see what he can do), Levern Jacobs, Nigel King, Malcom Culmer, Marcus Leak (also coming back), and don’t forget Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. That is a lot of talent and there are others I left out! Throw in what C.J. Brown is capable of and it could be really exciting. Defensively, again there is a lot of young talent that now has experience (i.e. Will Likely) and there is plenty of experience returning on the defensive side of the ball, as well as depth. Players like [Darius] Kilgo, Matt Robinson, Cole Farrand, [Yannik] Cudjoe-Virgil, Yannick Ngakoue, Jeremiah Johnson, Quinton Jefferson, Sean Davis, Isaac Goins – the list goes on – all have experience and success under their belts at a young age with more room to improve. I’m a “glass is half full” kind of person and I have no doubt that the kids I mention here – and even some I have not mentioned – are all very capable of succeeding in the Big Ten.
As for who needs to step up, well they all have to step up. C.J. is the captain of the ship and as well as he played he needs to play even better and with more consistency (I’m always harder on the QB then anyone else, BTW). However, the elephant in the room is the big boys in the trenches. That is where the Terps need the most improvement, especially on the offensive line. This past year the line had some ups and downs, but overall I felt the line play was a little better than expected in 2013, not that I had huge expectations to begin with. The same goes for next year, but football games are generally won and lost at the line of scrimmage and if anybody really needs to step it up in 2014 it is going to be the big uglies up front. Obviously that is where the coaching staff concentrated in recruiting, but the problem with linemen is that it takes time to develop them more than skilled guys simply due to the sheer size, strength, speed and technique that is needed to go from the high school level to major college football. It is easy to say they won’t fair well at all, especially if you want to be, or are prone to be, a naysayer. But the slogan is, “Fear the Turtle”, not Fear the Big Ten“.
BSL: The recruiting season is over and gone, and the Terps ended up with a pretty good class. The highlight of the class is obviously Damian Prince, but players like Jesse Aniebonam, Juwann Winfree, and Derwin Gray make the class one to be excited about. What are your impressions of the class, and who do you think will make the biggest impact in 2014?
Strachan: Call me old school, but I’m usually more focused on what the classes are ranked on their way out than they are on the their way in. I do believe this year’s recruiting class was a success, especially on the offensive line and in key spots. Grabbing their third 5-star player in as many years is unprecedented for Maryland. The others you mention above are all great gets for this team. How much they actually contribute depends on a lot of variables, but all four you mention will have an opportunity to do so. That said I think the one newcomer that might be able to have the most impact is Larry Mazyck. At 6’8” and 340 lbs, plus plenty of experience beyond the high school level, Mazyck ought to have all the tools that would allow him to fill in immediately. If he can step right in the line automatically improves from last year and depending on the development of Damian Prince and Derwin Gray there are high hopes for what this line may look like at the end of the season, rather than the beginning, as well for what it all means for the future of that unit.
BSL: C.J. Brown returns for his final season at Maryland in 2014, and all signs point to him being the team’s starting quarterback. He had a few weeks in 2013 where injuries were obviously hampering his ability to play at a high level, but he exceeded expectations for the most part. How important is he to this Terps offense, and in what areas do you think he needs to improve for this season?
Strachan: I agree that C.J. is and should be the starter for 2014. A sixth-year senior with his experience, abilities and leadership will be crucial for the Terps. I love C.J. and it goes beyond what he does on the football field. He is a tough kid that has endured a lot of setbacks, but he has persevered and succeeded in the face of adversity, even exceeding expectations and setting records all the while. However, as mentioned previously, C.J. needs to become more consistent in his play and no one knows that more than C.J. himself. He is a gifted athlete and has all the tools, but there is still room for refinement. When he is able to run the ball well the offense is clicking on all cylinders; but when he is forced to be one dimensional, especially in the passing game, he needs to become more effective. Good players work on enhancing their abilities, great players work on improving their limitations. C.J. is a very good player, but in order to be great he needs to round out his game and that starts with passing the ball. I have all the confidence in the world in Mike Locksley and the coaching staff, as well as C.J., to believe he will do what it takes to be a more rounded QB next season and much improved.
That said if/when C.J. gets banged up, injured, or just ineffective in a given day there are guys that can step up and get the job done. I have always been high on Caleb Rowe and once he gets an opportunity to get into a groove – as opposed to spot play here and there – he could be a very good QB. The same goes for Perry Hills, who showed he is more than capable of handling the duties even as a true freshman 2 years ago, and Shane Cockerille, who will get his first real opportunity to show what he can do. The future is bright at the quarterback position for the Terps, but for now the top spot belongs to C.J. and I expect him to be improved and ready to lead the Terps in 2014.
BSL: The Terps’ defense took a bit of a step back last season, but still played well, especially considering that they were without their top 2 cornerbacks for the majority of the season. Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart was just given a contract extension, ensuring he’ll be at Maryland for at least a little while longer. What are your impressions of the defense, and who do you think will be the key to the unit’s success this season?
Strachan: You say last year was a setback for the defense and I say what Brian Stewart did with that defense was incredible. The stats and success may not have matched what they were in 2012, but the injuries and reliance on young players was a big contributor to that fact and Stewart did a tremendous job with this unit in my humble opinion. That is why it doesn’t shock me Stewart was given an extension because those that are in the position to make that call know how valuable he is to the success of the defense. I think the defense is going to be solid and better than they were in 2013.
First and foremost they need to stay healthy – the whole team needs to stay healthy and given the unprecedented injuries on both sides of the ball they have endured over two years can only mean the odds are in their favor to have less injuries in 2014, it just has to. The defensive line was excellent last year, along with the pressure from the edge rushers. Kilgo is a great anchor in the middle and even though his stats aren’t off the charts the nose-guard does so much more than what you see on a stat sheet. The emergence of Andre Monroe was awesome and that kid’s mentality and approach to the game, as well as life, is going to make him a success on and off the field. Linebackers need to stay healthy, too, but there is plenty of depth and experience there. The key, though, is for this LB unit to improve their overall play at every position. Tackling and pass coverage, especially underneath coverage, will need to improve. Another key will be who takes the place of Marcus Whitfield and if that is Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, then who will take over at Yannik’s role from last year. The secondary is the least of my concerns right now. Jeremiah Johnson will be recovered from his injury and the play from both Isaac Goins and Will Likely a year ago will only help the unit overall in 2014. Likely was so much fun to watch this past year and now with the amount of experience he received I look for him to become an even bigger impact moving forward. The rest of the secondary and their backups are back given the only loss will be [Dexter] McDougle to graduation (and hopefully to the NFL as that young man deserves every chance to make it at the next level that all Terps fans ought to be wishing for). There really is no drop-off expected for the defense going into 2014 and optimistically the entire unit will be in position to improve from the past two years.
BSL: Randy Edsall always seems to be the topic that most Terps fans want to talk about. His team has shown consistent improvement over the past two seasons, and seems to be headed in the right direction as far as recruiting goes. His contract expires in 2017, and many fans still want to see him fired before that time. What are your opinions on Randy Edsall, and do you believe that he is the right coach to lead this team to a Big Ten Championship?
Strachan: It amazes me at how many Terps fans out there are better head coaches, coordinators, athletic directors and even college presidents than what is currently at the University of Maryland (insert sarcastic emoticon here). In all seriousness, fans have every right to be critical of those people that currently hold those positions because the mere fact they spend their own money at sporting events, through donations and that many are alumni gives them that right. The reason for my sarcasm is that it is easy, as mentioned above, to be critical of Randy, his coaching staff, and the athletic and academic administrations at Maryland, especially when that criticism is not associated with peoples’ real names and avatars attached to their comments. It is easy for fans to throw ‘grenades’ when no one is holding them accountable. Randy is in a very public position and it is easy to criticize him for any decision he makes, or statement he gives, etc. Again, I’m not arguing that people should, or even need, to take the high road here. What I will argue is that no one can say there hasn’t been improvement every year Randy has been here off the field (academics, etc.), on the field (more wins in each season, plus a bowl game this past year) and, as you mention and I discussed above, recruiting.
I haven’t spent a lot time within the walls of Gossett Team House (at least not like I did when I was a student-assistant coach from ’96-’99), but I have spent more time there than the average fan. I know how hard Randy and his staff works (as all the staffs have done in my 18 years being a part of Maryland football). So this may fall on deaf ears as some will always just be critical, but I plead with Maryland fans to let the tangible results speak for themselves. Even some of the most staunchest of critics have started to change their tune when it comes to Randy because the formula he is using is making progress. So what if you don’t like how he comes off in a press conference? So what if his style doesn’t resonate with you? As long as progress continues to be made, there will be less criticism and more support for this program, or at least there should be. However, it isn’t because Randy deserves it or even yearns for it, but because the kids deserve it.
So, to answer your question: my opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Randy is a hardworking, genuine person, that cares about these young men and is 100% driven to make Maryland football successful. He has shown improvement in every year he has been here. And, yes, he is the right coach to lead this team into the Big Ten … but let’s hold off on talking Big Ten Championships just yet. As optimistic as I am, I also think the reality is this team still doesn’t have all the pieces to be a Championship team, as 13 Big Ten teams will find out at the end of next season since only one team can hoist the trophy to prove they do have all the pieces. I’m not saying they can’t win a championship, only that the odds of them doing it next year are not in their favor. What I am saying is that Randy’s plan seems to be paying off dividends and if it continues then there is no reason why he cannot be the right coach to lead them to a Big Ten Championship in the near future.
Thank you, Zack and BSL, for allowing me to scratch my football offseason itch. I hope to see a lot of Maryland fans out there during the open spring practices and Red-White game. Even more than that, I’d like to see Maryland fans come out in huge numbers to support these kids – the emphasis is on the kids – for their inaugural season in the Big Ten. Go Maryland! Fear the Turtle!