Burnt Orange Nation: DJ Durkin got Maryland to a bowl game last season in his first year. Did that team meet or surpass your expectations?
Thomas Kendziora: I would say last year’s Maryland team met my expectations, but was clearly not where it needed to be. The Terps scraped together six wins by beating teams that were mediocre or worse; against squads who were clearly better than them, they got thumped. By some advanced metrics (and by the eye test, really), Maryland’s product at the end of last year was worse than it was during 2015, when the Terps went 3-9. However, there’s something to be said for finishing with about as strong a record as you can, which is what Durkin’s first team did.
BON: Known for his recruiting ability, Durkin brought in an impressive class. How many of those players are going to be ready to contribute against Texas on Saturday?
Kendziora: As strong and plentiful as Durkin’s first class was—28 players, including eight four-star recruits—none of them are listed as starters this week. Safety Markquese Bell probably had the best shot at earning a starting spot right away, but he and JuCo transfer Alex Woods were suspended indefinitely for a code of conduct violation last week.
That said, a handful of guys will see rotational snaps this weekend. There’s a trio of running backs—Anthony McFarland, Javon Leake and Tayon Fleet-Davis—who impressed in camp, and freshman wideouts Tahj Capehart and Sean Nelson made appearances on the depth chart. Kasim Hill enters this game as Maryland’s backup quarterback, and he’s the cornerstone of the plan for the near future, but if he’s on the field much on Saturday, something probably went wrong.
BON: Starting quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome is undersized and didn't test especially well in high school as an athlete, but he seems to play fast in pads. How dangerous is he as a runner and how advanced is he as a pocket passer?
Kendziora: Regarding Pigrome’s talents on the ground, I refer to his double-overtime game-winner at UCF last September. But in his one start last season, he went 18-for-37 with just 161 yards passing and was short-hopping 10-yard throws. With a full offseason to improve, it seems he’s made incredible strides. He’s said that the game was too fast for him last year, and he was able to slow it down in camp. But it’s still unclear how he’ll handle a road atmosphere like Texas, and how much of a weapon the passing game will be in general.
BON: Most of the top wide receivers for Maryland departed after last season. Are there capable replacements there or will that group take a step back?
Kendziora: D.J. Moore is back, and he was widely regarded as Maryland’s best receiver last year. With another year of growth and a more consistent passing game overall, he’s expected to do big things. After him, there are plenty of question marks, but the group does have upside. Taivon Jacobs has struggled with injuries his whole career, but when he’s been healthy, he’s been good, and he’s healthy right now. Jacquille Veii played running back and wideout in his early years at Maryland, then transferred to Towson, then transferred back, and after sitting out 2016, he’s ready to roll. The fourth part of that nucleus is DJ Turner, a sophomore who didn’t put up big numbers last year but has impressed throughout the offseason.
Maryland also brought in six freshman receivers, including Capehart and Nelson, so while this group might not be as experienced as it was last year with all the upperclassmen, it’s certainly deeper.
BON: Since Durkin is an accomplished defensive mind, what are the expectations this season for the run defense after struggling so much last season?
Kendziora: It’s hard to be worse than 127th in the country in Defensive Rushing S&P+. Maryland returns most of its defensive linemen from last year, and entering the second year of the Durkin-Andy Buh system, they should be much improved. I think the group is still undersized as a whole, but the Terps will have four senior starters with other upperclassmen as backups. I will say that I feel a lot better about this matchup with D’Onta Foreman not in the Longhorns’ backfield anymore.
BON: Is the secondary capable of replacing the departed talent and allow guys like Jesse Aniebonam time to get to the quarterback? How does Durkin like to go about producing pressure?
Kendziora: Maryland runs a 4-2-5 scheme, and most of the sacks come from the guys up front. The Terps have had solid pass rushers for a few years now, most notably Yannick Ngakoue, and I think Aniebonam should get his chances this weekend and this season. The secondary lost two of last year’s opening-week starters, but we got an encouraging glimpse of their replacements during the second half of last year. Pass defense was a relative strength a season ago, despite injuries and inexperience, so the secondary might be a highlight this time around.
BON: What are your general thoughts on how this game plays out?
Kendziora: I think most of the people talking about this game have underrated Maryland and been too certain of Texas, but there’s still a talent gap that should be amplified by the game being played in Austin. Maryland will keep this game close, but the Longhorns will ultimately be a little too much.