With Maryland Terrapins head coach DJ Durkin on paid administrative leave and several members of his staff terminated as the school investigates the circumstances surrounding the death of Jordan McNair, the program is in turmoil heading into the season opener.
So the question for the Texas Longhorns is how well the Terrapins will respond to adversity and to the coaching of offensive coordinator Matt Canada, the interim head coach.
From the Texas perspective, head coach Tom Herman hasn’t spend any time discussing the situation in College Park.
“There has been zero talk about that in our program, other than the fact that you better be ready for a dogfight versus a really good Power Five opponent,” Herman said on Monday to open game week.
No small part of that calculus revolves around what happened last year, when Maryland came into Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and quickly ended the honeymoon period of the Tom Herman era with a 51-41 victory.
“This is a team in Maryland that they don’t think they can beat you,” Herman said. “They know they can beat you, because they have. There’s a lot of guys on that team at Maryland that know that they’ve beaten Texas.”
In the midst of the scandal, that knowledge is unquestionably buoying Maryland players who have an opportunity rally around each other and their interim head coach. Since McNair collapsed during a workout on May 29, it’s surely been a difficult stretch for the Terrapins, so the refuge of playing a football game will likely be a massive relief for the players.
There’s also the reality that Durkin has recruited extremely well since arriving in Maryland, so there will be plenty of talent on the home sideline of FedEx Field on Saturday.
“They’ve got really, really, really good players,” Herman said. “Really good players. That was very evident last year. They’ve got a lot of team speed. They’ve got a lot of physicality on defense.”
Texas will also have to overcome some disadvantages in preparation. Herman named sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger the starter last week, while Canada declined to say whether Kasim Hill or Tyrrell Pigrome will at quarterback for the Terrapins on Saturday. The two are listed as co-starters on the depth chart released on Tuesday.
Preparing for a new offensive coordinator is never an easy task, either. Canada arrived in College Park this offseason from LSU to replace Walt Bell, who left to take over the offense at Florida State.
To understand the personnel Maryland will use, Texas can watch games from last season. To get a preview of Canada’s offense, the Horns can watch a spring game that Herman said was likely very vanilla, like all spring games across the country. Then the staff will move on to watch other games Canada has coached at previous stops.
“You’ve got an offensive coordinator that has an MO, that has a philosophy, and you try to study what he did at LSU. You try to study what he did at Pittsburgh,” Herman said. “You try to study what he did at NC State. But at the same time, he’s inheriting a personnel, especially at the quarterback position, that’s suited for maybe something a little bit different.”
After a year in Todd Orlando’s defense, Texas should be much more ready to play Maryland this year than it was last year, but the fact that Canada hasn’t coached a game yet for the Terrapins will necessitate some in-game adjustments as a result of tweaks Canada has made to fit his new personnel.
Opening the season on the road presents another challenge for the Longhorns — it’s only the third time since 1996 that Texas will start the season outside of Austin. In 2015, the last season opener on the road, the Longhorns suffered an embarrassing beatdown in South Bend at the hands of the Fighting Irish.
Playing at a professional stadium brings with it some challenges, too. Instead of doing the Friday walk-through at home before flying out to the road destination, the Horns will leave Austin early Friday morning in order to hold the walk-through at FedEx Field prior to the normal slate of Family Friday activities.
Then there’s the difference between college and professional stadiums.
“It’s different, too, because the pro numbers are in a different place,” Herman said. “The pro hashes are in a different place. So you have to adjust to, hey, I know that says — because all of our splits by our receivers are based off landmarks on the field, and the pro numbers are a lot farther inside than they are the college numbers. Usually they’ll have little tick marks where the college numbers should be. So our receivers got to get adjusted to the spacing and all that.”
With the spread consensus favoring Texas by 13 points, an outsider might look at this game and expect an easy victory for the Longhorns. After last season, however, Herman is cautious enough to restate his point about the Terrapins.
“So to assume that just because they’ve had some issues in their program that they’re not going to show up, they’re going to show up. They’re going to show up not just thinking they can beat us, but knowing that they can.”