Burnt Orange Nation: One of the major storylines around this game surrounds all the turmoil in the Maryland program right now as a result of the investigation into Jordan McNair’s tragic death. What’s your sense of how the coaches and players will respond to that adversity when it comes time to take the field on Saturday?
Testudo Times: I have no idea, nor does really anyone. Situations like this can become uniting or dividing forces in the locker room, or anything in between. The players haven’t spoken to the media since the spring, but interim head coach Matt Canada has spoken positively of the current vibe around the team. If that translates into playing for each other and for McNair, the Terps have the talent to surprise a lot of people. But there’s also a chance things go poorly and Maryland isn’t able to overcome more adversity.
BON: The Terrapins are transitioning from Walt Bell’s spread offense last season to Matt Canada’s multiple attack that features heavy usage of motions and shifts. What makes that offense so difficult to defend and how will he adjust it to fit his personnel?
TT: The motions and shifts aren’t just a gimmick; Canada uses them to both create mismatches and force a defense to scramble right before the snap. What’s made him successful in the past is how he’s adapted his scheme to fit the personnel at every stop, most notably at Pitt, when the Panthers averaged over 40 points per game and beat eventual national champion Clemson. We’ve got a more in-depth explainer of the scheme here.
BON: On Tuesday, Canada declined to name a starter at quarterback, with Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome listed as co-starters. Who do you think will play? Which quarterback gives Maryland the best chance to win?
TT: Hill is my answer to both questions. I was actually surprised when Canada announced co-starters. Hill has taken the bulk of first-team reps in practice; at the open portion of practice Tuesday, he was taking snaps from newly-named starting center Johnny Jordan. While Pigrome shook off an opening pick-six to throw well against Texas last year, Hill has long been known as the better thrower between them. He isn’t as explosive as Pigrome in the running game, but he can hold his own on the ground. That versatility should make him the best fit for Canada’s offense.
BON: Aside from the quarterbacks, which player should Texas fans watch out when the Maryland offense is on the field?
TT: The obvious answer here is Ty Johnson, who ran for 132 yards on 12 carries in last year’s matchup. He switched from No. 6 to No. 24 (his high school number) this offseason, but he’ll be hard to miss when watching. However, I’ll also mention that the Terps actually have six running backs that are forcing the coaching staff’s hand right now. Redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland is generating the most buzz of the group; after missing 2017 with injury, he’s been fully healthy since the spring and has been explosive and versatile at every turn. It’s unclear how much we’ll see of him Saturday, but he could be one of the game’s biggest X-factors.
BON: With Jesse Aniebonam healthy once again and a number of transfers added to the mix defensively, including former five-star prospect Byron Cowart, how much better will the Terrapins defense be this season?
TT: If all goes well (and at Maryland, all never goes well), the Terps will have both a fantastic pass rush and a top-notch secondary this year. Aniebonam posted 9.5 sacks in 2016 but missed all of last season; nobody recorded more than three sacks last year after he went down. Cowart has impressed everyone since coming to Maryland; the Terps hope he can capture a lot of the talent that made him such a prized recruit. Then there’s the defensive backfield, with Antoine Brooks, Darnell Savage and Tino Ellis all returning and Florida State transfer Marcus Lewis entering as a starter. Among defensive position groups, this is easily the one with the best combination of talented recruits and returning production.
The run defense has been a weakness for a while, and there’s still some reason for skepticism there. The Terps have traditionally run a 4-2-5, which means two linebackers are responsible for a lot of ground, and neither of last year’s starters are back at that position. Maryland held Texas under 100 yards on the ground last year, but it won’t be easy to do that again.
BON: What are your predictions for how this game will play out, including a final score?
TT: I can see Maryland winning this game, and I think the Terps will at least give the Longhorns a run. But Texas has the talent and depth to outlast Maryland and even up this two-game series. We’ll say it’s a 28-24 final.