By MATT ZENITZ / Carroll County Times
COLLEGE PARK — Maryland coach Randy Edsall said he has told several of his close friends the same thing leading up to this season: “I feel good about this team.”
Maryland’s schedule will be tough, possibly the Terps’ toughest schedule in years, as the Terps enter their first season in the Big Ten. But to Edsall, this is the deepest, most talented and most experienced team he has had since he took over as the Terps’ coach in 2011.
“We’re in a position that we haven’t been in, in the three previous years going into this year,” the Susquehannock High School graduate said during an interview.
And whether it’s Edsall, assistant coaches or players, those within Maryland’s football program all say the same thing: The Terps have the tools to be competitive despite that daunting schedule that includes matchups against three preseason AP top 25 teams (No. 5 Ohio State, No. 8 Michigan State and No. 14 Wisconsin) and three other teams (Iowa, Michigan and Penn State) that received votes to be in the top 25.
Edsall said he felt good about Maryland leading into last year, too. “But I didn’t feel as good as I feel this year,” Edsall said.
“The process that we’re going through, that we went through and are now continuing to go through has put us in a position this year to go out and be very competitive in the Big Ten,” Edsall said.
The Terps were picked to finish just fifth out of seven teams in the Big Ten’s East Division in a preseason media poll compiled by Cleveland.com.
However, Maryland has arguably one of the top wide receiving corps in the country, led by Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. The Terps also have a sixth-year senior at quarterback (C.J. Brown), three talented running backs (Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Wes Brown) and an improved offensive line that Edsall said he thinks will surprise people.
“We’re excited,” Brown said. “We have a lot of potential [on offense].”
The defense appears to be in good shape as well.
The Terps lost just one starter (Marcus Whitfield) from last year’s front seven and still have several players that were either starters or key role players on Maryland’s defense that ranked 21st nationally in 2012.
The secondary is a question mark. Junior cornerback Alvin Hill is entering his first season as a starter. Fellow starter Will Likely is just 5-foot-7 and gave up some big plays during preseason practice. And nickel back Jeremiah Johnson fell victim to some big plays during camp as well.
However, the Terps have three potential NFL players along the defensive line (nose tackle Darius Kilgo and defensive ends Andre Monroe and Quinton Jefferson). Linebackers Cole Farrand, Matt Robinson and L.A. Goree are returning starters. So are safeties Sean Davis and Anthony Nixon.
Davis had a team-high 102 tackles last year and two interceptions last year. And according to Edsall, Davis was among the most impressive players during preseason camp.
The Terps lost Whitfield, who had nine sacks last year, but they replace him with senior Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil. Cudjoe-Virgil had three sacks in six games last year and was one of just three outside linebackers from the Big Ten selected to the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, given annually to the top linebacker in college football.
Maryland coaches are also enthusiastic about the progress of sophomore outside linebacker Yannick Ngakoue, a former top recruit who was consistently disruptive as a pass rusher during preseason practice.
“I’m excited about a lot of things [on defense],” Farrand said. “I think we’re big. I think we’re strong. I think we’re fast. We definitely have a lot of leadership. Everybody’s holding each other accountable this year, so I think that’s great in a football team … and I think we’re looking very good.”
The first five games will be key. Maryland, which opens against James Madison Saturday, may be favored in each of its first five games before playing Ohio State in College Park Oct. 4.
If the Terps can win each of those games, that matchup with Ohio State becomes even more interesting, especially considering the Buckeyes will now be forced to play this year without star quarterback Braxton Miller.
Maryland was just 7-6 last season, but the Terps were 5-2 before injuries started to mount.
“People talk about Maryland going into the Big Ten and struggling. I don’t see that,” said James Madison coach Everett Withers, who was the defensive coordinator at Ohio State in 2012 and last year. “I see Maryland having a chance — staying healthy — to have some success.”
Reach staff writer Matt Zenitz at 410-857-7896 or email@example.com.