Playing football is the least of Maryland’s worries. A summer of optimism turned disastrous at a fateful May 29 workout where offensive lineman Jordan McNair collapsed and died two weeks later from complications of heatstroke.
Since then, reports about negligence on the part of the medical staff and a toxic football culture have been published. A coach has resigned, multiple staffers have been placed on administrative leave – most notably head coach DJ Durkin – and the entire program is in limbo, with the head coach’s job in jeopardy, along with Athletic Director Damon Evans and university President Wallace Loh.
Maryland players have vowed to dedicate the season to their fallen teammate, announcing a list of tributes this season, including wearing a No. 79 helmet decal, and forbidding any player to wear McNair’s No. 79 jersey through his senior year in 2020.
When the Terrapins line up against the Texas Longhorns, they’ll without a doubt have McNair on their minds, wanting to play their hearts out for him. Will the controversy surrounding the program affect the players on the field? Only time will tell.
“The honest answer is I hope so,” interim head coach Matt Canada said regarding if he believes players have been able to completely focus on Texas. “We’re working very hard at it. We talk all the time about being right here right now. The best I can be is what I can do right here and right now. Everything behind me is behind me, we talk about it probably daily as a team … I think we’re as ready as we could be given the situation that we’re in.”
On the field, Maryland will be playing the Longhorns in their opener for the second straight season. Last year, the Terrapins walked into Texas and spoiled head coach Tom Herman’s debut with a 51-41 upset victory.
But it wasn’t without loss, as quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the third quarter. Then-freshman quarterback Kasim Hill played well in his relief and finished the job, but he suffered the same injury as Pigrome two games later and would also miss the rest of the season.
Canada has yet to name a starting quarterback for Saturday, with the initial depth chart listing Hill and Pigrome as co-starters.
Regardless of who starts, the running game and big plays will be key to this game, as they were last season. Running back Ty Johnson rushed for 132 yards on 12 carries in the team’s last meeting. Despite allowing 263 yards on the ground, the Longhorns run defense improved after that, finishing eighth-best in the nation.
On defense, Maryland will have to replace six starters from last season. However, three transfers – Byron Cowart, Marcus Lewis and Tre Watson – are set to start. Redshirt senior Jesse Aniebonam also returns to the defense after suffering a season-ending ankle injury during last year’s matchup. Aniebonam led the team with nine sacks in 2016.
Texas, who finished 7-6 last season, will have a different quarterback starting this time around. Instead of Shane Buechele, Sam Ehlinger, who played in seven games last season, will get the start. The sophomore threw for 1,915 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, but most surprisingly led the team in rushing yards, the product of a lackluster ground game.
The Longhorns also enter the season with much more talent on their roster; Herman brought in the No. 3 ranked recruiting class in 2018, according to 247Sports, only behind Georgia and Ohio State.
Last season’s 51-point outburst was Maryland’s second-largest scoring output. They’ll have to produce a similar performance if they want to pull off the upset for a second consecutive year. Maryland was 0-8 last season in games in which it failed to score 30 or more points.
A fast start is just as necessary for the Terps. The team had an ugly beginning to the game last year, with Pigrome throwing a pick-six on the team’s first possession. However, they stormed back, outscoring the Longhorns 30-7 and heading to halftime with a 30-14 lead. In all four of Maryland’s victories last season, they led at halftime.
Kickoff is set for Saturday at noon at FedEx Field.