Previously appearing on the Sports Page at WTOP.COM… with Virginia Tech coming up this week-

When asked what his goals were in this year’s rough and tumble Big Ten East last week, Maryland coach Randy Edsall responded as he has for the most part during his tenure in College Park: “You want to finish first.” Really?  In a division that boasts the defending National Champ, a recent regular in the top 10 and two bigtime blue bloods?  “That’s what you’re striving for. That’s what we’re building for. Are we there yet? I don’t know. We’ll find out where we are after we play this year.” Athletics Director Kevin Anderson brought Edsall over from Connecticut precisely because Edsall had the vision that Maryland could become a conference contender instead of a program whose ceiling seemingly was a treadmill of 8-4 and 7-5 seasons with the occasional trip to second tier bowls in third tier locations (full disclosure: I have an uncle and aunt who run a chocolate shop in Boise and it rocks).  Since taking over in January 2011, Edsall’s goal has been to play for conference championships–and now the question is, can he get this program there?

The program’s first in the Big Ten should be considered a success:  a 4-4 conference mark that includes a first-ever win over Penn State in Happy Valley and a first-ever win over Michigan anywhere.  Non-conference victories at South Florida and Syracuse.  Plenty of upside for a team many (myself included) thought would have a tough time scraping together 5 wins, let alone the 6 necessary for bowl eligibility.  On the downside, Maryland was exposed by East Division foes Ohio State and Michigan State while experiencing the rude awakening of a 45-point loss at Wisconsin.  And then the Thanksgiving dessert of a home loss to Rutgers in a game where the Terps led by 25 late in the second quarter.  A less than competitive loss to Stanford in a Bowl whose name that escapes most (Foster Farms for those scoring at home).  While Terp fans saw possibilities of the program moving forward, they were also greeted by the limitations.

Quarterback is the question mark for this program.  For the first time since 2008, CJ Brown will not be a part of the program.  Last fall the sixth-year senior started all 13 games– the first Terps QB to start every game of the season since Sam Hollenbach in 2006.  Stability at this position hasn’t exactly been a recent occurrence due to injuries as well as ineffectiveness–and having a healthy and productive signalcaller for 12 regular season games is key to getting a 13th game.  As of the second week, three contenders were taking snaps with the first team offense:  Senior Caleb Rowe (1768 career yards passing with 12 TD’s and 10 INT), junior Perry Hills (1422 yards with 9 TD & 7 INT in four fewer career games) and transfer Daxx Garman (2041 career yards with 12 TD and 12 INT in nine games at Oklahoma State last fall) will compete for the right to be QB-1 against Richmond September 5th.  Coach Edsall has been impressed with each during workouts thus far…but nobody has separated themselves from the others as of yet. 

Other offensive issues include an inexperienced wide receivers corps (Stefon Diggs & Deon Long taking their combined 113 catches & 7 TD’s to the NFL) where junior Amba Etta-Tawo is the only returning WR with at least 10 receptions in 2014. Good thing the Terps have a recent history of having freshmen wideouts produce.  Can the running game get the best out of Brandon Ross and Wes Brown?  Brown’s been banged up and Ross wasn’t as effective in 2014 as previous seasons.  Will an offensive line that has three seniors be able to produce a better running game (12th in the Big Ten) and keep the quarterback safe (12th in sacks allowed)?

Defensively, the Terps move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 front.  The reasoning can be seen in Big Ten games where they got bulldozed by Ohio State and Wisconsin (allowing 269 and 311 yards rushing).  Yannick Ngakoue is expected to be the major presence for the front seven while DE Quinton Jefferson comes back from injury.  With linebacker Abner Logan’s season done thanks to an ACL injury, more will be expected of Jermaine Carter and Jefferson Ashiru.  The secondary should be solid with lightning rod William Likely manning one cornerback position and Sean Davis making the transition from safety to the other corner spot.  Likely is also a major force as a kick returner…and was one of two players on the team’s preview guide.

The other player to be the “face of the program” this summer is an unlikely individual– Australian kicker Brad Craddock.  The reigning Lou Groza Award winner (after making 18 of 19 field goals) returns for his senior year with his eye more than simply on the uprights.  When one thinks of kickers, one thinks of foreign flaky types long on accents and short on credibility in the locker room.  Not this kid– Craddock is taking an active role in the leadership of the team while mentoring younger players like Ngakoue. 

Maryland’s schedule this year begins with a soft September– home games against Richmond, Bowling Green and South Florida before the team visits West Virginia (Terps haven’t won in Morgantown since 2002).  The Big Ten slate begins with a bang– a night game with Michigan (and khakied coach Jim Harbaugh) before a trip to preseason #1 Ohio State.  A neutral site battle with Penn State concludes an October that could turn a season from a treat to a trick with ease.  Top 20 teams Wisconsin and Michigan State loom in November.  Maryland could very well be a better team this fall with a worse record than the one they earned in 2014.  The path to a potential Big Ten title or even bowl eligibility will not be easy.  But ease has never been on the mind of coach Randy Edsall.

“You want to finish first.  That’s what you’re striving for. That’s what we’re building for. Are we there yet? I don’t know. We’ll find out where we are after we play this year.”