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Remember when Ralph Friedgen was non-committal towards anointing Danny O’Brien the starting quarterback last year? Or when first-year head coach Randy Edsall said back-up C.J Brown was “putting pressure” on O’Brien for the starting job?
That seems years ago, as O’Brien impressed in the Red-White scrimmage and will be the unquestioned leader of the offense in 2011, a year in which Maryland hopes their mix of veteran leadership and young talent will translate into an Atlantic Coast Conference crown.
Perhaps no offensive player will be more important to the team’s success than O’Brien, though. The reigning ACC Rookie of the Year lost his top three wideouts – Torrey Smith to the NFL, Adrian Cannon and LaQuan Williams to graduations – and his quarterback coach, James Franklin, who accepted the head coaching job at Vanderbilt.
Factor in that O’Brien is still processing Edsall’s newly-implemented offensive scheme while developing chemistry with unproven receivers.
Oh, and the expectations…
Not only did O’Brien take home the Rookie of the Year award, but he mustered the sixth-highest passing yardage total (2,438) for a freshman in conference history, and the second-most touchdown passes in school history (Scott Milanovich).
O’Brien was poised and precise. He threw just six interceptions, and his 21-6 touchdown-interception ratio was best among freshman signal-callers in the nation. Five times O’Brien earned ACC Rookie of the Week honors, including an upset win over the No. 23 North Carolina State Wolfpack in the regular season finale.
Last year’s performance has led to O’Brien being placed on Phil Steele’s 2011 Preseason All-ACC second team.
But to what extent will O’Brien’s 2011 season – his first full season as the Terrapins’ starting signal-caller – be effected by all the changes within the program?
The loss of the Smith cannot be overlooked. A 2010 All-ACC wideout, Smith was one of the most dynamic playmakers in school history. He set the school record for TD receptions in a season (12) with O’Brien at quarterback, and finished his Maryland career third on the receptions list and second in receiving yards. Paired with Cannon’s and Williams’ departure, the offense will lose its top two pass-catchers and the receivers responsible for nearly 50 percent of their receptions.
In their place, juniors Kevin Dorsey and Kerry Boykins, as well as seniors Quintin McCree and Ronnie Tyler. Last season, the top four wideouts started a combined two games, and totaled 648 yards and five touchdowns.
But will a collection of first-time starters be able to match the productivity of Smith and Cannon? The answer may surprise you.
In each of his 10 starts, O’Brien completed passes to at least six different targets every game, and to eight or more targets on seven occasions. Not to discount Smith’s value as a safety valve for a then-redshirt freshman quarterback, but O’Brien thrives when he can utilize his impeccable field vision and spread the ball around.
“[O’Brien] does a tremendous job with the receiving core because he goes through all of his reads and progressions, and he’s always poised. I never see him rattled in the huddle. He’s never out of his game; he’s always tuned in to the defensive schemes and what to expect,” Boykins said of his quarterback in late October. “He’s such a smart quarterback He just helps get the balls to receivers that are open; he spreads it around.”
“Danny’s the type of guy that’s going to take what the defense gives. You’re going to be able to get a lot of guys involved. When that happens, just like anything else, positive plays are infectious,” James Franklin said to me after beating Boston College.
Franklin also made a habit of mentioning O’Brien’s unwavering dedication to the film room, where he has built sort of a reputation for himself. Even without his mentor, O’Brien’s constant studying should help him decipher Edsall’s playbook, and his new head coach frequently praised his quarterback for his progress during the spring.
Recently, ESPN’s Heather Dinich rated O’Brien the conference’s top quarterback over Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, Duke’s Sean Renfree and Miami’s Jacory Harris. The ranking was based upon spring practices and comments from their teammates and coaches.
If the Red-White Scrimmage is any indication of what’s to come this season for O’Brien and the Terps, then fans should be elated. On the first play from scrimmage O’Brien tossed a 65-yard fade to Tyler. The starting offense finished with 35 points, including 199 yards and two touchdown passes from O’Brien.
All signs are pointing up for Maryland in 2011, with O’Brien being the primary reason why. Despite an offseason of change for the entire football program, the mental toughness and physical talents O’Brien has proven to possess is one of the few sticking points.
Should O’Brien continue to develop as a passer and leader of the offense, he will be in consideration for ACC Player of the Year and the Terps will upgrade to a more prominent bowl – perhaps the Orange Bowl – at season’s end.