The 2013 season has been something of a wild ride for Susquehannock High School graduate Randy Edsall and the Maryland football team.
The Terps won their first four games before falling victim to another string of major injuries that threatened to sink Edsall's third season as head coach, but bounced back to become bowl-eligible and guarantee his first winning season at Maryland.
The Terps will end that season against Marshall in Friday's Military Bowl at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium before making the jump to the Big Ten Conference next year. Edsall talked about the highs and lows of the past season, the upcoming bowl game and the future of the program in this interview with Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck and Terps reporter Jeff Barker.
Randy, congratulations on your first bowl appearance in your first three years in Maryland. Tell us what that means to you, what it means for the program and what it means for the players.
Well, I think what it means for the program is that it shows the progress that's been made in the three years we have been here. You take a look at what's happened this year, overcoming the adversity we did with injuries. We lost two starters at the beginning of the season that we thought we were going to have in (wide receiver) Marcus Leak and (running back) Wes Brown, and then to overcome the injuries to (wide receivers) Stefon (Diggs) and Deon (Long) and (cornerback) Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson and (linebacker) Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil and some guys -- (left tackle) Mike Madaras -- leaving midseason. For our team to overcome all those things and end up 7-5 and now getting the opportunity to go to the Military Bowl, it's huge. It's huge for us in terms of recruiting, in terms of showing progress, and then it's the reward for the players. That's what I'm really happy about, is that they have the opportunity to experience what the bowl games are. And now I think this will lead to more motivation to continue to work hard because we have a lot of young kids that are going to get this experience and enjoy it and, from a recruiting standpoint, it helps tremendously.
Is there a trade-off there for the players? I know it's a thrill for some kids to travel somewhere they haven't been, but there also are advantages to having the game right here in their backyard.
I think it's all good. You don't have a lot of control over where you go. When we got the sixth win, I told our guys, "Hey, six wins doesn't guarantee anything. We need more than that." But if you take a look at the possibilities of where we could have gone, this is the best-case scenario. It's over the holidays. The families can be a part of that. Also, more of the family members will be able to travel to watch their sons play in a bowl game, and from a fan base standpoint, it's advantageous for our fans to be there. Our guys were excited about it. Then, when you take a look at the gifts, the Military Bowl is giving a (PlayStation 4 video game console). Our guys have gotten calls from players around the country who wanted to trade the gifts, because of the gifts we were getting. It's all good, and our guys are very excited about taking in all the festivities and the things we have planned for them.
Talk about Marshall and the challenges that the Thundering Herd presents for your team.
Marshall is a very explosive offensive football team. Their quarterback (Rakeem Cato) has had an outstanding year. And when you take a look at the balance they've had yardage-wise in terms of running the ball and throwing the ball, it's going to be a tremendous challenge for our defense. They are very skillful on offense. The quarterback does a really good job knowing where to go with the football. Defensively, they are a team that's very active, very athletic and likes to bring pressure and play man-to-man coverage. And then in their special teams, their return game is very good. I know (head coach) Doc Holliday very well from all the years of coaching. He's going to have a team that's well prepared. They're going to be tough and they're going to be physical and they're going to get after you.
The bowl game is a reward for your players for what they've done during the season, but at the same time you're at a pivotal juncture in the history of Maryland football. How important is it to win this game as a stepping-off point going into the Big Ten?
That's the one thing we've talked about with the players. A lot of them haven't had the experience of being in the bowl game, and I said, "You know the bowl game is great and we're going to enjoy everything that goes along with it, but the No. 1 reason we're going to the game is to win." We want to get win No. 8. We want to carry more momentum into next year as we go into the Big Ten. Our guys understand the fact that it's great to go and have all these opportunities to do things, but still the bottom line is for us to go there and get a win.
Speaking of the Big Ten move, a lot of people are skeptical about your ability to make that jump successfully next year. How big a challenge is that, and are you concerned that you may have to take a step back as you adapt to facing that kind of competition?
No, I'm not worried about that. Everybody always wants to doubt you and think the world is coming to an end. This program, when this game is over, we're embracing this opportunity. We're looking forward to it with a lot of enthusiasm. We know that we're going to be in probably the second-toughest conference in college football, but that's what we live for. We're going to go out there knowing that a lot of guys we have coming back have a lot of experience. What we have to do is work very hard and continue to build up our offensive and defensive lines to the point where we're going to be able to go head-to-head with the people we're going to be playing. I think we have an advantage because some of the skills people we have. We might be a little more skillful than some people in the Big Ten. I think there are some trade-offs, but for us, we're looking forward to it because we think we're going to compete and have a good year last year.
Obviously, at that level, with the kind of teams that play in the Midwest, the offensive and defensive line play is critical. Where are you as far as continuing to develop those areas? You have had some challenges from an offensive line standpoint over the past year. How do you feel about where you are right now, looking at what you have now, the depth you have now and looking forward to the upcoming recruiting class?
I think that's been a major emphasis for me since I've been here. I'm a firm believer that you win with the people up front on both sides of the ball. That was something we needed to do, was continually recruit the best guys that we can on both sides of the line because you win the game in the trenches. We have a lot of young guys. We only lose one offensive line starter (guard De'Onte Arnett) this year, and we have some young guys with ability. Now what we've got to do is get bigger and stronger, and we've got to get them more technically sound because of their inexperience. It's the same thing defensively. We've got some young guys who are getting better. We lose (defensive end) Zeke Riser and we've seen some things with (defensive end) Andre Monroe and (nose tackles) Darius Kilgo and Keith Bowers and (defensive end) Quinton Jefferson all coming back, and we have some young guys coming along on the defensive line that we like, and it's just that process of getting them bigger and stronger and gaining more experience.
You talked about recruiting and how you have an advantage in the skill positions. You recruited some great guys -- Stefon Diggs, (cornerback) Will Likely -- but during the course of the season, you talked about depth. As you build a program, that's something you have to tend to. Where do you feel your depth is, and does that remain a concern?
We're better. The one thing we see, having had the injuries we had at the receiver position, but you've seen Levern Jacobs step up and do some good things. You've seen Amba (Etta-Tawo) step in. Nigel (King) was kind of dinged a little bit early in the season, but you have that, you have Marcus Leak coming back. He's been admitted back into school and will be starting in the winter session. We have Taivon Jacobs, who we teetered on playing this year, who is very, very good. So you've got all those guys coming back, so at certain positions, I like the depth we have, but we don't have the overall depth that I want for our program. We'll be closer to that after this recruiting class, and then I think as we continue to go, we'll just add to that. In terms of the numbers "¦ in terms of the scholarships to position, I think after this year, we'll be exactly where I want us to be, and now the depth will even be better and we'll just continue to grow it and develop it.
Do you think you're even more sensitive to that because of what happened to the quarterbacks last year and the receivers this year?
I don't know if I'm more sensitive. I think what you want to do is have as many quality players as you possibly can. I think the thing that helped us this year is that our guys understood that we're not a one-man or two-man team. Last year, we got hurt at the worst position we could, at quarterback, but this year, we lost two starting corners. We lost two starting receivers. We lost a top pass rusher. But what we did is we overcame that, and guys who had to play did a really good job. I think from a mentality standpoint, that's probably going to help us a lot moving forward because our guys know that regardless of who's out there, we can win.
Going back to the Big Ten for the moment. When you interviewed for the job and were deciding to come here, if you had known the Big Ten move was going to happen, would that have made the job more attractive, less attractive or it wouldn't have made any difference?
It probably wouldn't have made any difference. I think when you take a look at it, the (Atlantic Coast Conference) is a conference that is different than the Big Ten. You go against Florida State, Clemson and some of those teams that you have to go against, but you know the Big Ten is more of a football conference. It's known for football, where the ACC's known for basketball. To have the opportunity to play against the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and all those enhances it, and I think it makes all of us work a little bit harder. Not that we didn't work hard before, but we know we've got to do even a little bit more now. But again, the thing that it does do is, you're going into situations where you're playing perennial football powers. It gets your juices flowing. It gets you even more excited about what you're doing. I know our guys are going to be ready for it. We'll start getting on them as soon as this game is over. We're going to start breaking down the teams that we're going to have to play next season right after the first of the year.
And it will fill Byrd Stadium for some of those big teams.
Exactly. We should have better attendance because of the people that you're playing. I know this: I'd want to be a season-ticket holder and have the opportunity to see the teams coming in there, but also watching Maryland play.
Let's look back one more time. Was there ever a moment for you when the injuries started to mount this season, because of all that had happened last season, when you said, "This may not happen for us"?
I never thought that. I never did. This season was very interesting because we started off very well -- 4-0, 4-1, 5-1 -- and then we hit that stretch and we did get some injuries. But it wasn't so much the injuries that took place. The thing that took place was, we got away from being a team. We ended up becoming a little bit selfish. Guys didn't know how to handle the success that we had. I think what happened is, we got a little bit ahead of ourselves and we started thinking more about ourselves than about the team. And then, I remember, we ended up having a team meeting, and I asked our guys, "What is different now than what where we were earlier in the season?" I called on people and asked people to speak to give their reasons why and guys came up with stuff. You could see the difference, because where we were was right, but just because we had success shouldn't change who we are. We won because we were a team, not because of this. Some guys were [saying], "Maybe I'm not touching the ball as much" and doing all that, and we kind of got out of what got us to where we were. After we had that meeting, that's when we went down and beat Virginia Tech and ended up getting the seventh win. We played better because we got back to being a team instead of worrying about different things. I never doubted it, because I knew that we did have some strong leadership in our leadership council and that guys wanted to do it. I think the thing was, after we had that meeting and we went down to Virginia Tech, and see our guys on the sidelines -- you could just feel it going into that game. There was no way we were going to lose that game.
Has there ever been a point in the last two years where you ever felt that maybe the administration was losing confidence in where this football program is going?
A: No. I don't concern myself with what other people think. My obligation is to, yes, the school, but to the players. I knew that we were on the right track. I knew that what we were doing was right, and it was just a matter of us getting a win for them to really understand, and I think that happened at Virginia Tech. But, no, not at any time did I think that. If they were, they didn't express that to me. They didn't show that to me. I knew that in terms of what they asked me to do when I came here, we've been doing, and we're making the inroads and the progress exactly to where we want to go, and we're going to keep building on that.