Walt Bell was first exposed to Maryland’s quarterback injury epidemic before he worked at Maryland. He was an assistant coach at North Carolina when the Terrapins visited Chapel Hill on the final day of the 2012 regular season. Maryland, having already lost four quarterbacks to season-ending injuries that season, started a true freshman linebacker under center against the Tar Heels.
“Was I aware of it?” Bell said of the curse he inherited when he became Maryland’s offensive coordinator at the start of last season. “Absolutely.”
Bell had no choice but to acknowledge the grisly tradition of bad luck in College Park as he prepared third-string sophomore Max Bortenschlager to start in Saturday’s Big Ten opener at Minnesota (3-0): For the third straight year and fourth time in six years, Maryland will have started at least three quarterbacks in a season.
This season, it took only until the fourth game, and wiped out many of the good feelings from the program’s most encouraging two-game start in years. Sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome and true freshman Kasim Hill led a stunning win over Texas in Austin, the Terps’ first over a ranked win in seven years. But Pigrome suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in that game. Hill looked so promising as Pigrome’s replacement against Texas and as the starter in a rout of Towson a week later — the first time in team history that Maryland opened a season with consecutive 50-point performances. Then he suffered the same season-ending injury in the same leg as Pigrome early in last week’s 38-10 loss to Central Florida.
“The good news is, it can’t get worse. So we will find a way,” Bell said.
That begs the ghoulish question of what should happen to the position should Bortenschlager go down. Redshirt junior Caleb Henderson, who sat out last season under NCAA rules after transferring from North Carolina, is the newly-minted backup, but he only recently returned to practice after a foot injury derailed most of his fall camp. The third stringer is redshirt sophomore Ryan Brand, a walk-on transfer who has never thrown a pass in a college game. Bell has also not ruled out the possibility of using running backs Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison under center, underscoring the lengths the coaching staff is willing to go if further attrition hits.
“It makes you a better coach . . . it makes you find a way,” Bell said.
Pigrome and Hill became the fourth and fifth Maryland quarterbacks to suffer torn ACLs in the past six years. Two other quarterbacks during that time suffered other season-ending injuries.
Since 2012, Maryland has had seven starters at the position. Since 2015, it has had five. It has relied on a freshman linebacker to start a third of a season (Shawn Petty in 2012). It turned to emergency relief from a fullback who was originally recruited as a quarterback, then would later become a starting linebacker (Shane Cockerille in 2015).
“Have I heard plenty about the history? Absolutely. It’s bad luck,” Bell said.
Over the past six seasons, there have been quarterbacks from every class and experience level, pocket passers and dual threats, right- and left-handers. A wide receiver (Stefon Diggs in 2012 and 2013) has taken snaps, and a tight end (Brian McMahon in 2012) has been on the depth chart as a backup for multiple games.
“You don’t see this happening at a lot of places, or if at all,” senior wide receiver Jacquille Veii said.
In 2015, four quarterbacks threw 18 or more passes and each threw at least one of the team’s 29 interceptions, six more than any other major-college team in the country that season. The efficiency improved in Bell’s first season in 2016, but the group still dealt with injuries all season; four players threw 33 or more passes. For that streak to snap this season, Bortenschlager will have to get through the final nine regular season games.
Maryland will be more limited in the zone-read option with Bortenschlager, who does not have the running ability of Pigrome or Hill. But Bell still plans to rev his up-tempo system to its normal pace. Bell will have the benefit of tailoring his game plan with a week of preparation for the Gophers, unlike last week, when Bortenschlager was unexpectedly thrust into action after Hill was injured on the second drive.
That should help calm the sophomore, who struggled and finished with just 132 yards passing with one touchdown and two interceptions in the loss to UCF. It also helps other players around him, including junior center Brendan Moore, who has snapped to four starters in just 17 starts.
“It is kind of crazy. But it’s just the game, right? Injuries happen,” Moore said. “I hate to sound like a broken record, but next man up.”
Veii took it one step further as he tried to put the history of injuries into context earlier this week. Perhaps nobody on the roster has seen it first hand as much as Veii, who himself has moved multiple positions throughout two stints at Maryland since 2013.
“It’s something that I have thought a lot about. I’m starting to think it’s a curse on the position. It’s just crazy,” Veii said. “Unfortunate things happen, and you just have to move forward.”
A timeline of Terps quarterback changes:
- This year proved to be an aberration: Brown started 11 of 13 games and threw 282 passes. After suffering a concussion, he was relieved for a game in the middle of the year by Rowe, who threw 131 times for the season.
- Hills started the first two games before being pulled in favor of Rowe.
- After three starts, Rowe was pulled in favor of Hills.
- Oklahoma State transfer Daxx Garman made relief appearances in two games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.
- Hills contracted mononucleosis and missed the Senior Day game against Indiana, when Rowe was knocked out of the first half with a concussion. Shane Cockerille, a quarterback recruit who had converted to fullback, took over and threw 18 passes in a 47-28 loss.
- In regular season finale at Rutgers, Hills was pulled in favor of Rowe after three drives. Maryland won, 46-41, to end 3-9 campaign.
- Each of the four players threw at least 18 passes and combined for an FBS-worst 29 interceptions.
- Hills started 11 games but left at least four with lingering shoulder injuries.
- Rowe played in mostly a reserve role.
- True freshman Tyrrell Pigrome earned his first start in a loss to Minnesota.
- True freshman Max Bortenschlager started a loss at Nebraska.
- Each of the four players attempted at least 33 passes.
- Pigrome suffered a torn ACL in the third quarter of the season opener at Texas.
- True freshman Kasim Hill suffered a torn ACL in the third game, vs. Central Florida.
- Bortenschlager was elevated for third-string to the starter for the Big Ten opener at Minnesota.
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