COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland coach Randy Edsall was understandably nervous when he first met his new players last winter. He was replacing local legend Ralph Friedgen, and as he walked into the locker room, he wasn't sure how his new players would respond.
It didn't take long to find out. After making an introductory speech, Edsall opened the floor for questions. "When are we getting our playbook?" A tall, skinny player piped up from the group. "And when are you going to hire an offensive coordinator?"
The inquisitor was Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien. It was fitting that O'Brien broke the ice, because how the sophomore signal-caller meshes Edsall will determine the outcome of the Terrapins' 2011 season.
O'Brien was one of the biggest surprises in college football last season. A lightly recruited pro-style passer from North Carolina, he committed to Maryland amid far less fanfare than many of his teammates. After redshirting in 2009, O'Brien entered 2010 as Maryland's backup. He entered a Week 2 romp of Morgan State in the second quarter and threw three touchdown passes on his first four attempts. By Week 4 he was starting, and he finished his freshman season with 2,438 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and ACC Rookie of the Year honors.
It didn't take Edsall long to start raving about O'Brien's skill set. "[He] has all the traits that any coach would look for in a quarterback," Edsall said. "Athletic, great arm, smart, but most importantly the other players on this team really respect him. I wouldn't trade him for any quarterback in the country."
Because NCAA rules limit teams to 15 spring football practices (including a spring game), Edsall and O'Brien have had to connect in the film room as much as on the field. "We're locked into mastering this new offense right now, "O'Brien said. "Coach Edsall was a quarterback in college so I'll talk to him about the different mental aspects of the position. He's been there before so he's the perfect person to talk to."
Maryland's return to practice on Aug. 9 was a welcome relief for Esdall. "It's been the toughest part of the transition for me," Edsall said. "It's so much tougher when you don't get enough time on the field with the guys. When you have a player that's never done something you want to work with them."
Coming off a 9-4 season, Maryland has less to work on than it did at this time last year when it was looking to recover from a 2-10 campaign. The Terps return a powerful 1-2 running back in Davin Meggett and D.J. Adams and they bring back seven defensive starters, including All-America candidate Kenny Tate. One of Edsall's first moves as Maryland coach was moving Tate from safety to linebacker fulltime (Tate played lineback 75 percent of the time last season).
The deciding factor for Maryland will be whether O'Brien can replicate, and improve upon, his freshman campaign. That may depend on his receivers. O'Brien lost his top two targets from last year, Torrey Smith and Adrian Cannon, to the NFL and graduation. Edsall believes young wideouts Kevin Dorsey and Kerry Boykins are ready to shine despite their lack of experience. "[Smith} was a great player," Edsall said, "but him leaving just creates an opportunity for somebody else."
Opportunities can disappear at Maryland as quickly as they arise. Edsall has already earned a reputation as a fearless disciplinarian. He kicked standout offensive lineman Justin Lewis off the team in July and has instituted sanctions for everything from tardiness to unruly facial hair. The heavy hand was an adjustment for the players. "It was certainly a culture shock," O'Brien said. "We ran a tight ship last year but this is just on a different level. I haven't been late yet and after seeing what's happened to some other guys, I don't plan to be."
Of course, there are other concerns at Maryland than tardiness. Athletic director Kevin Anderson angered many by firing Friedgen, a successful and popular figure who sparked a remarkable turnaround last season. With Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams retiring last spring and the athletic department reportedly millions in debt, Edsall is facing pressure to prove the doubters wrong and win now.
Edsall is no stranger to pressure. The former Syracuse quarterback built Connecticut from a I-AA team into the 2010 Big East champions. "I just try to think about what I can control," Edsall said. "If there's nothing I can do, then who cares?"
Edsall isn't worried about distractions. He's worried about hitting the field with his new quarterback and chasing ACC titles.