Terps Trio: Maryland vs. West Virginia, Danny O'Brien and Kam Williams

Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker and Don Markus and editor Matt Bracken weigh in on the three biggest topics of the past week in Maryland  sports.

What is the mood of Maryland's football program heading to West Virginia on Saturday as a four-touchdown underdog?

Jeff Barker: I’m certain Maryland appreciates the magnitude of its task Saturday -- to try to hang with a Top 10 program boasting one of the nation’s most prolific offenses.

The Mountaineers are averaging 612 yards of offense through their first two games. That’s just ridiculous.

But the coaches and players around Gossett Football Team House seem to have a different attitude about playing such challenging games this season. They don’t seem to be in a funk, as some were in 2011 during that season-ending, eight-game losing streak.

It’s not that they are satisfied yet with who they are or how this year is going. It’s that they are realistic. They have a freshman quarterback and a dozen more true freshmen on the two-deep depth chart, including special teams. They have new offensive and defensive coordinators this season.

The sense around Maryland’s program is that this a long-term process of trying to build a program back up.

What fans will need to judge is whether there is indeed something being created in College Park -- whether the program is headed in the right direction. Whether it's going anywhere.

Are coaches getting maximum effort from the players? Are the players learning and improving? Is the recruiting sufficient to keep the team moving forward? Is the team more united than last season, when it seemed split between Edsall guys and Friedgen holdovers?

These aren’t always easy items to judge. But that -- as well as wins and losses -- is what I think you’ve got to assess as the season rolls on.

Did Danny O'Brien make a mistake leaving Maryland?

Don Markus: Three weeks ago, after Danny O'Brien completed 19 of 23 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns for Wisconsin in a season-opening win over Northern Iowa, I was among many who figured the former Maryland quarterback made a great move going to Madison.

Two weeks ago, after O'Brien and the Badgers struggled mightily in a 10-7 loss at Oregon State, I started to have my doubts that what seemed like a perfect marriage between a talented quarterback looking for a new team and a perennial Big Ten contender looking for someone to replace Russell Wilson had suddenly left the honeymoon phase.

Last Saturday night, as I watched O'Brien get benched at halftime after his second fumble in as many weeks and nearly his second interception, then saw his backup, redshirt freshman Joel Stave,  help the Badgers overcome a fourth-quarter deficit and survive when Utah State missed a last-second field goal, I started thinking that O'Brien had made a mistake leaving College Park.

O'Brien had a tough job trying to take over for Wilson, who had nearly a perfect season in his one-year career at Wisconsin (after playing three at N.C. State). Look at where Wilson is now: starting for the Seattle Seahawks after getting drafted in the third round last spring.

The reason O'Brien went to Wisconsin rather than Penn State was to play for a Big Ten championship and go to a Rose Bowl or some other BCS game, maybe even get a shot at a national championship. The reason he went to play for the Badgers rather than Vanderbilt was that his starting job seemed nearly assured.

And now?

It appears as if O'Brien will be getting another chance when the Badgers host Texas-El Paso at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday. But it could be his last chance, and he will be going out there on a very short rope.

First-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada, himself under some pressure after replacing Paul Chryst (now the head coach at Pittsburgh), hinted that O'Brien could be back in the starting lineup but made it clear that he can't keep turning the ball over.

"I don't think that is anything I've ever been a part of, and I don't think that is anything coach [Brett Bielema] has been a part of, having a quick trigger and have guys worry," Canada told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal.

But he also said, "You can't put the ball on the ground. You can't turn the ball over."

O'Brien knows all about looking over his shoulder. He seemed to do that most of last season, the first time coming after throwing a bad interception late in the game against West Virginia that ended Maryland's comeback.

But from what I saw last season at Maryland, and from what I saw in watching much of the Oregon State game and part of the Utah State game, I started thinking that maybe O'Brien was the ACC's top freshman quarterback two years ago because of Torrey Smith.

It now seems pretty obvious, given what Smith has done with the Ravens and O'Brien has done without him. O'Brien might not have been as good as many, myself included, thought. The Badgers are loaded at tailback, with Montee Ball and James White, but they are a bit thin at wide receiver.

Maybe O'Brien is just happy to get away from Randy Edsall, given what appeared to be a pretty acrimonious relationship by the end of O'Brien's stay at Maryland. Relationships can get a little testy between coaches and quarterbacks; just ask anyone who ever played for Steve Spurrier when he was at Florida. They can also heal, given time.

I know Edsall moved on after O'Brien decided to transfer, maybe even before. He moved on first to C.J. Brown when O'Brien struggled and then broke his arm late in the season, and now has had to go in another direction with freshman Perry Hills after Brown tore his ACL right before the 2012 season began.

But in watching Stefon Diggs play, and watching Hills hit Marcus Leak (who wears No. 82, same as Smith) haul in a long touchdown pass from Hills against Temple, I kept thinking about what if O'Brien had stayed a Terp.

Do you think the thought crossed his mind, even a little bit? 

Do you think he made a mistake?

A four-star shooting guard from Baltimore committed somewhere other than Maryland this week, and the collective reaction from Terps fans was total indifference. What happened to the Maryland basketball program I came to know during my first four years at The Sun?

Matt Bracken: About a month into my Sun tenure, I covered a press conference at a Baltimore Catholic League school where a highly touted prospect chose Maryland over a host of ACC and Big East programs. The commitment of St. Frances’ Sean Mosley was an undeniably big moment for Gary Williams’ program and fans of the Terps who had spent so many years waiting for a Baltimore City native in the post-Keith Booth era to come to College Park.

Since then, relations between the basketball power brokers in this city and the Terps have been fine. Maryland landed Nick Faust out of City and took a pledge from former St. Frances guard Sam Cassell Jr. – although the NCAA’s puzzling ruling about his coursework at Notre Dame Prep will prevent the combo guard from joining the Terps. But the point is this: Maryland fans have come to expect the Terps to – at the very least – have a reasonable shot at any high-major-caliber player from Baltimore.

Which brings us to Kam Williams, another highly touted BCL product with lots of Division I options. The Mount St. Joseph shooting guard committed to Ohio State this week over offers from Marquette, Miami, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. It took some time for high-major schools and recruiting analysts to catch on to Williams, the reigning BCL Player of the Year. But after dominating Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League all spring and summer – Williams led the EYBL in scoring at 22 points per game – coaches and scouts finally gave the wiry 2-guard his due. ESPN.com ranks the Gaels senior the No. 52 prospect nationally in the 2013 class.

Maryland had known about Williams for years. Terps assistant Bino Ranson is a regular around Baltimore high school gyms, so plenty of scouting had been done. Interest was expressed, but the recruitment never got any more serious than that.

This scenario is Maryland basketball recruiting now in a nutshell. An ultra-productive in-state player is just waiting for a Terps offer, but the Harrison twins’, Roddy Peters’ and Rysheed Jordans of the world are prioritized above him. Four-star prospects are nice, but five-star players with pro measurables are now who Maryland targets. It says a ton about the aspirations of a program that passes on a local guy like Williams – an undersized shooting guard at 6-2 but a player who has dominated the high school and AAU levels.

“I would have loved for him to play in our own backyard, but hey, it is what it is,” Kevin Williams, Kam’s father, said Tuesday.

I don’t know for sure that Gary Williams would have offered Kam Williams. Certainly there were several locals during his time as coach that seemed to be Maryland-caliber recruits but were never seriously pursued. But it just strikes me how different things are today than they were five years ago. Mosley and Williams were/are comparably ranked and similarly accomplished. But the former was a statement recruit for Maryland and the latter never even landed a Terps offer.

I’m no basketball scout, but from several viewings of Williams – and many conversations about him with his high school and AAU coaches – it’s hard for me to envision a scenario in which he’s not successful in Columbus. On the other hand, it seems extremely unlikely that the Terps miss on every one of their other 2013 guard targets. If Williams was a point – like Peters, Jordan or Andrew Harrison – things might have different. And even though Maryland passed on Williams, I’d expect relations between UM and Baltimore to remain fine. Ranson will continue to be visible, and the Terps will continue to pursue the city’s best players – starting in 2014 with St. Frances forward Dwayne Morgan and Mount St. Joseph guard Phil Booth, both of whom already have Maryland offers.

It’s a new era in Maryland basketball. The days of the Terps competing primarily against mid-level ACC and Big East schools for players appear to be gone. Now they go head-to-head with the big boys – Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, Indiana, etc. – in many of their recruiting battles. Whether or not they win their fair share remains to be seen. It’s a risky strategy to pass on a high-major prospect from their backyard in favor of pursuing the most elite players nationally. But after covering Maryland’s 2012 class, and watching the Terps become serious contenders for four of the best 2013 guards in the country, I wouldn’t bet against them.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

don.markus@baltsun.com

mbracken@baltsun.com

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