Sad to say, the Maryland special teams preview here back in July was chock full of conventional wisdom.
And it ended up like conventional wisdom usually does: Looking really, really bad in retrospect.
[Torrey] Smith, who debuted in 2008, has known nothing but usually zooming 25 yards or so (and sometimes more) after fielding a kick around the Maryland 3.
Smith enters his third season in College Park with 2,398 yards, and barring an injury or a surprisingly stingy season from the Terrapins' defense, he stands an excellent chance of passing [the NCAA kickoff return record] before the fall is through (though someone else might be in position to do the same).
Special teams coordinator Charles Bankins said in the spring that incumbent Tony Logan's unremarkable season (15 returns, 100 yards) last fall had as much to do with outside protection as anything Logan was doing.
Nonetheless, Maryland hasn't produced a consistent dangerous threat on punt returns since Steve Suter left, and given Ralph Friedgen's consistent mantra of wanting a punt returner who will catch and not fumble above everything else, it's probably not wise to expect too much of a difference in outcome.
Wow. That couldn't have turned out more wrong, even with an effort to be incorrect.
So what happened?
Let's start with Smith, who needed 721 kickoff return yards to break former Western Michigan return man Brandon West's career record. Smith wound up with 585 yards --- he did claim the ACC career record with 2,983 yards --- but was never entirely himself in this facet throughout the season.
Initially, teams tried kicking it away from Smith, an understandable strategy. And if the Terps were getting the ball around their 35, well, that worked just fine.
But Smith's hamstring injury, which lingered for nearly two months, had its most noticeable impact in his returns. He floated out of that duty for a brief stretch, and his 19.5-yard average was the Terps' lowest for a regular kickoff returner since 1984. It made sense; Smith, who averaged more than 25 yards a return his first two seasons, simply wasn't himself.
It didn't help that Maryland couldn't seem to find a good blocking formula, either. The Terps shuffled personnel and their return alignment multiple times, and the injuries to reserves depleted that special teams unit as much as any.
Smith had a 33-yard return in the Military Bowl against East Carolina, an otherwise unremarkable feat except that it was his longest of the season. It was no coincidence he had a month to heal after the regular season before he uncorked that return; it certainly played some sort of role (as did the Pirates' almost across-the-board mediocrity).
Overall, though, Maryland started between its 20 and 29 in more than half of its possessions after kickoffs, and just once --- after an onside kick late in the defeat of N.C. State --- took over in an opponent's territory.
MARYLAND 2010 POST-KICKOFF DRIVES
|Inside Own 20
While the kickoff returns were weaker than expected, the punt return unit was quite the opposite. Manned heavily by wide receivers --- Logan was one of six on the field when he scored one of his two touchdowns --- this group had a dramatic turnaround from previous seasons.
Not only did Logan uncork Maryland's first punt return for a score in more than six years (and did it again the next week), he ran up 560 yards to rank second on the school's single-season list behind Steve Suter's's brilliant 2003 season.
It was breakout work for Logan, who emerged as one of Maryland's stars as part of a 4-1 start. During that stretch, Logan had five returns of at least 30 yards; the Terps had only four of those combined between 2004 and 2009.
For his part, Logan was ecstatic when a week after his first score, Duke insisted upon punting to him again. His 84-yard return in the third quarter gave Maryland its first lead in what became a 21-16 victory, and was probably the first time since Suter was scampering about Byrd Stadium that a punt returner could be credited for a large slice of a Maryland victory.
Eventually, though, opponents caught on. In the season's final four games, Logan totaled three returns for minus-2 yards. Logan spent the first half of the year ahead of Suter's pace, but couldn't get anyone to cooperate with him down the stretch.
But that's a narrow view; in those last four games, Maryland opponents averaged 33.9 yards on 15 punts --- an dropped just four of those inside the 20. Logan as a deterrent still was helpful in terms of field position.
Logan will be back for his final season, and might find it difficult to roll up similar numbers in his next go-round because of his reputation for creating havoc. No matter. He has an all-ACC honor to his name already, and he'll be viewed as one of the league's most electric players entering 2011. That's solid work for someone manning a spot that was considered an afterthought for Maryland's purposes just a couple months ago.