COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown can remember lying in his bed one day last year, immobilized with his knee in a brace from a season-ending ACL tear, yelling to his roommates for help.
“They all came running down because they thought something was wrong,” Brown said. “I was like, ‘Can I have some water?’”
Over the past year, Brown has made the remarkable transition from relying on his teammates for the most trivial of tasks to being the one they’re all depending on.
Brown’s recovery and return to the starting lineup has been unique because the Terps have been so desperate for a leader under center, and Brown has had to overcome two-season ending injuries to finally fill that role. Even more remarkable, he’s doing it as well as just about anyone in the country. At 22, the bearded Brown is in grad school and in his first season as a full-time starter. Not only has Brown’s mere presence given the entire offense a much-needed boost of confidence, but his play has him ranked No. 3 in the country in QBR heading into Saturday’s game against Connecticut.
Maryland’s misfortune at quarterback is now one of its biggest strengths.
“C.J. is a young man who has had tremendous confidence in his own ability through his hard work and preparation, and what happens is, the people around him see how he handles himself, how he goes about his business,” said coach Randy Edsall, who called Brown the “old man” on the team. “I think it brings a sense of calmness, a sense of confidence to everybody else. And then to have him perform at the rate he’s been performing also brings a tremendous amount of confidence. It just seems like the game is very slow for him. He’s got everything under control. He’s operating at a level that is outstanding, just very smooth. Hopefully that will continue.”
The Terps are 2-0, and have a legitimate shot at heading into conference play 4-0 if they can beat struggling Connecticut and West Virginia teams. UConn lost to Towson, and the Mountaineers will have to play the Terps at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Aside from having healthy quarterbacks, one of the biggest differences has been the amount of playmakers surrounding Brown. Standout receiver Stefon Diggs is hardly his only option, as receivers Nigel King, Deon Long, and running back Brandon Ross have helped open the playbook.
Simply having Brown standing on his own two feet, though, is a major improvement after last year.
Maryland’s quarterback situation was so dire in 2012 that the Terps had to depend on Shawn Petty, a scout team linebacker-turned fifth-string quarterback to lead the offense. Four quarterbacks, including Brown, suffered season-ending injuries.
“It was unbelievable, especially to be in that [QB] meeting room,” Brown said. “No one wanted to come in that room. It was like a curse.”
One which has finally been lifted.
Brown has completed 75.6 percent of his passes (34-of-45) for 556 yards and five touchdowns, and he has also run for four touchdowns in two games. He has also accounted for an average of 345.5 yards of total offense, tops in the ACC and 13th nationally. Brown only threw three incomplete passes in the season opener against FIU, setting a school single-game record for completion percentage (20-of-23).
Not bad considering he has spent more time healing than playing.
Brown redshirted in 2009 before playing in one game in 2010, when he fractured his right shoulder and missed the final 11 games of the season. He will have eligibility in 2014, thanks to a sixth year of eligibility he was granted in April.
But it’s this season has his full attention.
“It’s very important, especially with all of the work I’ve had to put in, and the preparation and to be let down, and then to come back, it’s just been a roller coaster,” he said. “That’s how I describe the ups and downs and hills and valleys. It’s been tough, but I’m here right now, we’re having success, and all of the hard work seems to be paying off right now. That’s where my mindset it. I’m really happy for the opportunity and trying to take advantage of it.”
So are his teammates.
“It’s one thing to believe in someone -- like, last year we always believed that when C.J. came back he would be great -- and it’s one thing to be confident in him, but it’s another thing to have that actual physical presence there,” guard De’Onte Arnett said. “It’s a great boost. C.J. plays with a confidence, and a cool, calm and collectedness that we struggled to get last year. The offensive line, we tried to boost up the quarterbacks and let them know that we believe in them, but it’s another thing to know that your quarterback has your back definitely. It’s a great feeling.”
Brown has been cleared since May, and he was able to fully participate in all of summer camp, but he said it has taken him some time to get reacquainted with reading coverages, and adjusting to defenses in the second half.
Edsall said Brown is playing like he has something to prove, and Brown agreed.
“When you take a year off, you’re a year older, people think you lost a step, especially with the ACL injury, but you see it in the pros all the time now with Adrian Peterson, RGIII, guys are coming back better than ever,” Brown said. “I put a lot of time and hard work in the offseason to go out there and have success and just enjoy the opportunity. The last year I was able to step back from the game and it really puts it into perspective how you look at the game and how much you appreciate it.”
Almost as much as the Terps appreciate having him back in the lineup.