Pro scouts ravenous for the tantalizing matchups throughout college football’s Week Two menu were treated to an early appetizer Saturday with a key ACC showdown between the Maryland Terrapins and visiting Syracuse Orangemen, who entered the game ranked 21st in the country in the latest AP poll.
As such in the build-up this week, understandably much of the NFL draft interest focused on the Orange’s two-headed pass-rushing monsters, Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman.
It didn’t take long, however, before flashy prospects for the hosting Terrapins stole the spotlight – most notably redshirt sophomore running back Anthony McFarland, Jr. and new quarterback Josh Jackson.
Like he did a year ago in nearly instigating a colossal upset over Ohio State with a staggering 298 rushing yards - the second-most rushing yards ever by a Maryland player in a single game - McFarland was the early spark-plug for the Terps Saturday.
Fresh after setting his program’s all-time record for rushing yards from a freshman and earning Second Team All-Big Ten honors, the surprisingly powerful jitterbug scampered for two touchdowns and 62 yards on just 11 carries in the first half. He also caught another score just before the break, helping to push the Terps to a stunning 42-13 halftime lead and effectively mitigating Syracuse's pass rushers.
What the 5-foot-09, 198 pound McFarland may lack in ideal size, he makes up for with natural running ability, showing not only the elusiveness and speed one might expect, but underrated leg drive and grit, as well. Taking full advantage of the old football adage that “low man wins,” McFarland is consistency able to rip through arm tackles and fall forward, earning high marks for finishing his runs.
While McFarland and intriguing junior runner Javon Leake (6-0, 206) were among the Terrapins gashing Syracuse for a staggering 353 rushing yards and six touchdowns Saturday, it was the accuracy demonstrated by Jackson, a former four-star recruit, starter and graduate-transfer from Virginia Tech, that was perhaps the biggest surprise in Maryland's shockingly "easy" 63-20 shellacking of their conference opponent.
The 6-foot-2, 218 pound Jackson has been lights out for new Maryland head coach Michael Locksley thus far this season, tossing four touchdowns in just one half of action in Week One when the Terrapins flattened FCS opponent Howard 79-0 and another three scores in the first half against Syracuse and their vaunted pass rush.
Showing the poise one might expect given that he started all 13 games for the Hokies in 2017 and is the son of a coach with 40 years of experience, Jackson calmly distributed the ball all over the field, demonstrating the arm strength, accuracy and pocket presence required of the position.
Jackson’s early success is all the more intriguing given Locksley’s background. The D.C. native came to the Terps after spending the past three years in Tuscaloosa with Nick Saban as Alabama’s co-offensive coordinator.
There is no doubt that Jackson’s passing was made easier by all of the attention Syracuse paid in an attempt to slow down Maryland’s rushing attack. He took advantage of some wide open receivers, including on his three first half touchdown tosses against the Orange.
However, he also showed off some zip and willingness to challenge tight windows.
Jackson finished the day completing 21 of 38 passes for 296 yards and the three touchdowns passes with a second half interception.
If his early stellar play continues as the Terrapins extend deeper into a formidable conference schedule that includes six currently ranked opponents, he could quickly rise up draft boards.
Given the lopsided score, there were few bright spots Saturday for the Orange.
Certainly the flashiest of them was junior wideout Trishton Jackson (unrelated to the Terps’ QB), who demonstrated terrific concentration, timing and leaping ability in fighting through two defenders to make a circus grab in front of his bench. A few moments later, he snuck behind Maryland’s previously stout defense for a quick score.
Later, the Michigan State transfer again showed his competitiveness, bouncing off a big hit to break away for his second touchdown of the game and fourth of his career.
While scouts will want to know all of the details on Jackson’s decision to transfer from MSU, his raw athleticism is clear and previously celebrated by the Spartans and their head coach Mark Dantonio.
While Jacksons on both sides provided the unexpected fireworks Saturday, many of the scouts attending this game or watching from home were focusing on the running backs who made their teammates’ jobs easier.
That includes Syracuse’s junior Moe Neal, a former receiver, who entered the contest as a trending breakout prospect after plays like this in his past few games.
Or this one last week.
At 5-foot-11, Neal is a couple of inches taller than McFarland but is actually listed a couple of pounds lighter at just 195 pounds. He possesses a relatively lanky build for a back and runs with inconsistent pad level, leaving him with just average power and balance through contact – two of the strengths for the more compact McFarland.
While Neal may not be the traditional battering ram, he does show good patience, vision and burst to take advantage of holes when they were there. At times, Neal approaches the line tentatively, pitter-pattering his way to and through the hole and lulling defenders to sleep before planting his foot and stepping on the accelerator to complicate pursuit angles.
Neal’s initial burst is enough to get him clear of the traffic at the line of scrimmage but he is not a true speed demon, despite his 2018-19 statistics (eight carries of 50+ yards) arguing otherwise. While he may not dazzle in pre-draft workouts, scouts will appreciate Neal’s consistency, durability and versatility. Now in his third season as a starter and currently fifth among the Orange’s all-time rushing leaders with an eye-popping 5.5 yards-per-rush average over his career (entering today’s game), Neal is a proven commodity who is also a very reliable receiving outlet, showing softer hands than his 33 career grabs (entering today) would suggest and spending time at the position back in 2017.
The 2020 NFL draft is expected to be loaded at running back with underclassmen like Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Clemson’s Travis Etienne and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Williams among my favorite early round prospects.
On Saturday, McFarland and Neal demonstrated that the position’s depth extends well beyond these potential All-American candidates and that Locksley and the Terrapins are one of the early big stories in college football.