Matt Canada couldn’t help but be up front when asked how focused his players have been in the weeks leading up to Maryland football’s season opener against No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field in Landover.
The Terps’ interim head coach had begun his Tuesday press conference by saying how excited he and his players were for regular-season action. That’s to be expected, with Maryland playing a ranked opponent that it upset on the road in last year’s opener.
But with the circumstances that led to Canada addressing the media at all, are the Terps — who lost a teammate in June and have found themselves at the center of national media coverage — completely focused on Saturday’s game?
“The honest answer is, I hope so,” Canada said. “I think we’re as ready as we could be given the situation that we’re in. I feel very good about that.”
That “situation,” of course, began in May, when Jordan McNair suffered heatstroke at the team’s first organized workout of the summer. He died two weeks later, and the university admitted it bears “legal and moral responsibility” for mistakes made by its training staff. On top of that, ESPN reports of a toxic culture in the program led to coach DJ Durkin and three other staffers being placed on leave, and strength and conditioning coach Rick Court resigning.
With all of that in the foreground, Canada and the Terps have tried to prepare for football.
Before kickoff Saturday, there will be a moment of silence in McNair’s honor. His former teammates will have No. 79 stickers on their helmets. McNair’s locker will be set up as if he were there to don the Terps’ uniform and join his teammates.
“Every play we make, every snap we take, will be in Jordan’s honor,” offensive lineman Ellis McKennie said Aug. 20, when the Terps announced their measures to memorialize McNair.
Texas coach Tom Herman said in a Monday teleconference that he doesn’t anticipate a sluggish start from the Terps, who upset his squad in his first game at the helm of the Longhorns last year.
“This is a team in Maryland … they don’t think they can beat [us] — they know they can beat [us], because they have,” Herman said. “So to assume that just because they’ve had some issues in their program that they’re not going to show up — they’re going to show up.”
This is a very different Texas team than the one Maryland beat in Austin last year. The Longhorns welcomed the No. 3-ranked recruiting class, per 247sports, adding a bevy of talent on both sides of the ball. The Terps are also in an entirely different place than they were last year, and little can be predicted about how they will look — emotionally or physically — when they take the field.
The 46-year-old Canada has kept quiet on who his starting quarterback is. He hopes a dynamic offense — like the one he ran at Pittsburgh in 2016 — can catch Texas off-guard. It worked last year for his predecessor, Walt Bell.
But for at least another week, the on-field product will be the secondary storyline, as McNair’s death continues to cast a shadow over the team.
“We’re never going to be done with that. It’s not like it’s ever going away and we’re not asking it to go away,” Canada said. “But when we’re trying to do our job, let’s go do our job.”