Freshmen began playing ACC football in 1972. Over the next four decades, only one conference newcomer averaged more than 142 all-purpose yards per game. But last year, despite playing with three expected backups as his quarterbacks, Maryland receiver/return man Stefon Diggs averaged 172.4 per game. His total of 1,896 was second in school history for a player in any class.
What’s more, of the 12 former Terps receivers who went on to the NFL during the past 40 seasons, none produced as many as the 848 receiving yards as a freshman that Diggs did in 2012.
So what will the 6-foot, 195-pound Gaithersburg native do for an encore, especially with the Terps welcoming back 2011 starting quarterback C.J. Brown from a torn ACL and with speedy junior college transfer Deon Long likely lining up at the other receiver spot?
“Sky’s the limit,” said Brown, who’s pumped to throw to Diggs. “He’s an unbelievable talent. He’s one of those guys that can take a hitch for six yards and turn it into an 80-yard touchdown. I think we have [chemistry] already. We worked out all summer, 7-on-7. We’ve been watching film [together]. We talk X’s and O’s all the time.”
There’s no denying the playmaking abilities of Diggs, who caught 54 passes (more than the next two Terps combined) for an average of 15.7 yards, averaged 28.5 yards on kickoff returns (two of which he took to the house), 10.0 yards on punt returns, and 5.7 yards per carry.
Still, Maryland coach Randy Edsall and his staff expect more from Diggs this year. Even if that doesn’t translate into bigger numbers.
“The big thing we’ve challenged Stefon to do is to learn to play without the football, do all the little things [such as route-running and blocking] to be a complete wide receiver and not just a playmaker,” said offensive coordinator Mike Locksley.
Having just 13 seniors, Edsall decided to copy one of his mentors, New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, and form a 10-man leadership council that includes seven underclassmen. Diggs is one of the two sophomores.
“[Stefon] understands … what goes with the publicity and the notoriety that he’s garnered because of his play on the field,” Edsall said. “I like that he’s taken a very mature approach. If he’s doing things a certain way, other guys will follow. I think he can be an outstanding leader because he wants to be great at everything that he does. He did a great job in the classroom his first year. … I love how he works. I love his competitiveness and I love that he likes to accept a challenge. Being a leader is another thing that he can look at it and say, ‘Hey, this is a challenge and I’m going to meet the challenge and exceed the expectations that people have for me.’ That’s the kind of kid he is.”
Indeed, despite his superb individual play as a freshman, Diggs was both disappointed and surprised with his debut season.
”I surprised myself because I came in ready to learn from the older guys and my coaches, ready to be a sponge,” explained Diggs, one of the area’s best high school players in 2011. “I knew I had a lot of ability, but I didn’t think I was that good. I guess I did OK. I made a lot of mistakes. I feel like I helped … but we didn’t win games so I didn’t really help that much. It’s all about winning. This year, we have no choice. We’re gonna win.”
That’s debatable given a schedule that includes preseason Top 25 teams Clemson and Florida State as well as 2012 bowl participants N.C. State, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
Diggs had one of his best games last year against the Mountaineers with 201 all-purpose yards, 42 on a short pass which he turned into a touchdown by making several defenders miss before cutting back to the end zone. Despite such unforgettable performances, Diggs diligently worked on improving this offseason, adding 10 pounds of strength and making his playbook his constant companion in order to master Locksley’s offense and to be a leader by example.
“Most fans just see the big runs, but Stefon’s a lot smarter than people think,” said receivers coach Lee Hull, who compared Diggs’ talent and willingness to be coached to Atlanta Falcons standout running back Steven Jackson, whom he coached at Oregon State. “He does things to set [defenders] up. Deon and [third receiver Nigel King] will help open things up for Stefon once they start making plays because [defenses] won’t be able to double-cover him. One-on-one is a mismatch for Stefon. He can be one of the best receivers in the country.”
If he’s not one of them already.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin