Perhaps no team in the Big Ten is relying on true freshmen this season as much as Maryland and Coach DJ Durkin, who has assigned significant reps to 15 rookies through the first seven games. But none have been more impressive than running back Lorenzo Harrison, a DeMatha alum who has weaved his way through a crowded rotation and emerged as one of Maryland’s most reliable offensive players in 2016.
Harrison runs as if he’s been slighted, including in a 105-yard rushing effort in Saturday’s 28-17 win over Michigan State, which earned Harrison Big Ten freshman of the week honors Monday. Against the Spartans, he continued to show his natural gifts, mostly using his 5-foot-8 stature to keep a low center of gravity and dance around defenders at the line of scrimmage, like he did on a dazzling eight-yard rushing touchdown in the first half against the Spartans.
“If we added up Lorenzo’s side to side yards, he might have had 400 yards,” Durkin said of Harrison, who leads the team with 528 yards and five touchdowns. Those totals are underscored by the freshman’s 9.2 carries per game average, which leads a backfield that has mostly relied on a five-player rotation through seven games. But for all the praise that Harrison has earned for his raw speed and shiftiness, he’s also become an example Durkin can prop to other players, because Harrison picks up so much yardage after initial contact.
While his freshman season highlight reel boasts a series of familiar long touchdown runs by way of the zone-read — Harrison has touchdown runs of 40 and 62 yards, and he nearly broke another with a 37-yard gain against Michigan State — he’s also created a number of memorable runs by sheer effort. Durkin could easily point to one in particular as a reminder to his players: The freshman turned a minimal gain into a 26-yard run that set up a touchdown in the second quarter of a loss against Penn State earlier this month.
“Just by stature. He’s very thick. He’s very compact. He’s got great, explosive movement and short-area quickness. He’s been blessed with a lot of talent,” Durkin said. “He’s a competitor. He plays at a high level, and he’s a guy that we point out for effort many, many times. When you get a guy with that type of ability, that plays relentless type of effort, than he is something special.”
Harrison had a career-high 17 rushes Saturday night against Michigan State, when Maryland elected to mostly rely on the tandem of Harrison and sophomore Ty Johnson, who is considered the starter (Harrison has started one game). The rotation remains fluid — senior Wes Brown did not receive a carry Saturday night, while senior Trey Edmunds is still out indefinitely with a broken foot — but Maryland didn’t necessarily consolidate the running game against the Spartans, relying on quarterback Perry Hills as much as it could (seven carries, 20 yards) while he continues to heal his right shoulder.
Neither Harrison or Johnson have claimed the mantle as a feature back, because it simply doesn’t exist in offensive coordinator Walt Bell’s system. The up-tempo, wide-open scheme requires fresh bodies and a variety of skill-sets, with all required to provide pass protection and to catch the ball out of the backfield. Johnson, who is considered one of the fastest players on the roster, carried nine times Saturday night but made the most of it by rushing for 115 yards. Senior Kenny Goins Jr., a 227-pound former fullback, added four bruising carries in short yardage situations and scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion in his most action as a running back in weeks.
“We’ll keep rotating those guys back there. I think that’s a strength of ours. I think that helps all those guys stay fresh and be able to run them the way we are. We’ll keep the rotation going, but obviously [Harrison] has become very productive for us. We’re going to continue to adjust that rotation based on production.”
While Durkin will continue to use a platoon system in the backfield, brushing off the notion that Harrison had played himself into an expanded role after a standout night against the Spartans, he also doesn’t need to remind Harrison of his youth. That included after a fumble near the end of the first half against Michigan State, which was the lone blemish on a career night. It only came after Harrison was fighting for extra yards to get Maryland into field goal position, using the kind of desperate effort that Durkin has so often demanded from the rest of his team.
“He’s playing like a veteran,” Durkin said.