A modest crowd, hardly huge but still noticeable, congregated around Maryland freshman Stefon Diggs just hours before the wide receiver would go through his first college practice.
It was an uncommon sight in College Park, where recruits who generate nearly unanimous hosannas only rarely opt to spend their careers. It virtually never happens after the Terrapins struggle as they did during a 2-10 autumn of misery last year.
Yet the former Good Counsel star’s decision to sign with Maryland in February (and spurn Florida and Ohio State in the process) is perhaps the highlight of coach Randy Edsall’s first 19 months on the job. And it leaves Diggs as the most highly regarded player to arrive at Maryland in recent memory.
“I don’t really think too much of it,” Diggs said. “You can’t let that type of stuff get to your head or you’re going to act a certain way. I try not to portray myself in any sort of way. I’m just here to work hard.”
It is arguably the best approach for Diggs, regardless of his laurels. He is one of only nine players ranked in either Rivals.com’s or Scout.com’s national top 100 since 2002 to sign with Maryland. He is the Terps’ only top-10 recruit since defensive end Melvin Alaeze, who never played for the Terps and was later convicted of first-degree assault.
And so there is an abundance of external anticipation, for myriad reasons. Diggs is a local product Maryland fans hope is a pied piper of sorts for other high school stars in the area. He plays a glamorous position, and one where Maryland has little established depth. He is a reason for hope after a lost 2011.
And yet could it be too much? Is there excessive attention lobbed at a player yet to take a college snap?
“There’s a little bit of undue pressure on the kid, but obviously that’s our job to take that pressure off him and make sure we put him in position to be successful,” wide receivers coach Lee Hull said. “It’s up to me to find out what he can do and what he can’t do, and the stuff he can do, let’s early on get him the ball that way.”
It prompts the question of what is a realistic expectation for Diggs. Of the 51 wideouts ranked in the top five of their class or assigned a five-star label by Rivals.com from 2002 to 2011, the median true freshman production was 117 yards. Only 13 topped 300 receiving yards.
His new teammates’ early impressions in summer seven-on-seven work, however, were positive.
“We’ve seen him in open space and we know what he can do,” quarterback C.J. Brown said. “Once you get the pads on, that’s when players are going to separate themselves. We’ll have to wait a couple days, but we all know he’s going to be a special talent and he’s going to be an asset to this team.”
That could come in several areas. Only two of Maryland’s wideouts have more than a dozen career catches, and Edsall figures to use a rotation of at least five receivers.
In special teams, Maryland lost its primary punt returner (Tony Logan), and its top kickoff returner last year (Justus Pickett) is not listed on the preseason depth chart.
“In Stefon’s case, he’ll be given that opportunity to show us what he can do as a punt returner, kick returner and also as a wide receiver,” Edsall said. “All those things, they’ll really play out on the field. He’s a very talented young man who’s very competitive, very prideful who wants to play.”
But not one who appears to feel an onus for immediate production as he embarks on his college career.
“I don’t feel like I need to prove anything,” Diggs said. “I’m a young guy. I have a lot to learn. I’m just an average kid like everybody else. I might have gotten a little bit extra hype, but I just came in to work hard and be a good teammate. I believe in what they’re doing here and my coaches, so hopefully good things happen.”
That’s a common sentiment inside the Gossett Team House. For many of those outside of it, Diggs is a major reason for any guarded optimism — whether or not it’s actually fair to expect him to instantly realize his potential at the college level.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of hype about the kid,” Hull said. “I think the fans should not expect a lot [immediately] from the kid and let the kid develop and don’t put too much pressure on the kid to be the savior because we have other guys who can hold down the fort until he’s ready. When he’s ready, we’ll unleash him.”