COLLEGE PARK — Two years ago, Maryland traveled to Florida State and endured a 25-point defeat, punctuated by the sight of starting quarterback C.J. Brown leaving the game dazed after a head-high tackle.
As the sun began to set over Doak Campbell Stadium — and on Maryland's 2011 season — coach Randy Edsall made a blunt statement about the disparity between the Terps and the Atlantic Coast Conference's elite teams: "We just don't match up with the speed and athleticism of Clemson and Florida State," the coach said. "That's what we are going to have to do from a recruiting standpoint."
Two years later — as the No. 25 Terps (4-0) prepare to return to Tallahassee to challenge the No. 8 Seminoles (4-0) on Saturday — recruiting analysts say Maryland has narrowed, but not erased, the sizable talent gap once separating the teams.
Analysts say Florida State maintains a recruiting advantage because of the wealth of talent in that state, its tradition (two national titles) and superior facilities. But they say the Terps are clearly a more potent team — particularly at receiver and kick returner — than in 2011 and that starting the season 4-0 can be a valuable recruiting tool.
While the Seminoles maintain a recruiting advantage, Edsall, now in his third season, has a team more closely resembling the vision he held after arriving from Connecticut and going 6-18 in his first two seasons.
"Florida State is always going to out-recruit Maryland because they're from Florida and because they've won national titles," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "But I think Maryland has made strides.You can point to [receiver-returner Stefon] Diggs as a difference-maker. When he decided to stay home, other kids started putting Maryland in their top five. I think they've taken steps toward closing the gap with respect to speed."
Edsall arrived in College Park just before national signing day in 2011. The bulk of that first class was recruited by the staff of former coach Ralph Friedgen, who was dismissed in December 2010.
It has taken Edsall time to recruit players who are comfortable with him, and vice-versa. Nearly two-thirds of Maryland's roster is made up of underclassmen.
"I mean, 2011 was a long time ago," said starting guard De'Onte Arnett, a redshirt senior. "There's not a lot of guys left on the team who were from 2011. We're just hoping to make a statement under the new regime and let them know this is the start of a new era. It's not the old Maryland."
Brown, the quarterback, remembers the 2011 game against the Seminoles all too well. His day ended in the third quarter when he was tackled high by Florida State linebacker Nigel Bradham, who was assessed a personal foul. Brown bent over, then sat on the field momentarily before departing.
"I do remember sliding and getting smacked in the head," Brown said Tuesday, struggling to recall the name of the culprit ("Braggam? Brigham?").
"It was a long time ago. It's a completely different team — offense and defense," Brown continued. "We just feel a lot more confident going into this game being 4-0. Not to knock the players and talent that we had there, [but] the guys that we have now are very talented on the outside and in the backfield."
Edsall needed time to put more talent around Brown, who was making his second career start in the 2011 game at Florida State. It was Maryland's 11th straight loss to the Seminoles on the road.
"I felt like when Randy Edsall got the job, everybody was screaming and yelling," said J.C. Shurburtt, national recruiting director for 247Sports.com. "But I felt that, based on UConn, he is excellent at recruiting talent. Maryland had a train wreck and a dumpster fire back-to-back [in 2011 and 2012]. But now you see why you hire a Randy Edsall and why you hire a Mike Locksley [as offensive coordinator and recruiter]."
Diggs was Edsall's first big signing — a "difference maker," Shurburtt said.
Maryland landed the Good Counsel product, now a sophomore, for several reasons. He said he wanted to stay geographically close to his younger brother, Trevon, who is starring in football in his second season at Rockville's Wootton High School. And after watching former Maryland receiver Torrey Smith get drafted by the Ravens, Diggs said he believed he could accomplish his career goals as a Terrapin.
In the last few years, the Terps have successfully recruited two players — starting fullback Kenny Goins and freshman quarterback Shane Cockerille — from Gilman, a top school locally that didn't send any players to Maryland in the decade before Edsall arrived.
Edsall's stringent team rules were questioned in his first season. Shurbutt said the coach's rules-oriented reputation "might not not achieve results right away, but it's going to pay off. That especially resonates with parents."