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As college football wrestles with pandemic, Maryland looks forward to second chance at fall season

Maryland football coach Mike Locksley points during the team's practice on Sept. 18, 2020.
Maryland football coach Mike Locksley points during the team's practice on Sept. 18, 2020. (Maryland Athletics)

Maryland junior defensive back Tahj Capehart acknowledged that in the weeks after the Big Ten Conference’s Aug. 11 decision to postpone its football season, he was a bit disheartened watching other leagues start to play.

But this past weekend felt a little better, as he watched his peers knowing that his own season is slowly approaching.

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“It’s definitely exciting to know that a few weeks away, we’re going to be on the big screen as well,” Capehart said Wednesday on a video conference call.

This has been the emotional tug-of-war for a Maryland team that saw its season stripped away after one summer practice, only for it to be returned 36 days later.

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As the team once again practices in preparation for the season, now an abbreviated eight-game, conference-only schedule that begins Oct. 24 at Northwestern, there’s a greater sense of gratitude throughout the program.

“I think we all have really gained the appreciation — to use the term I like to use — being on the grass,” Terps coach Mike Locksley said.

In a whirlwind process, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren went from saying the conference’s postponement “will not be revisited” to ultimately announcing that the landscape is safe enough to play about a month later. Locksley said he always held the belief that the Big Ten would find a way to play, whether it was in the fall or spring.

But the uncertainty and ever-changing nature of the situation tested coaches and players alike, Locksley said.

“Sometimes I felt like I was trying to cover the Hoover Dam with my thumb, just because of change and the pause and the stopping and all the different things that you hear outside,” Locksley said. “So for us, we took the approach of let’s focus on today, what are the rules we have today in terms of what we can do to improve our team. And then get up tomorrow and find out what tomorrow holds for us.”

Locksley cited the Big Ten securing rapid COVID-19 tests, along with watching the NFL’s success with testing, as key in the conference returning to play.

The Big Ten’s protocol, which mandates daily antigen testing beginning Sept. 30, most closely resembles the NFL compared to any other college conference currently playing.

But as the team has witnessed in recent weeks — and frankly, months — a college campus presents a different atmosphere that can make it increasingly more difficult to insulate players from the dangers of the coronavirus.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 32 of the 52 college football teams currently playing have had games canceled or postponed because of coronavirus concerns, according to ESPN, and 10 teams whose seasons officially started weeks ago have yet to play a game. At the University of Maryland, an entire dorm full of students were asked last week to remain in their building for 14 days after a cluster of positive cases were reported.

“As we’ve seen across the landscape of college football, [the coronavirus pandemic is] something that’s not going away,” Locksley said.

The volatility of the virus on a campus makes the Big Ten’s quest of playing eight consecutive regular-season games without any open dates for rescheduling all the more difficult.

“Obviously there’s going to be feelings of guys wanting to get out and just relax,” junior wide receiver Brian Cobbs said of the temptation to unwind after a week of practice. “But coach Locksley always reminds us, ‘Yeah, we have the weekend coming up but still stay smart.’”

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Said Locksley: “We’re not going to be mad if you get COVID. But what we want to do is mitigate the opportunities of [contracting] it by having what we call behavior modification and how we live and how we go about doing our business on a day-to-day basis.”

Locksley has referred to his first year as coach of the Terps in 2019, a promising 2-0 start and a national ranking that spiraled to a 3-9 finish, as “Year 0,” a transitional period that allowed him to lay the foundation of a new culture.

When asked how he views his second season, Locksley said he views it more as “Year 0.5,” given the instability of the past few months.

The Terps have a list of questions to answer before they start “Year 0.5” in Evanston, Illinois, against the Wildcats — notably, deciding on a starting quarterback, filling in starters on the offensive and defensive lines and sorting out the pecking order of a talented, but young, wide receiver corps.

But for Locksley, the most pressing item on his plate is making sure his team gets to Oct. 24, taking everything one day at a time.

It’s an outlook he himself said comes off as coachspeak but is required with the unpredictability of the 2020 season.

“Let’s live today like there is no tomorrow and that’s kind of been the mantra we’ve used, with the ‘Maximize It’ mentality that we’ve created from the day we got here,” Locksley said. "All we’ve said is, if we lay down our heads at night, we want to know that we used the time wisely, that we maximized every opportunity that we had that day.

“And if we’re blessed enough to wake up and do it again the next day, we’re going to go at it with full vigor and the same mentality and just stack the days, rather than too much long-term forecasting or too much looking backwards.”

NOTE: Senior defensive lineman Olu Oluwatimi is opting out of the 2020 season, a team spokesperson confirmed. Oluwatimi started all 12 games last season.

Season opener

MARYLAND@NORTHWESTERN

Oct. 24, time TBD

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