After a shortened season that featured no fans, game cancellations and uncertainty because of the COVID pandemic, the Maryland football team is relieved to have some sense of normalcy heading into the 2021 season.
For third-year coach Mike Locksley, normalcy means no more excuses. The Terps, who finished 2-3 in 2020, haven’t had a winning season since 2014, their first year in the Big Ten.
With Maryland returning 85% of its production from last season along with a top 20 recruiting class, Locksley said it’s time to turn the talent into results instead of talking about the potential the roster holds. As Maryland approaches its season opener against West Virginia on Saturday, here are five things to watch this year:
Steadiness at the quarterback position
There’s no question that Maryland has seen more players start at quarterback than Defense against the Dark Arts teachers at Hogwarts. Taulia Tagovailoa entering the season as the starter has provided Locksley a breath of fresh air, knowing there is some steadiness at the position.
“That’s not been a luxury, at least during my 13 years here with that position, to be able to come back and have a returning starter healthy, no questions about it,” Locksley said.
Tagovailoa is the first Terps quarterback since Perry Hills (2015-16) to start in back-to-back season openers. Last season, Tagovailoa, who is on the Maxwell Award watch list, threw for 1,011 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in four games. Though Locksley wants to see Tagovailoa continue to improve as a decision-maker, a full offseason has allowed the junior to form better chemistry with the receivers.
“Taulia has made things easier for us on the offensive side,” Locksley said. “I think he has a very comfortable level with the receivers after being here for a year and a half with these guys. We’ll see this Saturday if all the work and the things that he’s done come to fruition and allow him to go out and play well for us.”
Maryland hasn’t had a quarterback start in every game since C.J. Brown in 2014. Only time will tell if Tagovailoa is the quarterback to break the streak.
Adjustments on the offensive line
Locksley reemphasized on Tuesday that the Terps lack depth on the offensive line, as Marcus Minor (Pittsburgh) and Johnny Jordan (Virginia Tech) transferred and the team signed just one offensive lineman in the 2021 recruiting class.
“It’s the one position group that through recruiting, as of right now, we haven’t been able to fill all the needs and voids we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Locksley said.
The Terps added junior college transfer Aric Harris over the summer to help solve the depth issues. Harris, who played two seasons at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, is the team’s projected starting center heading into Week 1. With Harris at center, junior Johari Branch, who spent the spring playing the position, can focus on the right guard spot.
“Aric Harris was a great addition, and we are very fortunate to be able to get him in here late,” Locksley said. “[Harris] has been able to add some flexibility to our offensive line.”
The Terps will have junior left tackle Jaelyn Duncan, a 2020 All-Big Ten honorable mention, leading the way for the offensive line. Junior Spencer Anderson has played 16 of the past 17 games for the Terps and started in four at left tackle last season. Locksley also expects starting left tackle Mason Lunsford and juniors Amelio Moran and Evan Gregory to step up this year.
Three starters at cornerback
The Terps have senior Jakorian Bennett, sophomore Tarheeb Still and junior Deonte Banks listed as starters. Locksley said the reason for having three starters is because they can interchange within the defense.
“In our nickel defense, we can either play Tarheeb at the nickel or the corner or Jakorian can play in the nickel,” Locksley said. “They all have the flexibility to be what we call nickel defenders for us on the inside. And when you’re able to do that with those guys, it opens up the ability to play a lot of players.”
Still, who was named second team All-Big Ten by Pro Football Focus, is coming off a strong freshman season in which he led the nation with two pass breakups per game.
After recording two interceptions in 2020, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart expects the defensive backs to be more aggressive.
“We’re going to be attacking the football,” Stewart said. “We found some things that we do well. I think one of those things is to play close coverage, whether it’s man or match coverage. And that’s because we have the speed and corners that can do that. I think that’s going to cause more turnovers.”
Cleaning up the penalties
Locksley mentioned during training camp that penalties were an issue when the team held scrimmages. Locksley said it’s expected when the young players receive reps, but he knows the Terps can’t beat themselves if they want to be competitive this season. Last season, Maryland averaged close to nine penalties per game.
“That’s something we have preached about and something we will continue to hold our guys accountable,” Locksley said. “I can deal with some of the penalties that come with the game. But it’s the self-inflicted ones, the false starts, the lineup in the neutral zone. I’ve been working hard on staying on top of our guys about not beating ourselves and taking care of business from that standpoint.”
The return of tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo
Tagovailoa will have another weapon on offense with the return of senior tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo, who sat out in 2020 because of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). Okonkwo, a member of the 2022 Reese’s Senior Bowl watch list, has 262 receiving yards and three touchdowns in his career. Locksley believes Okonkwo and sophomore Corey Dyches, who has transitioned from wide receiver to tight end, can create matchup problems with their size.
“We struggled at tight end with [Okonkwo] opting out and we had to move Tyler Baylor from defensive line to tight end,” Locksley said. “Corey was one of the bigger receivers that [can] be a matchup issue so we thought the move to tight end would be best for him. As he continues to develop in the position, I can see him developing into the type of player [Okonkwo] has become.”
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
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