Three years ago, the Maryland football team began a new era under a new coach by demolishing Howard, 52-13. While fans were not that familiar with DJ Durkin at the time, the team’s 4-0 start excited them until the reality of playing in the Big Ten East hit and injuries mounted in what became a 6-7 season.
On Saturday, when the Terps open the 2019 season against the Bison, former longtime Maryland assistant Mike Locksley will be getting his opportunity as the team’s head coach. The schedule is a lot more challenging this year than it was in 2016, and despite an influx of talented transfers at several key positions, including quarterback, the outside expectations are much lower than inside the team’s locker room.
Here are five storylines watch going into Locksley’s first season.
The play-calling of offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery.
Locksley made it clear that while he is bringing the offense he ran last season as coordinator at Alabama, he is leaving the play-calling to Montgomery. As Locksley did when he returned as offensive coordinator under Randy Edsall in 2015 after flaming out at New Mexico, Montgomery is trying to show he shouldn’t be judged on his three seasons as coach at East Carolina, in which the Pirates went 9-26.
Montgomery will have more to work with this season than Locksley did, starting with graduate transfer quarterback Josh Jackson and running backs Anthony McFarland Jr. and Javon Leake. That Jackson was pushed in preseason camp by fellow redshirt junior Tyrrell Pigrome shows Montgomery has some depth at what has not been a position of strength for several years.
The most intriguing aspect to the offense is how Montgomery will utilize his tight ends. At a position that was mostly forgotten the past three seasons — Maryland tight ends caught just one pass in 2016 and 2017 combined — graduate transfer Tyler Mabry and sophomore Chigoziem Okonkwo provide as much of a threat as any of the Terps’ wide receivers.
Will playing time for transfers Shaq Smith and Keandre Jones at linebacker turn into productivity?
Lockley has said all of his transfers — including wide receiver Sean Savoy — have brought leadership to an otherwise young team. But on a defense that lost its leading tackler in Tre Watson, as well as pass rushers Byron Cowart and Jesse Aniebonam, Smith and Jones have to become different players than they were at Clemson and Ohio State, respectively.
Moving from inside to outside linebacker should pay off immediately for Smith, a former five-star prospect from Baltimore who played well in a limited role for the defending national champions. If Smith can live up to the hype that followed him coming out of high school — he played at both Calvert Hall and St. Frances before finishing at IMG Academy — the Terps might be able to improve dramatically on defense.
Jones is a different story. While he had nearly as many tackles for the Buckeyes (28) as Smith did (29) for the Tigers, there were questions last season why he didn’t play more for a defense that was struggling to stop the run. But Jones seems energized about being back home and Locksley expects the work ethic Jones brought with him from Columbus will translate to on-field success.
Will the schedule prove to be too daunting?
After the opener, there are no gimmes. Maryland plays No. 22 Syracuse at home in Week 2. The last time a Dino Babers-coached team came to College Park, Bowling Green overwhelmed the Terps in the second half in a 48-27 rout in 2015. That game is followed by a road trip to Temple, which a year ago shocked Maryland in the first half en route to a 35-14 win.
Aside from having the typical end-of-season gantlet in the Big Ten East — with November games against preseason Top 25 opponents in No. 7 Michigan, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 18 Michigan State — Maryland also draws No. 24 Nebraska, Purdue and Minnesota from the West, all of which are expected to be better than a year ago.
Beating Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey, on Oct. 5 and Indiana on Oct. 19 is a must for the Terps to have any chance at becoming bowl-eligible.
So where do the other wins come from? Given where and when the game is being played, the answer might be against Penn State. The Terps will open league play against the No. 15 Nittany Lions at Maryland Stadium on Friday, Sept. 27, in what is sure to be a raucous atmosphere. Maryland came close to beating Penn State when Locksley was interim coach, losing, 31-30, at M&T Bank Stadium in 2015.
Maryland’s running backs could be the best group in the Big Ten.
While none of the running backs are receiving the preseason accolades going to Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, the reason they’re being overlooked has more to do with the team they play for than their potential as breakout stars.
It would be one thing if there was a significant dropoff after redshirt sophomore McFarland. As good as he is — and he certainly had his coming-out party last season by rushing for 298 yards against the Buckeyes a week after going for 210 at Indiana — junior Leake (team-high seven rushing touchdowns last season) might be just as dangerous.
Fans might have forgotten redshirt junior Lorenzo Harrison III, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, would likely have been the player whose freshman record McFarland broke last season with 1,034 yards had “Lo Lo” not been suspended the last four games of the 2016 season. Harrison has worked through a hamstring injury in preseason, and appears healthy.
Depth is still an issue.
As much talent as the Terps have brought to College Park in the past three years, there’s still a significant difference between what Maryland has behind its first-team offense and defense and what the top four teams in the Big Ten East possess, particularly in the trenches. Ultimately, it might also be the Terps’ downfall in Locksley’s first season.
Staying healthy is a must. While it played a key role in Durkin’s first team reaching a bowl game, it also proved a huge factor the past two seasons. Losing Aniebonam in the 2018 season opener at Texas with a broken ankle was as costly as losing Pigrome with a torn ACL.
Though the Terps got better at rushing the passer last season — and they should be pretty effective this season with Smith, Jones and safety Antoine Brooks Jr. — protecting their own quarterback has long been an issue. This year’s O-line should be solid if left tackles Jaelyn Duncan, a redshirt freshman, and fifth-year senior Ellis McKennie can do the job.