In the course of a long afternoon last Saturday in West Lafayette, Indiana, even the smallest glimmer of hope was hard to find on the Maryland sideline at Ross-Ade Stadium during a 40-14 defeat to Purdue. Dontay Demus Jr. certainly didn’t think what he did qualified.
The sophomore wide receiver couldn’t really enjoy what had been his best game as a Terp. His 10 receptions for 105 yards were the most by a Maryland player since DJ Moore had 12 catches for 210 yards and two touchdowns in 2017 against Northwestern.
The Terps lost that game, too.
“It’s always disappointing when you lose a game, you never look at your individual stats and stuff,” Demus said after practice Tuesday. “You always focus on how you could have helped the team do better or what we didn’t do.”
If not for a holding call that negated a potential 50-yard touchdown pass from redshirt junior quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome to Demus in the first quarter, it might have been a closer game, if not a different outcome, for Maryland (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten).
What Demus did wasn’t a surprise.
The 6-foot-4, 202-pound receiver emerged early this season as one of, if not the top target for graduate transfer quarterback Josh Jackson after Jeshuan Jones tore his ACL in preseason camp. Jones, also a sophomore, was the team’s leading returning receiver.
Demus caught three passes for 100 yards and his first two touchdowns as a college player in a season-opening 79-0 win over Howard. Jackson also threw the other touchdown caught by Demus, an 80-yard catch-and-run on a slant pass in a 48-7 win at Rutgers.
First-year Maryland coach Mike Locksley is not ready to anoint Demus as his team’s top receiver, even though Demus leads the Terps with 23 catches for 384 yards — more than what tight end Chigoziem Okonko and junior running back Tayon Fleet-Davis, with 11 each, have combined.
“Dontay Demus is not the No. 1 guy. We don’t have No. 1 guys [at receiver]. He’s a guy we want to get the ball to,” Locksley said at his weekly news conference Tuesday. “Every game we want to make sure we’re distributing the ball to our different playmakers. He has been by far a great playmaker for us, but we’ve got some other guys that have made some plays.”
Demus, who caught 13 passes for 284 yards last season, has become noticeably stronger, and appears to be faster, since his freshman year.
“My expectations coming in were just to help my team the best way I can, make plays,” Demus said. “Our expectation was to make plays, get better and continue on to a good season. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’ve seen through the first [few] games that I’ve been improving, and now my hard work is showing on the field."
His best game as a freshman came at Indiana, when he caught four passes for 98 yards, including a 51-yarder from Pigrome to help set up what became a short-lived lead in the fourth quarter of a 34-32 defeat. Demus followed the next week with a 56-yard catch in a 52-51 overtime loss to then-No. 10 Ohio State.
“Last year, I thought he was coming on more close to the end, so I felt like having that brought him more confidence coming into this season,” Pigrome said Tuesday. “He was making plays, which was big for us.”
“It showed me that my time is coming from high school, that I can still be a big target and a big influence on my team,” Demus said of the two late-season games last year. “They can trust me when things are in crunch time.”
Asked where he has taken the biggest step since his freshman year, Demus said, “Just my after the catch [yardage]. Just being able to make plays downfield, break tackles, stuff like that. Just trying to help my team, keep the defense off the field rested up.”
Demus grew up in Washington trying to emulate and imitate NFL wide receivers such as A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals and Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons.
“Big guys who are able to use their hands and their speed to help give them an advantage,” Demus said.
In recent weeks, Demus has started to remind Maryland fans of Moore, who left after his junior year and is in his second year with the Carolina Panthers. Though several inches taller and a bit lighter, Demus has impressed Pigrome with his speed reminiscent of the former All-Big Ten receiver.
“If you’re going to be that big and run that fast, that’s great. Not too many people have that size to run the way he runs,” Pigrome said. “The pass Josh threw to him against Rutgers, and how he broke out. The speed and the way he moves and his elusiveness makes him a great player.”
Pigrome said that the way Demus runs after catching the ball reminds him of Moore.
“He’s very good with the ball in his hands, just like DJ Moore,” Pigrome said. “He definitely can move like DJ Moore, too. I feel like he’s a dangerous player. I’m not going to lie to you.”
Just as Moore had to adjust to several different quarterbacks, Demus has gone through a similar process. It started last season with Kasim Hill until he tore his ACL in the Indiana game and Pigrome took over, and again this year when Jackson started until suffering a high ankle sprain in the first half at Rutgers.
“It’s not really difficult,” Demus said. "I can say I’ve worked with both of them in the offseason. I’m confident in both Pig and Josh. It’s not really a drop off between either of them. I’m comfortable with both of their [throws], it’s just at the end of the day, make a play no matter how the ball comes out.”