College Park — In revealing the team’s depth chart Tuesday for the first time since Mike Locksley became its football coach, Maryland still has two position battles for starters and several others for backup roles going into the season opener Saturday against Howard.
The most interesting — and certainly most critical — appears to be at left tackle between redshirt freshman Jaelyn Duncan (St. Frances) and fifth-year senior Ellis McKennie (McDonogh). The two former Baltimore high school standouts will be responsible for protecting new quarterback Josh Jackson’s blind side.
Based on the portion of practice viewed by the media Tuesday and Wednesday, it seems McKennie has moved in front of Duncan for that spot and could make his fourth career start against the Bison. But Locksley said after practice Wednesday that it will be a “game day” decision.
“I don’t know which parts of practice you get to see, but they’ve both been taking reps with the [starters],” Locksley said. “I expect both to play.”
Asked about the strengths the 6-foot-4, 310-pound McKennie brings to the Terps, Locksley said: "Ellis has game experience. He’s been here it seems like forever. [In] five years, has rotated in, played a lot of football, been a valuable piece of the puzzle for us up front because of his versatility.”
As for the 6-6, 323-pound Duncan, Locksley said: “Obviously the strengths for Jaelyn are his size and his athleticism and his skill set. And the biggest obstacle for him is just adjusting to the speed of the game as he’s able to take some live reps. … This will be his first extended action.”
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Duncan acknowledged recently that it’s a big jump from not playing at all at the college level to starting, or even getting significant time and trying to replace three-year starter Derwin Gray, now a rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers after being picked in the seventh round of April’s NFL draft.
“It really challenged me. It challenged me to push myself a lot more because I know that I’m stepping up to a big role,” said Duncan, a former four-star prospect who was Maryland’s highest-rated recruit in 2018. “Now I’ve got to work hard every day and keep staying on my ground.”
Duncan said he spent much of the offseason workouts, spring practice and preseason camp fine-tuning his technique on pass protection. The offensive line in general struggled in the team’s first scrimmage three weeks ago. The play improved in the second scrimmage a week later.
“I think we did a lot better than the first one,” Duncan said. “We studied our playbook. We picked up a lot more blitzes than we did the first time.”
Duncan knows it will be different when the regular season begins.
“I don’t know about the crowd, but I will be excited to start my first game,” he said.
Locksley said he has a long-range plan in place.
“The way you get better as a team is you develop your whole roster,” he said. “And the only way they can develop is by playing. … My expectation is that we’re going to play them both in a manner to evaluate and make decisions down the road.”
The only other starting field position that has yet to be determined is at middle linebacker. Senior Isaiah Davis, who has played in 35 straight games and has started 22 times, has been battling with sophomore Chance Campbell (Calvert Hall), who played in 11 games as a true freshman.
With three-year starter Wade Lees finishing his college career at UCLA this fall, it will be up to a pair of true freshmen, Colton Spangler (Chesapeake-AA) and Anthony Pecorella, to replace the 31-year-old Australian.
Locksley said during his news conference Tuesday that he planned to use both, at least until one separates himself. Locksley acknowledged he has never been involved with a team that rotated two punters.
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“Both those guys have done a great job,” Locksley said. “We’re going to have to punt them both. I feel comfortable and confident that they’ll be able to execute it. That competition is still going on."
Locksley joked about having them wear the same number just to confuse the opposition, given that Spangler, an all-county selection at Chesapeake, kicks with his left foot and Pecorella kicks with his right.
“The fact that one is a lefty and one is a righty creates some competitive advantages with how you set up your return game,” Locksley said. “It’s a unique situation. I can’t say I’ve been a part of it, but I’m not afraid to do it.”
Though Locksley has said he didn’t spend much time, if any, watching tape from last season, one of the most “glaring” problems in reviewing Maryland’s 5-7 record could be found on the stat sheet. The Terps were the most penalized team in the Big Ten.
Maryland committed on average 8.3 penalties a game. The Terps also averaged a league-high 79.7 yards in penalties a game. That adds up to 956 penalties yards. Locksley said Wednesday that’s a sign of an undisciplined team.
Locksley said his radar for penalties will be sharp Saturday.
“Typically in first games, you try to guard against sloppy football — ball being on the ground, lot of penalties, turnovers, things like that,” Locksley said. “What I’m most looking forward to is seeing us play really disciplined, to see that we’ve taken the next step.
“If you look at last season, we had so many penalties. You can’t beat a good high school team if you penalize and beat yourself. The No. 1 opponent that we’ve got to defeat first is defeat ourselves in terms of not doing things that take away from our ability to win. That’s what we’ve got to focus on.”