Maryland junior Javon Leake talks about the competition among the team’s running backs under new coach Michael Locksley.
COLLEGE PARK — Michael Locksley’s first stint at Maryland began as the team’s running backs coach in 1998 and coincided with the arrival of LaMont Jordan, who remains the school’s all-time leading rusher with 4,147 yards.
That initial five-year tenure also included Locksley coaching Bruce Perry, whose 1,242 rushing yards as a sophomore in 2001 rank fourth among single-season performances in school history, and Chris Downs, whose 1,154 yards as a senior in 2002 rank fifth.
Locksley’s second stint, which started as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2012 and ended as its interim coach for the last six games of the 2015 season, included working with Ty Johnson and Brandon Ross, who rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in career rushing yards at Maryland.
Former Maryland safety Darnell Savage Jr. went from being a three-star prospect out of high school to a second-team All-Big Ten selection as a senior last season and now is among the top players at his position heading into the 2019 NFL draft.
As he prepares for his first season as Maryland’s coach, Locksley might be looking at a group of running backs that rival any in the program’s modern era.
Hesitant to compare this group with those he has coached previously, Locksley said recently: “We have a tradition of having really good backs come through this program, and I feel that with the group of running backs we have now, I feel really good that’s one of the position strengths of our team.”
It might be the position of strength, arguably the deepest in quality in the Big Ten.
Led by redshirt sophomore Anthony McFarland Jr., who was voted as a freshman All-American by the Football Writers of America and second-team All-Big Ten by the media after breaking Jordan’s freshman rushing record with 1,034 yards last season, the Terps are also diverse at running back.
Aside from McFarland, Locksley and running backs coach Elijah Brooks believe that rising juniors Javon Leake and Tayon Fleet-Davis, as well as redshirt juniors Lorenzo Harrison III and Jake Funk, will all be part of the mix. Both Harrison and Funk are working their way back onto the field after missing most of last season with injuries.
While he didn’t really get much of a chance until Johnson injured his calf toward the end of last season, the 6-foot, 210-pound Leake has always made the most of his touches. After scoring twice in nine carries (99 yards total) as a freshman, he had seven touchdowns in 34 attempts (309 yards) last season, including four against Illinois.
“There’s so much talent. I’m competing with some of the best backs in the country,” Leake said after practice Thursday. “You’ve just got to bring your ‘A’ game every day because you know the other person is not going to slack. You’ve always got to be prepared, you’ve always got to bring your best. It’s just fun to watch, fun to be with those guys every day.”
Leake acknowledged that the coaching change from interim coach Matt Canada to Locksley has put all the returning backs on more of an equal footing during spring practice, which will end a week from Saturday with the annual Red-White spring game.
“There’s new opportunities, a whole new coaching staff came in,” Leake said. “A fresh start, with everything that happened in the past. Just start fresh with these new coaches and show them what you can do.”
Brooks, who coached both McFarland and Harrison at DeMatha, said the talent in the running back room was part of the attraction for the job.
Listing all five upperclassmen by name, Brooks called it “a fantastic group,” adding that each player “brings something different to the table. … It was definitely enticing to work with a group like that.”
Though most assume McFarland will be the team’s featured back again — especially after he finished the 2018 season by rushing for 210 yards on 29 carries at Indiana on Nov. 10 and 298 yards on 21 carries and two long touchdowns a week later in a 52-51 overtime loss to then-No. 10 Ohio State at home — Brooks said the different roles will eventually pan out.
“So far this spring, we’ve been trying to balance out the reps as much as we can,” Brooks said Wednesday. “But a lot of it is going to be depending on who’s running the ball well that day, if they’re hot we’ll stick with them as much as we can.”
Locksley’s history at Maryland suggests that he’s more a believer in sticking with a featured back as long as he’s doing the job.
Jordan had 200 carries or more — including a career-high 266 as a junior — in each of his last two seasons. Perry and Downs both had over 200 attempts in the single seasons in which they were featured.
After scoring the first three times he touched the ball as a freshman last season at Maryland, wide receiver Jeshaun Jones had a frustrating year that ended with quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome not delivering the ball in a 52-51 overtime loss to Ohio State.
But in his two seasons working with Alabama’s offense, more players shared the carries, including freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts getting over 100 attempts in 2017. Virginia Tech grad transfer Josh Jackson, who is expected to start at quarterback for the Terps, is more in the mold of Alabama’s current star, Tua Tagovailoa, considered a pocket passer who can also run.
Much of Maryland’s success running the ball this season will depend on the offensive line, which needs to replace three longtime starters in center Brendan Moore and tackles Derwin Gray and Damian Prince.
The line has also been forced to play much of the spring shorthanded because of injuries to senior guard Terrence Davis and Marcus Marcus. The Terps recently moved redshirt freshman Austin Fontaine from the defensive line to the offensive line after junior TJ Bradley tore his patella tendon.
“I think our players and myself recognize the talent in the running back room,” offensive line coach John Reagan said. “As a competitor in general, you want to compete as best as you can possibly do, but when you see the talent behind you, and you don’t want to let them down, sometimes that’s an extra motivation.”
Leake half-jokingly called the offensive line “my best friends,” quickly admitting: “As a running back, the offensive line has to be your best friend. After every play, I’m either dabbing them up or saying, ‘Good job, I need y’all.’ I’m always constantly saying that, I want them to know I appreciate them for blocking.”
In reality, some of his closest friends on the team are the players he’s competing with on a daily basis — the other running backs. As competitive as the group can get playing video games, they are just as supportive during practice and games.
“Our friendship is so close, we just motivate each other,” Leake said. “If Tayon goes in, I’m going to be like, ‘C’mon Fleet, do what you do.’ If Ant [McFarland] goes in, I’ll say the same thing for him. We all know what we can do. We all know that we can help this offense score a lot of points. It’s no hate, no jealousy between us. It’s a close bond.”
“It’s very typical. Most of the times at places where I’ve come from … there’s tremendous competition that goes on and everybody wants to be the guy, but I think there’s a mutual respect because of the work they put in together," Locksley said after Tuesday’s practice.
“When I came in talking about building a family, you want to see your family do well, you want to see your brother do well. I want each to want to be the guy, and they’ve got a lot of trust in us as coaches that we’re going to utilize all of their talents for us to be a successful team.”