COLLEGE PARK — Mike Locksley began to shake his head before his questioner could finish.
Is Maryland’s football coach more at ease than he normally would be at the dawn of another preparatory spring? “As a head coach, you never feel good,” Locksley said Tuesday as he met with reporters before the Terps’ first spring practice.
He knows that in his first four years at Maryland, he razed the foundation of a teeter-tottering program and replaced it with something better, more stable. He also believes the next step will be harder.
“To go from seven wins, eight wins to trying to compete for championships is a big task,” Locksley said.
The 2022 season was an unambiguous success for a program that had lived through more dark days than bright ones over the previous decade. Maryland finished 8-5, its best record in Locksley’s tenure, and beat NC State in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. The Terps put a scare into mighty Ohio State in their penultimate regular-season game.
They will try to build on that success as they begin spring practice, which began Tuesday and will conclude with the Red-White spring game April 29.
Even as Locksley looks ahead, however, he’s saying farewell to one of the deepest collections of pro prospects in program history.
Seven Terps — cornerbacks Deonte Banks and Jakorian Bennett, offensive tackle Jaelyn Duncan, wide receivers Rakim Jarrett, Dontay Demus Jr. and Jacob Copeland, and kicker Chad Ryland — were invited to the NFL scouting combine, the most since the university started keeping track in 1989.
[ What we learned about Maryland football at the NFL scouting combine ]
Those players and more will work out for scouts Wednesday morning at Maryland’s pro day. Which leads to the next pressing question: With so many top athletes walking out the door, can Locksley keep Maryland football on an upward trajectory?
“Each team is its own entity,” he said. “To lose players like some of the players we’re losing from last year, as I told our team yesterday, it’s a restart. What I do feel is that the culture will allow us for this restart to maintain some of the characteristics of what it takes to build a championship program.”
Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa gave that quest a boost in January when he announced that he would return for his redshirt senior season. “I believe we have things going in the right direction,” the second-team All-Big Ten selection said at the time. “But we’re not done yet. I’m not done yet.”
Said Locksley: “If you’ve got a quarterback, you have a chance, and we feel we’ve got a quarterback. It’s a little unheard of [today] in college athletics to see a four-year starter who’s had an opportunity to start four seasons in the same system, the same offense. This is a huge year for him. He’s a guy that I know has aspirations to play at the next level, and having seen a bunch of guys who’ve gone on to do that, there’s no doubt in my mind he has the ability to do it.”
Tagovailoa will hand off to running back Roman Hemby, who averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored 10 touchdowns in 2022, throw to wide receiver Jeshaun Jones, who caught more passes than Jarrett, Copeland or Demus last season, and be protected by honorable mention All-Big Ten tackle Delmar Glaze.
Newly hired Josh Gattis, who was named the nation’s top assistant coach for his work at Michigan in 2021, will coordinate the attack Locksley has installed around Tagovailoa. Gattis was one of several veteran assistants Lockley hired in recent months — the list also includes running backs coach Latrell Scott, co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Kevin Sumlin and safeties coach Zac Spavital — as he made a concerted push to add winning pedigree to his staff.
“This program was in a tough position when Coach Locksley took it over,” said Gattis, who previously worked with his new boss on Alabama’s staff in 2018. “When you look at what’s been accomplished, the facilities, the commitment to football … to see the success they had last year, the foundation being laid, you want to be part of a program that’s on the rise.”
It didn’t hurt that he would have a chance to help Tagovailoa put the finishing touches on his game. “It was huge,” Gattis said. “It is so hard in today’s age where there’s all types of [name, image and likeness] numbers thrown at kids. Specifically, when you look at the quarterback market this past year, it was crazy. And here you have a kid who’s committed to this program and has done a lot for this program and this team, choose to come back. When you see that happen, I think it tells you how special of a program is being created.”
Maryland’s defense made greater strides last year and will return five starters, led by freshman All-America linebacker Jaishawn Barham (St. Frances) and honorable mention All-Big Ten safety Beau Brade (River Hill).
At the same time, defensive coordinator Brian Williams will have to work around the losses of two NFL-ready cornerbacks and much of his interior talent.
“That’s one of the daunting tasks,” Williams acknowledged. “But I think if you stand on the principles of developing the guys in your room, you’ll never be in a position where the cupboard is bare. We feel that way now.”
Locksley supplemented Maryland’s returning talent with another solid recruiting class, ranked 36th in the country and sixth in the Big Ten by 247Sports’ composite score. Eighteen new players are already on campus and ready for spring practice.
Their coach put a positive spin on the roster churn Maryland faces, noting that for all the talent exiting, the NFL draft will provide potential recruits a powerful glimpse of the program’s developmental muscle.
“It will definitely be a test of the program,” Locksley said. “What I also do think is it shows the trajectory of what our program can be. Because a lot of those guys weren’t the names you heard about on signing day when they came out of high school. It’s a testament to the type of program that we’re building here with the development of our players. You can come here and be developed by great coaches, great facilities, strong academics and have an opportunity to live out your dream.”
If that sounds like a sales pitch, Locksley said he’s no longer interested in pleading with anyone, coach or player, to come to College Park. He believes the work speaks for itself.
“I’m just not going to do it,” he said. “We’ve got a great product here at Maryland.”
Maryland football pro day
Wednesday, 9:45 a.m.