Neither Chigoziem Okonkwo nor Tyler Mabry came to Maryland looking specifically to reverse a questionable trend of pass-catching tight ends becoming an endangered species under DJ Durkin and Matt Canada the past three seasons.
The only other offers Okonkwo, a three-star prospect from Powder Springs, Georgia, had received two years ago were from Navy, Georgia Tech and Wisconsin, schools that perennially are among the nation’s leaders in rushing.
Mabry, who spent his first three college seasons at Buffalo, arrived this summer as a graduate transfer looking to prove he could take a step up in competition from the Mid-American Conference to the Big Ten.
Yet both became acutely aware after Mike Locksley was hired as Maryland’s coach as to how he used his tight ends — Irv Smith Jr. in particular — last season as Alabama offensive coordinator.
Smith, now a rookie with the Minnesota Vikings, caught 44 passes for 710 yards and seven touchdowns with Alabama in 2018.
“That’s what really got me excited,” Okonkwo said of Smith after practice Tuesday. “When Tyler came in, I said, ‘Wow, we could be a really big dynamic duo.’ And you see what we’re doing on Saturdays now.”
Okonkwo, who caught six passes for 69 yards and a touchdown while rushing three times for 72 yards and three touchdowns last season as a true freshman, has already caught five passes for 54 yards and a touchdown in the first two games this season.
Mabry, who caught a career-high 27 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns as a junior last season at Buffalo, became the first Maryland tight end to catch touchdown passes in back-to-back games since Dan Gronkowski in 2008. He has five catches for 46 yards to go along with the two touchdowns.
“That was a big factor, how they used Irv,” Mabry said Tuesday. “That’s what really excited me coming here.”
Mabry’s ability as a pass catcher and pass protector, as well as a run blocker, has enabled the Terps to have the kind of balanced offense Locksley is seeking. The No. 21 Terps are averaging 335.5 yards per game rushing and 301 yards passing going into Saturday’s game against Temple at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
“Both [Mabry] and Chig have done a really good job of understanding what we want to do,” Locksley said at his news conference Tuesday. “And they’ve also been really versatile in that we do so many things with them, from lining them up in line to lining them up in the backfield to splitting them out wide, and these guys are really high football IQ guys that are taking advantage of the opportunities that are given.”
First-year Temple coach Rod Carey is familiar with Mabry, having had to game-plan for him the past couple years as the coach at Northern Illinois.
“He’s a good football player, he can run routes and he’s gotten a lot better as his career has gone in blocking at the point of attack,” Carey said on a teleconference Monday. “As good as Mabry runs, [Okonkwo] may run better. I think they’re doing exactly what they should be doing, not that I’m telling them how to coach. If you have two players like that, you’ve got to use them and they’re certainly doing that and certainly that jumps off the film to you.”
The first hint of how Locksley was going to use his tight ends came in the annual Red-White spring game, when the position group caught 17 passes for 125 yards and four touchdowns. Okonkwo had seven receptions for 63 yards and two touchdowns. At that point, Mabry had yet to arrive.
“You saw it in the spring game — we have a much bigger role, and I feel it’s helping our team win,” Okonkwo said.
Asked that afternoon if using the tight end so often would continue in the fall, Locksley said, “Maybe call Irv Smith from Alabama and ask him if we threw to the tight end. I think the Minnesota Vikings drafted him in the second round.”
In 2017 under Durkin, Terps tight ends made no catches and were targeted very few times.
Okonkwo and Mabry have shown the ability to get open downfield, including two long passes when graduate transfer Josh Jackson narrowly missed the 6-foot-4, 248-pound Mabry along the sideline and Mabry was a step or two out of bounds. They have both been reliable targets in third-down situations as well as when Jackson has to change the play at the line of scrimmage.
“We’re like flex tight ends, so we can run just as fast as receivers,” Okonkwo said. “When they put a big guy out in space against us, it’s easier for us to get around him and catch the ball because they usually have a smaller guy in to cover a receiver. When we put these put these two big guys in, they put their run stoppers in and they don’t know how to defend on the perimeter.”
Mabry, who some teammates have started calling “T-Mobile” for his ability to get open downfield, said the three years he spent at Buffalo prepared him for Maryland.
“Honestly, [offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki] at Buffalo ran the same type of offense — fast-paced, everything — and I’m happy he got me ready for this, because right now it’s fast,” Mabry said after Saturday’s 63-20 win over then-No. 21 Syracuse at Maryland Stadium.
Mabry said after practice Tuesday that Terps offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery has really helped showcase his versatility.
“Hand in the dirt, split out, just catching the ball, just everything I do,” Mabry said. “He knows what I can do and I like that a lot. He uses me.”
Locksley said at his weekly news conference that he had to sweat out Mabry’s visit to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, after he had taken a trip to Maryland. Despite an offer from the Crimson Tide, Mabry picked the Terps.
“We’re asking him to isolate and block some of the best players on the defensive side of the ball, defensive ends and he’s done that with a high level of execution for us the past couple of games, and his work as a pass receiver and vertically down the field and being really reliable,” Locksley said. “It’s been great to see from that position because that’s a pivotal position in this offense.”
Said Jackson: “They catch anything I throw at them. They’re great pass-catching tight ends and blocking tight ends. It’s nice. You can rotate personnel.”
As reliable a pass catcher and red-zone threat as Mabry has already become, he’s an even better blocker. Okonkwo, who at 6-2 and 244 pounds is more athletic than Mabry, is catching up in that area as well.
“The tight ends are a big part of our run game. They do a great job blocking,” fifth-year senior offensive lineman Ellis McKennie (McDonogh) said after practice Tuesday. “It’s nice when you see them catching passes and scoring touchdowns because they have their nose in the trenches a lot of the time hitting these big linemen.”