As Mike Locksley enters his third season as the head coach of Maryland’s football team, he’s slowly but surely beginning to see the building blocks take shape for a program he took charge of in December 2018.
Though it hasn’t materialized into instant on-field success — the Terps are 5-12 under Locksley in two seasons, including a 2-3 record last year in a condensed season wracked by the coronavirus pandemic — Locksley has overseen two recruiting cycles, stocking the roster with the talent required of respectable teams.
He also nabbed Taulia Tagovaloia from the transfer portal last year, and the junior quarterback is the player who will be most closely aligned with Locksley in the near future as the Terps look to turn around a program that was clouded in mediocrity and scandal just three years ago.
There’s still much work to be done before Maryland is no longer considered a laughingstock in the Big Ten Conference, but Locksley has done well in a short amount of time to garner optimism. All of this makes Saturday’s Red-White spring game, the first game in front of fans at Maryland Stadium in 17 months, all the more exciting for Locksley and his coaching staff to evaluate the progress of a youthful team.
Here are five players to watch Saturday:
Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa
In four appearances last season, Tagovailoa, the younger brother of former Alabama star and current Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua, provided glimpses of hope that Maryland’s quarterback woes were coming to an end. Tagovailoa’s bounce-back performance against Minnesota after a disastrous season-opening start at Northwestern showed his resiliency despite being an inexperienced signal-caller. However, he also showed room for growth in a shaky outing against Indiana.
With a choppy season that included team-wide coronavirus outbreaks, the year wasn’t conducive for success for a first-time starter at quarterback. Locksley’s hope is that between the continuity of Tagovailoa and returning players, as well as a season that shouldn’t be upended by the virus, Tagovailoa will be more confident and take a positive step in his development. Tagovailoa also has familiarity with new offensive coordinator Dan Enos, who served as quarterbacks coach when Tagovailoa and Locksley were at Alabama. Maryland’s scheme won’t be much different under Enos, but the terminology has been shortened to allow for better recall on the field.
Running back Tayon Fleet-Davis
Fleet-Davis spent the 2020 season practicing with Maryland but didn’t play until the season finale against Rutgers as he served a suspension in the aftermath of being arrested and charged with seven driving-related offenses in November 2019, including driving under the influence of drugs.
Jake Funk has entered the NFL draft, leaving Fleet-Davis, a redshirt senior, as the elder statesman of a running back room that includes sophomores Isaiah Jacobs and Peny Boone. Like Funk, Fleet-Davis also spent the first few years of his career playing behind a set of future pros, but has been efficient in his limited opportunities (168 touches, 866 scrimmage yards, 10 touchdowns). Locksley said Tuesday that Fleet-Davis has shown the ability to be a “triple threat” as a runner, pass-catcher and blocker.
Tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo
When Locksley arrived in College Park from Alabama, there was much talk about how tight ends would be more incorporated in the offense than in previous seasons. In 2019, Okonkwo recorded 19 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns in eight games. The senior sat out the 2020 season with a medical condition he revealed last week to be myocarditis, which he suspects to be from contracting the coronavirus early last year.
With Okonkwo sidelined and a thin position group, tight ends were once again nonexistent in the Terps’ offense, recording just one catch in 2020. Maryland’s skilled wide receiver group was able to make up for the absence of Okonkwo, but his presence, along with early enrollees C.J. Dippre and Weston Wolff, are expected to add more versatility to the offense.
Linebacker Fa’Najae Gotay
Chance Campbell, Maryland’s leading tackler last season, transferred to Ole Miss, leaving the Terps with a void of production and consistency at middle linebacker. The team has several players capable of stepping in, such as Gotay, a junior, sophomore Ruben Hyppolite II and early enrollee Terrence Lewis, although the five-star recruit is not participating in spring practice after undergoing surgery for a torn ACL.
Gotay, who finished third on the team in tackles last season, is the most experienced of the three with four career starts, including three last year. His consistency in the middle of the defense will be crucial for a unit that improved in 2020.
Offensive lineman Austin Fontaine
Between junior Jaelyn Duncan (five starts at left tackle in 2020), senior Johari Branch (five starts at left guard) and junior Spencer Anderson (five starts), Maryland has a trio of likely starters along the offensive line. There’s a lot of uncertainty after that as Locksley said that the team has tinkered with several players at different positions.
Fontaine, who moved from defensive line to offensive line in 2019, could be a key part of the unit this season after he initially opted out in 2020 before rejoining the team days before the season opener. A four-star recruit from the Class of 2018, Fontaine started six games at right guard in the 2019 season, but only appeared in the final game of 2020 against Rutgers as he worked to get back in shape. His development could help round out an offensive line that isn’t as deep as other positions, according to Locksley, but was one of the more improved units last season.
MARYLAND RED-WHITE GAME
TV: BTN (tape delay, 4 p.m.)