The last time Maryland running back Javon Leake walked away from the field inside Maryland Stadium, he had fumbled three times, losing all three in a disheartening 54-7 loss against Nebraska.
But sophomore linebacker Ayinde Eley predicted that big things are in store for Leake when he and the rest of the Terps (3-8, 1-7 Big Ten) meet Michigan State (5-6, 3-5) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
“I think he’s going to respond great,” Eley said Tuesday afternoon. “I think he’s going to come back way stronger. I’m going for a career day for him. I’m not going to lie to you. I just talked to him the other day, and I just have that feeling that he’s going to have a career day this week.”
Some of Leake’s career highs include 158 rushing yards against Indiana on Oct. 19, three rushing touchdowns against Illinois on Oct. 27, 2018, and 164 kick return yards against Ohio State on Nov. 9, but that’s probably not the point. What is significant is that the 6-foot, 206-pound junior has not lost the faith of his teammates or coaches after what was likely one of the most disappointing displays of his college career.
“I know I’m better than that,” Leake said. “So I know I’ve just got to get back to the basics. Ball security, I’m working on that. Just trying to stay positive. I did have a tough game, but my teammates were helping me. I’ve just got to stay positive, work on it during the week, and just be better Saturday.”
Leake paced Maryland against the Cornhuskers with with eight carries for 80 yards, including a 58-yard scamper to the end zone in the fourth quarter. But those numbers hardly mattered when compared with the three fumbles, which matched the three fumbles he had lost in his first 31 games.
Terps coach Mike Locksley blamed wet conditions caused by persistent rain for contributing to the fumbles, but also noted that the coaches had tried to prepare the players for slick footballs.
“One of the coaching points we point out quite often when you play in wet weather — we did some wet ball drills during the course of the week — is, when in traffic, use the off hand to protect the football,” he said. “I think there are times when players try to make plays and become a little unconscious in terms of the ball security part and more conscious on trying to make plays, and I know that’s the type of player Javon is. For the most part, the weather played a part in just not the great techniques and fundamentals you need to have playing in wet weather.”
Leake, who fumbled after a 14-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and later on a kick return in the first quarter, acknowledged Locksley’s point about protecting the ball.
“When the person was coming up to hit me, I probably could have wrapped it up with two hands,” he said. “Both fumbles that I had … perfect helmet-on-the-ball tackle. So it’s just me. I have to cover it up and do a better job just lowering my area and my chest. Just things like that, I’ve got to work on.”
Nebraska took advantage of Leake’s gaffes, turning his first fumble into a touchdown and his second into a field goal. Add another field goal off a fumble in the fourth quarter, and the Cornhuskers converted Leake’s errors into 13 points.
But Eley put the onus on the defense to cover for Leake.
“After his first fumble, he was running off the field, and I kind of saw him drop his head. But he picked his head up, and we stick together through mistakes — thick and thin,” said Eley, who leads the team in tackles with 79. “He made a mistake, and it’s our job as a defense to go and correct it. Just like when we make mistakes and we let the offense score and he comes out and takes the kickoff back, he just corrected our mistakes. So through everything, we’re all together. Everybody makes mistakes. That’s what comes with the territory. That’s a great player, and great players can have a game like that. So he’ll just bounce back next week.”
In the big picture, Leake still represents perhaps one of the more positive developments in what has become a disappointing season for Maryland, which has lost six straight games after opening the year with a 3-2 record. His 1,555 all-purpose yards are the second-highest in the Big Ten and the 11th-highest at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level.
He has averaged 7.8 yards per carry — the second-highest rate in the nation among Power 5 running backs with over 60 carries, trailing only Clemson junior Travis Etienne. And with two kickoff returns for touchdowns and 784 kick return yards that rank third in the nation this season, he is positioned to claim the conference’s Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year award.
But Leake is intent on dispelling any notion that he can’t hold onto the ball.
“I’m not known for fumbling, but in a game like this, a crazy game where I have three, you just realize that you’ve just got to tighten up a little bit on the fundamentals, and that’s what I’m going to do and be better on Saturday,” he said.