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With Maryland starting quarterback undecided, offensive line looms large as building block

Marcus Minor did not duck the question. The redshirt junior right guard agreed that the success of the offense for the Maryland football program is linked to the play of the offensive line.

“We have to lead as an offensive line,” Minor said Wednesday morning on a video conference call. “Without us, it’s going to be hard. Being up front and being in the trenches, we control the pace, we control the nasty and stuff, and we control the team. So we’ve just got to keep pushing.

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"It’s going to be hard if we don’t bring our ‘A’ game every day. That’s how we look at it. We look at us as being the punishing line for the team, and we just want to push each other every day so that we can be the best we can be for the team.”

Time — and a season opener at Northwestern on Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. — will tell, but the Terps' front five does return four players with starting experience from last season.

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Sophomore Jaelyn Duncan started 11 of 12 games at left tackle. Minor started 10 times at right tackle. Senior Johnny Jordan made six of the team’s first seven starts at center and was named Wednesday to the preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, awarded annually to the country’s top center. Sophomore Spencer Anderson started once at right tackle and was a key swing offensive lineman.

That group’s familiarity with tangling with opposing defenses in the Big Ten is a source of ease for coach Mike Locksley.

“I think it’s a work in progress,” he said of the front five. "Jaelyn Duncan and Spencer Anderson have played a bunch of games, and having Johnny Jordan back with us and what he’s done and then Marcus Minor being a starter, I feel a really high comfort level with those four because of their experience. They’re pretty close in terms of being one of the [offense’s] strengths.”

That’s not to say that the offensive line is worry-free. The unit graduated Sean Christie, who started all 12 games at left guard, and Ellis McKennie, who started six times at center, twice at right guard and once each at the left and right tackle positions.

Terrance Davis, who started four games at right guard, transferred to Wake Forest, and sophomore Austin Fontaine, who started six of the last eight games at right guard, opted out because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Without naming names, Locksley said that some of the offensive line’s seven true freshmen will likely be listed on the team’s two-deep depth chart. “That’s the one position where you can’t rush the growth,” he said.

But junior Johari Branch, the No. 2 junior college guard in the nation, according to JCGridiron.com, is poised to start at left guard. Minor said the linemen have been trying to solidify their rapport since the summer.

“It’s just a bond that we’re being able to create within our O-line room,” he said. “That’s what keeps us going. We’re not going to hold our heads down when we make mistakes. We need that next-play mentality, and we’re going to keep working.”

Sophomore safety Nick Cross said the offensive line looks different from last year’s unit.

“It’s a good group across the board,” he said. “They brought in a lot of good guys. They came in and soaked up the playbook like a sponge, and they came here ready to work. The veterans provided a lot of leadership and a lot of just big-brother mentorship, and it definitely showed. The O-line looks clean, and they’re faster coming off the ball and striking and everything like that.”

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect for the offensive line is uncertainty over who will be in the pocket behind them. Locksley repeated Wednesday that he is not ready to name a starting quarterback between redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre or sophomore transfer Taulia Tagovailoa, although he said he would meet with the candidates after Saturday’s third and final scrimmage.

Maryland quarterbacks Taulia Tagovailoa and Lance LeGendre pose during a team practice.
Maryland quarterbacks Taulia Tagovailoa and Lance LeGendre pose during a team practice. (Maryland Athletics)

While completion percentage and third-down efficiency are two of the factors he weighs in naming a starter, Locksley said he relies heavily on drive charts that show how many points the offense scored under each quarterback’s direction. He dismissed worries that LeGendre and Tagovailoa have combined for 15 career pass attempts.

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“I think both of those guys have made really huge strides in understanding our system,” Locksley said. “I’m excited for the talent level that both of those guys have shown. Now it’s just a matter of getting them game experience.”

Nurturing the chemistry between a quarterback and offensive line can be crucial, but Minor said he and his linemates are not concerning themselves about the starter’s identity.

“Since we’re worried about us, we haven’t really been worried about the quarterbacks,” he said. “We’re still being going through camp phase, and we’re still having scrimmages going on like this weekend. Next week, we’ll be in game time, so we’ll know by then. We’re just worried about what we can do best for our five O-linemen and whoever is rotating in from there.”

Keeping whoever is under center upright will be a priority for a Maryland offense that ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed per game (3.2) and second-to-last in total sacks (38) in 2019. Locksley said pass protection has been a point of emphasis for coaches and players alike.

“We gave up way too many sacks last year, and most of them weren’t by schemes, but breakdowns in fundamentals and techniques,” he said. “We really put a big onus on developing and creating the skillset from a pass protection standpoint to effectively be able to take care of our quarterbacks. That’s critical.”

Improving on an offense that finished last season ranked 11th in both average yards and points in the Big Ten will rely on several parts. But Minor said the offensive line is honing its focus on how it fares on the field.

“No matter what’s going on, we want to dominate every play,” he said. “We want to be looked at as one of the most prominent parts of the offense. So we want to come out and be the best that we can be.”

MARYLAND@NORTHWESTERN

Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM

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