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Five storylines to watch as Maryland football opens 2020 season

The uncertainty that has gripped the nation in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is mirrored by questions within and surrounding the Maryland football program.

Who will start at quarterback? Will a defense that surrendered 34.7 points per game last fall — the second-worst average in the Big Ten — be able to plug some holes with transfers and freshmen? Can one of the strongest special teams units rebound after the departure of Javon Leake to the NFL?

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Here are five storylines going into Saturday’s season opener at Northwestern at 7:30 p.m.:

The quarterback

During two media sessions earlier in the week, Terps coach Mike Locksley declined to divulge whether redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre or sophomore transfer Taulia Tagovailoa will line up under center, citing a desire to avoid giving the Wildcats a competitive advantage.

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Whether the starter is the 6-foot-1, 215-pound LeGendre or the 5-11, 205-pound Tagovailoa, a lack of experience looms as a concern. Tagovailoa, the younger brother of University of Alabama star and current Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, threw just 12 passes as a freshman for the Crimson Tide last season. LeGendre had even fewer attempts, tossing only three passes in three games for Maryland.

Locksley said whoever is the starter will not have to look over his shoulder in fear of a quick leash. But he admitted that both candidates have certain strengths that could be utilized in games depending on the offensive packages — a tactic he used at Alabama when he was the offensive coordinator of an offense that featured Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa.

“Because of the depth that has been created in this competition and as I’ve done at a lot of different places that I’ve been, there’s something to be said when one of the quarterbacks that maybe isn’t the starter offers a skill set that can help as a playmaker in your offensive system,” Locksley said. “ … I can foresee us doing that here just because of how both guys have developed and some of the things that they do differently. So I’m excited about the room and what both of those guys offer our offensive system.”

The wide receivers

Locksley said the wide receiver position is one of the deepest on the team and the one brimming with the most potential.

Junior Dontay Demus Jr., who paced last year’s group in catches (41), yards (625) and touchdowns (six), is back as is junior Brian Cobbs, who ranked second in yards (243) and fourth in receptions (16). Redshirt sophomore Jeshaun Jones, who compiled 22 catches for 288 yards and five scores as a freshman before suffering a torn left ACL in the preseason and sitting out the 2019 campaign, is back.

That trio is bolstered by juniors Darryl Jones (nine receptions for 158 yards) and Carlos Carriere (12 for 137 yards and one touchdown) and freshman Rakim Jarrett, the nation’s No. 2 ranked wide receiver who flipped his commitment from the Crimson Tide to the Terps. Cobbs expressed confidence that the entire group will be able to help whoever starts at quarterback.

“They trust that we’re going to win the one-on-one matchups,” he said of the quarterback candidates. “So no matter what the play call is, if they feel like they can win, they’re going to let it go. And our coaches, having trust in the quarterbacks and us as well, they’re never going to get mad at the quarterback for taking those shots because they know it’s a high percentage that we’re going to come down with them.”

The pass rush

One factor in the poor play of last year’s defense was a unit that ranked last out of 14 teams in the Big Ten, giving up 271.3 yards per game and 23 touchdowns. And one issue related to that was the absence of a consistent pass rush.

The ability to generate pressure may continue to be a hurdle this fall. Outside linebacker Keandre Jones, who led all players with seven sacks, left for the NFL. And of the 21 sacks from last season, only 6½ are coming back for 2020, and no returning player had more than one full sack.

Locksley pointed out that defensive coordinator Jon Hoke had to be creative and dial up certain packages to apply pressure. Locksley said things could look differently this fall.

“We’re hoping that with some of the people that we added and some of the pieces we’ve added to the pass rush, some guys that have natural pass-rushing ability, that will help us,” he said. “But I also feel like Coach Hoke has done a really good job this offseason of putting together a scheme that I think will benefit us in terms of trying to disrupt the quarterback’s rhythm and create some different looks on the back end. And the speed that we’ve added to the secondary at the cornerback position gives us the chance to where we can maybe [move] more guys to the rush in addition to the front-four rush and still stay in front of people on the back end.”

The new faces

Locksley is fond of pointing out that there are 56 new faces on the current roster, and many of those faces belong to transfers and freshmen already beginning to make an impact.

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Six transfers are slated to start or are competing for the right to start Saturday, including junior Johari Branch at left guard and junior Ami Finau at nose tackle. True freshman Tarheeb Still is competing with sophomore Deonte Banks at one cornerback spot, and five more are immediate backups or vying to be backups, including Jarrett behind Cobbs at slot receiver and Frankie Burgess behind sophomore Ahmad McCullough at one outside linebacker position.

The absence of nonconference games and a full preseason could be an impediment in the development of the new players, but Locksley said that group won’t have much margin for error as the team will be immersed quickly into its eight-game Big Ten schedule.

“Nobody’s going to really care that we’re playing freshmen,” he said. “They’re going to evaluate us by our production, how we play the game, how we perform. So that’s up to me and our staff to get the young guys prepared to play and that’s what we’ve tried to do over the course of the last month. Playing the Big Ten schedule right off the bat, it’s not ideal, but it is what it is, and just like everybody else in this league, we all have to face the burden of going right into league play. I’ve got a lot of confidence. With youth comes enthusiasm, and I’m hoping that this youthful team plays with the right kind of effort and the right kinds of habits and behaviors that I always talk about where this youth serves us well, and they go out and they compete, and they’re obsessed with the process of competing and not the final scoreboard.”

The pandemic

College football has soldiered on in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but not without some major speed bumps.

Schools like the University of Florida, Notre Dame University, the University of Mississippi, and Alabama University have endured outbreaks or been forced to rearrange schedules to accommodate games delayed by COVID-19. The programs remain committed to playing out their seasons, but the coronavirus has been anything but a willing participant.

Like their Big Ten brethren, the Terps are hopeful they can begin and finish their seasons. Fifth-year senior running back Jake Funk said he and his teammates understand what is at stake.

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“What we try to do is emphasize the core values that we preach,” he said. “Ultimately, if we want to play this game and guys are committed to this game and guys are committed to this season, you have to do these things. You have to make these sacrifices. … Everybody wishes they could go do whatever they want on a Saturday night. But ultimately staying in bed and watching Netflix may be the best option nowadays. After the season, if you want to go do that, you can go do that. But in the season, it’s all business, and it’s all football.”

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Season opener

MARYLAND@NORTHWESTERN

Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

TV: BTN Radio: 105.7 FM

Line: Northwestern by 11

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