Maryland football coach Mike Locksley talks about quarterback Josh Jackson’s possible return from a sprained ankle Saturday at Minnesota.
As a struggling Maryland football team enters its most difficult stretch of the season Saturday at unbeaten, No. 17 Minnesota, first-year coach Mike Locksley seemed to have at least a hint of a smile on his face Tuesday when updating the media about injuries.
For the first time in weeks, it wasn’t a matter of who was sitting out, but who would likely be playing.
Locksley said at his weekly news conference that graduate transfer quarterback Josh Jackson and redshirt sophomore running back Anthony McFarland Jr. have been practicing and are expected to return against the Gophers (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) in Minneapolis.
Both have been out with high-ankle sprains.
The return of a healthier Jackson, who was also reportedly dealing with an undisclosed injury to his non-throwing left shoulder, is critical to Maryland (3-4, 1-3) having any chance of reaching bowl-eligibility by winning three of its final five games.
After Minnesota, Maryland hosts No. 19 Michigan on Nov. 2 before going to play No. 3 Ohio State on Nov. 9. After a bye week, the Terps finish the season with a home game against Nebraska on Nov. 23 and play at Michigan State on Nov. 30.
“Both those guys are back at 100%. They practiced yesterday,” Locksley said of Jackson and McFarland. “They’re at 100% in terms of their expectation to play this Saturday. It’s good to have both those guys back as weapons from an offensive standpoint.”
Neither Jackson nor McFarland were made available to the media Tuesday.
Jackson, who transferred from Virginia Tech after breaking his leg early last season, seemingly had found some of the rhythm he had lost in back-to-back defeats to Temple and then-No. 12 Penn State in the Terps’ 48-7 win at Rutgers on Oct. 5. But he was injured in the first half and has been out since.
McFarland, who emerged as Maryland’s top running back when he broke LaMont Jordan’s freshman rushing record with 1,034 yards last season, sat out last week’s 34-28 home loss to Indiana after gaining just 4 yards on four carries in a 40-14 loss at Purdue two weeks ago.
Even before sitting out against the Hoosiers, McFarland had not practiced since he was injured in the loss at Temple, a game in which he stayed in and finished with a season-high 132 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.
“I think the time off for Ant last week really helped speed up the recovery,” Locksley said. "He’s got a lot of the swelling out. Yesterday at practice, he looked again to be at full speed, which was good to see. To see Josh be able to take reps again with the first team, it’s great to have both those guys back. "
While Locksley hasn’t said who will start at quarterback, it was apparent after the Indiana game that he was not happy with the decision-making by redshirt junior Tyrrell Pigrome with a little under two minutes left in the game and the Terps trailing by six.
Pigrome had completed 17 of 26 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns before overthrowing wide receiver Sean Savoy deep in Indiana territory. The interception by the Hoosiers effectively ended any chance of a last-minute comeback win for the Terps, who had been down by as many as 10 points in the second half.
Both Jackson and Pigrome are taking first-team reps at practice, according to Locksley. But barring Jackson getting reinjured in practice, it appears he will start.
It has been an up-and-down season for Jackson, who threw seven touchdown passes and just one interception in one-sided wins over Howard and then-No. 21 Syracuse, but threw three touchdown passes and three interceptions while getting sacked 10 times in his next three games. Two of the touchdown passes, including an 80-yarder to sophomore wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr., came against Rutgers.
“We haven’t [made] a determination on a starter yet. That’ll be probably closer to a game-time decision as we get through practice and we can make sure he [Jackson] is 100% back and able to go and do the things we want to see him do," Locksley said. "It was good to see there wasn’t the noticeable limp, there wasn’t the ankle brace on. I think the extra rest that he got with last week being an emergency third [stringer] for us will benefit us.”
When asked Tuesday whether he would consider playing both quarterbacks against the Golden Gophers, Locksley was noncommittal.
“There’s no doubt, we need to play those guys that give us the best chance to win,” Locksley said. “Piggy’s element with being able to make plays with his feet, when he extends plays, he extends them through running. Josh extends plays in the pocket with throwing the ball.”
Locksley said that he will use the experience he gained utilizing starter Tua Tagovailoa and backup Jalen Hurts last season as offensive coordinator at Alabama to determine how he plays Jackson and Pigrome.
“Having some success and been part of having to do some of this last year with Jalen and Tua, we’re always going to have a plan for both quarterbacks when they’re healthy to be able utilize them within a game plan, whether it’s packages or whether it’s plays,” Locksley said.
“There hasn’t been a game this year when they were healthy when we didn’t have a plan within our game plans to be able to utilize them both, because I do think they both bring something to the table that allows us to attack people a certain way.”
For his part, junior running back Javon Leake is looking forward to having McFarland back. In McFarland’s absence last week, Leake rushed for a career-high 158 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, but fumbled late in the game.
“He’s a real special player," Leake said of McFarland. “Just having him on the field, do what he does, they’re definitely going to be focused on him. When he makes a play, I just know I got to make a play to step up with him, just try to help him out and take the load off him a little bit. Having Ant back, it’s going to be really good for the whole offense, for the whole team.”
NOTES: Senior right guard Terrance Davis, who sprained his knee against Temple and has not played since, participated in the portion of practice viewed by the media Tuesday. Davis, considered Maryland’s top run-blocker, was working with the first team at practice.