College football season is back. Dave Preston will be taking you through all the local schools this week and we’ll have a sport-wide preview and set of predictions Friday.
Welcome to another new era of Maryland football.
For the third time this decade, a new regime checks in with high hopes. Following a year in which redshirt freshman Jordan McNair died during an offseason conditioning drill, placing the entire football program/athletic department/university under a microscope, a fresh start will be more than welcomed.
Taking the Terps into the future will be a figure from their past: new Head Coach Mike Locksley previously spent time in College Park as running backs coach under Ralph Friedgen and as Offensive Coordinator under Randy Edsall (before taking over as Interim Head Coach for six games in 2015). He has deep ties to the area, having played high school football at Washington D.C.’s Ballou High School before playing at Towson.
He’ll also be the fourth different head coach for some of the fifth-year players in the program.
“We’re all well aware of the things that have taken place here, but again we’ve told our players that this team, this 2019 team will be defined in the present,” said Locksley. “Meaning whatever it is we do today, that’s how we’re going to be defined by.”
This is also a chance for Locksley to redeem his earlier head coaching career, after he went 2-26 at New Mexico and 1-5 as the Terps’ interim coach.
Even in a new era, the quarterback question is once again crucial. Last year, the Terps passing offense ranked 13th in the Big Ten and they lost leading passer Kasim Hill to transfer (Tennessee) in the offseason. Added to the mix of the oft-injured Tyrell Pigrome and 2017’s leading passer Max Bortenschlager is Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson. The ex-Hokie threw 20 touchdown passes in 2017 before his 2018 was cut short with a broken fibula suffered against Old Dominion.
“Number one in a starting quarterback for me is a guy who does the best job taking care of the football on the offensive side of the ball,” said Locksley. “The next the most important thing is who makes the players around them better. Who gives us the chance to allow all the different weapons we have in our program to be successful on the offensive side of the ball.”
You can add “add whoever stays healthy” to the list, as Maryland’s quarterbacks have been cursed with injuries over the years. Since 2003, only Sam Hollenbach in 2006 and C.J. Brown in 2014 have started every game for the Terps.
The Terps lost a major weapon when wide receiver Jeshawn Jones tore his ACL during summer workouts. That means the returning leading receivers (senior D.J. Turner and sophomore Dontay Demus) tallied just 13 catches apiece in 2018. Thank goodness for graduate transfer tight end Tyler Mabry (27 catches last year for Buffalo). And thank goodness for a running game that will feature sophomore Anthony McFarland, who rushed for 1,034 yards last fall.
“I feel like the offense is good, it’s very explosive,” said McFarland. “[Locksley’s] offense is getting the playmakers the ball in space — and not just me. We got a lot of guys that are gonna get the ball in space and really show what we can do.”
One such playmaker is junior Javon Leake, who averaged 9.1 yards per carry in 2018. Junior center Johnny Jordan and senior guard Terrance Davis anchor an offensive line that generated 5.7 yards per carry (third best in the Big Ten) but allowed 30 sacks (fourth most in the conference) last year.
The defense returns five starters from a unit that allowed more than 30 points in half of their games last fall, but may be trending upward. For the first time since Maryland joined the Big Ten, they allowed fewer than 400 yards per game.
Senior safety Antoine Brooks (68 tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception last year) looks to help this unit make the next step, and knows he’ll have to be an active ingredient.
“We gotta play more together, try to talk more and be more into each other as a group on and off the field,” he said.
They’ll get a boost from Ohio State transfer Keandre Jones. How does the senior linebacker expect to contribute?
“Fill in that leadership role, being a leader on and off the field, whether it’s in the film room or outside. Just making sure guys are doing the right thing,” said Jones.
He’ll also be expected to help a pass rush that has sagged the last two seasons (34 combined sacks in 2017 and 2018 after notching 37 in 2016).
The schedule begins with Howard Aug. 31 in College Park. The other nonconference foes are two teams that went to bowls last year in Syracuse (beat Maryland in their last College Park meeting six years ago) and Temple (routed the Terps by 21 points last year).
The Big Ten campaign kicks off on a Friday night against Penn State and this year’s crossover tilts will be against Purdue, Minnesota and Nebraska (the trio went 17-21 in 2018). November could be chilly, as the Terps face Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State: four schools that are each ranked in the AP Preseason Top 25. The Big Ten East is once again a gauntlet, but the new coach is more than ready for the 2019 season to begin.
“It’s excitement. It’s a lot like Christmas in August,” said Locksley. “We’ve got a lot of great pieces and presents here in our program and I just really want to see these guys go out and exceed where we are.”