Sometimes, perception is reality. Big Ten football may no longer be “3 yards and a cloud of dust” like it was in the 20th century, but the foundation to the 21st century’s air attack explosion remains a stable offensive line.
Since joining the conference in 2014, Maryland has yet to produce a winning league record. One can point to instability at the quarterback position, but another factor in the lack of success in the new league can be pinned on an offensive line that has struggled.
Just one Maryland lineman has been drafted since 2015: guard Derwin Gray, in the fifth round by Pittsburgh in 2019. Last fall, the Terps allowed the most sacks in the conference. The foundation for a program resurgence begins here.
In a perfect world, offensive lines are not microwaved as much as they’re slow-roasted. But after last fall’s lessons on the line in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, head coach Mike Locksley has tried to patch together a unit that will hold its own. That means getting a little outside help, expecting young kids to grow up quickly and maneuvering players into spots that better suit their strengths.
“We’ve recruited some junior college players that we feel can really come in play and help us,” Locksley said. “Been really pleased with the veteran newcomers: the Johari Branches of the world along with Amelio Moran.”
Branch is 6-foot-3 and 330 pounds; the Chicago native was rated the No. 2 JUCO offensive guard in the nation by JCGridiron.com while at Independence Community College.
Moran is 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds; the Virginia Beach, Virginia, native initially enrolled at James Madison before playing at Lackawanna College last fall.
Back for second seasons in the trenches are Spencer Anderson and Jaelyn Duncan; Duncan started 11 games last year at left tackle, while Anderson played in 11 games with one start at right tackle.
“The more game experience, the more experiences they add to what I call their ‘toolbox,’ the better they’ll become,” Locksley said. “And I think we’ll be better served with those two guys because of the amount of games and some of the trials and tribulations of playing as redshirt freshmen last year, I would expect to continue to see both of those guys make tremendous improvement.”
They’ll begin 2020 as the Terps’ two starting tackles.
Experience up front comes in the form of players who have been mainstays the last few years while dealing with injuries, even if one of them will be playing a different position.
“Moving Marcus Minor inside has helped us as well as getting Johnny Jordan back,” Locksley said. “Two veteran guys who have played a lot of football for us.”
Keeping Jordan healthy is key, as the center has started six games in each of the last two years but has dealt with injuries. Minor moves to guard after starting 10 games last fall at right tackle.
What has been the most challenging aspect about the transition for the junior?
“Hardest I would say is trying to change the some of the technique from tackle to guard; because at tackle I maybe have a little more room, working with a little bit faster guys. Now I’m working with a little more stronger guys, and just having to shorten the steps and being able to be just quicker and more powerful versus faster and more athletic.”
The offensive line is a group where the whole is not always equal to the sum of its parts. And while Locksley makes big picture moves and position coach John Reagan’s focus is developing a starting five with depth, success in the Big Ten trenches will come down to the men on the front line.
“We have to focus on, even when everyone’s not having a good day, focusing on what makes each other better,” Minor said. “So if somebody’s having a bad day, we’re able to pick them up.”