College Football Corner: Maryland football preview 2021

It’s “go-time” in College Park.

Year three under Head Coach Mike Locksley isn’t going to be about a blueprint as much as it will be about building. He said during the Big Ten’s Media Day last month there would be no excuses this fall.

If 2019 was “Year Zero,” where he established the foundation of a program dealing with tough times (38-61 from 2011-18), and 2020 was written off (reasonable minds would, due to the COVID-19 pandemic), this is the fall where Locksley expects his program to rise in the ultracompetitive Big Ten East.

“Our program’s ready to take the next step,” Locksley said earlier this month at the team’s Media Day. “And that begins and ends with playing and having the type of discipline, while still establishing the types of habits, that’ll create the behaviors we need to win and win big here.”

This fall, he’ll return 86% of his lettermen on the offensive side of the ball and 10 of 11 defensive starters. If the Terps are going to make their mark (and they haven’t posted a winning conference record since leaving the ACC) this is as good a year as any under Locksley.

If Maryland is going to be competitive this fall, they’re going to need quality play and consistency at quarterback. It’s no coincidence that the program hasn’t posted a double-digit win season while being marred with injuries and inconsistency at that position: The Terps have started the same man at quarterback in every game of the season just twice since 2003.

One of those years had Maryland playing for the ACC’s Atlantic Division in November (2006) and the other (2014) saw the program’s first-ever wins at Penn State and against Michigan. Even last year when health and effectiveness weren’t in question, Taulia Tagovailoa missed time due to COVID-19.

The sophomore completed 62% of his passes last fall and is expected to make the necessary strides this year.

“He knows the why: He understands where the ball needs to go, he understands where the start of it is and where the end of the progression is,” Locksley said. “But I’ve also seen him take a step forward from a leadership standpoint.”

New offensive coordinator Dan Enos is impressed.

“Obviously a lot of talent, in my opinion, but he’s got the mindset to match,” Enos said. “He loves to compete. He loves to work. He wants to be coached hard and wants to be better every day … what more can you ask for as a coach?”

And the former Alabama QB is ready.

“I feel like he’s more comfortable with us now,” junior wide receiver Jeshawn Jones said. “I feel like he’s learned that and he took a big step there.”

Jones is just one of Tagovailoa’s targets in a very deep receiving corps that includes senior Dontay Demus Jr., junior Brian Cobbs, and sophomore Rakim Jarrett.

“We’re going to lean on our playmakers. As we go into training camp we always try to try to identify who are the playmakers on offense,” Locksley said. “And find ways to keep them involved … we’re excited about the group. Now they’ve gotta live up to the expectation we have.”

Demus led the squad with 24 catches and 365 yards last fall while Jones still has people recalling his debut in 2018 against Texas (three touchdowns resulting from the first three touches of his career).

Senior tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo (19 catches in 2019 before missing last year with injury) will provide another option. With the leading returning rusher Peny Boone owning all of 86 career yards rushing, the offense will likely maximize the receiving corps strengths while minimizing the backs’ inexperience.

But while there’s plenty of sizzle to this offense, until proven otherwise, there will be questions as to the quality of the steak as the offensive line is projected to start four sophomores plus a redshirt freshman.

Sophomore Jaelyn Duncan was voted Honorable Mention All-Big Ten in his first season as a starter and the left tackle will be expected to keep Tagovailoa’s blind side clean (the line allowed 16 sacks in five games last fall).

“It is a process in developing that position,” Locksley said. “The next step for them is just developing the mentality because it still starts and ends with how you play in the trenches.”

There’s a new Defensive Coordinator in College Park as well, and Brian Stewart looks to improve a unite that allowed the fourth most yards and fifth most points per game in the Big Ten last year. And just like offensive efficiency, defensive denial begins up front with quality of play and quantity of players.

“We do a good job playing blocks, we’re a gap-sound team, and let’s do that but keep those guys fresh.” Stewart said. “And that’s why the depth is so important … because those guys — every single snap is a collision. Every single snap is a car-wreck.”

The three-man front is experienced with senior Sam Okuayinounu and junior Mosiah Nasili-Kite as bookends. The linebacking corps is young but deep, while the secondary is much improved after taking their lumps in 2020.

“The season before we didn’t defend the pass very well. We gave up a lot of big plays in the passing game,” Locksley said. “By the end of the year we were playing ‘CAT’ coverage — meaning ‘I got that cat, you got that cat and running all across the field covering guys.”

Junior Nick Cross leads this year’s crew on and off the field.

“If you watch him — it’s his ‘want to.’ He wants to be a good player, he wants to be good in the weight room, he wants to be good in the classroom.” Stewart said. “So that’s a big element to his game is he wants to be good — and that shows.”

The schedule begins with a bang as the Terps renew their rivalry with West Virginia (the two schools met every year from 1960-2006 and from 2010-15) Labor Day weekend. The Mountaineers have won eight of the last nine meetings and also received votes in both preseason polls.

Four Big Ten schools on Maryland’s schedule (Ohio State, Iowa, Indiana, and Penn State) were ranked in the preseason while Michigan also received votes and comes to College Park in November. Rutgers is in year two under the coach who’s enjoyed the greatest success with the Scarlet Knights, and Michigan State is also in the second year of the Mel Tucker regime. But don’t mention how rough and tumble the road ahead is for the Terps as they prepare for 2021.

“There’s not any excuses for us this year,” Locksley said. “We feel we’ve brought in the smart, tough, and reliable players that usually give yourself a chance to win.”

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Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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