The Maryland football team has been building for this moment since Mike Locksley became Head Coach in December of 2018.
He inherited a program that had gone 13-30 in conference play since joining the Big Ten. After some impressive moments in his first two seasons at the helm (a 63-20 takedown of 21st ranked Syracuse in 2019 and a 35-19 win at Penn State in 2020), the Terps went 7-6 last year and posted its first bowl victory in over a decade.
And while one knows another difficult season lies ahead (four Big Ten opponents are in the Preseason Top 25 while two others are receiving votes), there is a reason for optimism in College Park.
“Three things are really clear: one, we have talent. Two, we’re building great depth finally — especially up front in the trenches with the O-Line and the D-Line where we’ve been pretty thin here over the last few years,” Locksley said. “(and third) Having continuity on our roster and with our coaching staff is another key to this excitement that I know I have.”
The excitement begins with an offense that ranked fourth in the Big Ten last year in yardage and scoring. Junior Taulia Tagovailoa became just the third quarterback to start every game of the season since 2003, breaking the school record for passing yards in a season while his 26 touchdown passes tied the total set by Scott Milanovich in 1993.
“For me I think the biggest next step for ‘Lia’ and he understands it is to continue to be emotionally mature as a leader,” Locksley said. “He doesn’t ride the wave of emotions that go within the game where you have good and bad — we want to kind of keep him at neutral.”
Offensive Coordinator Dan Enos is looking to build on the junior’s mechanics. “When he’s really sure about what he’s seeing and what he’s doing he’s really good with his eyes and feet,” Enos said. “And sometimes when he’s a little bit indecisive he’s not quite as good. Again, so the process of getting him to where he is very decisive on everything we’re doing I think will eliminate a lot of mistakes.”
Enos is in his second year directing the Terrapin attack after he and Taulia meshed well in 2021.
“I feel like this is the place to be, I feel like they always put me in good positions to show my talents,” Tagovailoa said. “That was our first year last year and we’re just looking to build this thing and do more this year.”
Also back are wide receivers Rakim Jarrett (team-high 62 catches) and Dontay Demus (28 receptions through first five games before suffering a season-ending injury) while Florida transfer Jacob Copeland (his 41 catches for 642 yards and four touchdowns in 2021 either led or tied for the lead on the Gators) is expected to make an impact.
Can the ground game become a successful counterpoint to the air attack? The Terps ranked 10th in the Big Ten running the ball last year and in conference play were held under 100 yards six times (including 48 against Penn State). But they do return all five starting linemen this fall, and cohesion in the trenches is something you have to slow-roast instead of microwave.
“A guy like Spencer Anderson can play across the board,” Locksley said. “DJ Glaze who gave us some meaningful minutes can play both inside and outside. Emilio Moran is another one of those guys that can play both inside-outside, Jahari Branch has played guard and center. So we’ve created a lot of versatility with that group.”
In recent years the Terps have sent multiple running backs to the NFL, from Ty Johnson to Jake Funk. This year’s collection includes plenty of promise and upside while they still have a little bit of room for improvement.
“If there’s an Achilles’ heel to young running backs it’s that they’re not used to having to protect,” Locksley said. “Because they’re used to free-release in high school, they normally don’t have to block some of the type of players they’ll have to block in this league. So the thing I’m looking forward to seeing is how much they’ve grown in playing without the football.”
The defense doesn’t necessarily need to be a difference-maker, but it can’t be a disaster. Last fall the Terrapins gave up 40 points to Michigan State, 51 to Iowa, 59 to Michigan and 66 to Ohio State en route to finishing 13th in points allowed, 12th in passing yards and total yards allowed, 11th against the run and 12th at getting off of the field on third down.
“Most of all I think it’s going to be about stopping the run and being able to limit the big plays,” Locksley said. “And I feel really good about the talent on that side of the ball.”
They return seven starters on that side of the ball and are led by Coordinator Brian Williams, who has been on the staff since 2019 in other roles (outside linebackers coach, defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator). He stresses that communication is key.
“If you’ve got everybody on the same page no matter what the situation is we can live to see another down,” Williams said. “We gave up a ton of explosive plays last year. That’s been a goal of ours to eliminate that and the first thing you have to do is for everyone to be fundamentally sound together.”
Middle linebacker Ruben Hyppolite ranked third on the team with 62 tackles last year and is optimistic.
“The thing about our defense is that we feed off of each other, so if one guy is bringing energy the other 10 guys will as well,” Hyppolite said. “That’s what I try to do consistently and that’s what the others will do as well.”
Defensive back Tarheeb Still’s 55 stops were fourth-most on the team.
“I feel if we get lined up and everyone’s on the same page and we communicate, we have a really good chance to win each down,” Still said. “That’s where it starts. We gotta line up right and then we gotta communicate properly presnap to get adjusted to whatever the offense gives us.”
The kicking game got a shot in the arm with the addition of Eastern Michigan transfer Chad Ryland who converted 56 of 74 (75.7%) attempts during his four seasons for the Eagles (by comparison Maryland kickers had made 32 of 47-or 68.1%-in that time. Ryland’s career long is 55-yards and connected from 50+ yards in each of his four seasons with the Eagles. Juniors Anthony Pecorella and Colton Spangler each averaged 44+ yards per punt in 2021. The Terps return their top kickoff and punt returners in Rakim Jarrett (17.6 yards per return) and Tarheeb Still (8.2 yards and a touchdown).
The path to the postseason at Maryland is simple: go unbeaten in nonconference play, beat Rutgers and Indiana, and take one of their crossover games against West Division schools. But Coach Locksley isn’t just looking to scrape their way back to a bowl game. He’s looking for the next step. Will it be a leap in year four?
“The thing I want to make sure we all don’t misconstrue is that we can build on what we did last year because we really can’t. We have to start over from scratch. Last year’s team is gone and won’t be here when we line up,” Locksley said. “It’ll be all about this team creating an identity and maybe using some of the experiences we gained last year to help us take that next step this year.”