By Logan Hill
Following a season muddled with uncertainty, Maryland football looks to take another step in the right direction to open its Fall 2021 campaign.
“The pandemic is not necessarily behind us, but it’s definitely great to be able to see people in person,” coach Mike Locksley said during a press conference Tuesday. “Normalcy, kind of letting us know it’s game week.”
Led offensively by junior quarterback and second year starter Taulia Tagovailoa, Locksley’s offense looks to have its leader at the quarterback position ahead of its season-opener against West Virginia.
In four starts a year ago, Tagovailoa passed for 1,011 yards and seven touchdowns, while holding a 61% completion percentage. With a full offseason in College Park now under his belt, Tagovailoa may finally provide some much-needed stability at quarterback for the Terps.
“It’s definitely a steadying force for us, to have a returning starter at quarterback,” Locksley said. “That’s not been a luxury, at least during my thirteen years here at that position … It has really made things easier for us on the offensive side.”
Around Tagovailoa, Maryland boasts a bevy of options at the skill positions. Dontay Demus Jr., who was a two-time All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection and was named to the 2021 Biletnikoff Award Watch List for the nation’s best receiver, leads a wideout group that also includes Jeshaun Jones, Rakim Jarrett, Darryl Jones, Brian Cobbs & Carlos Carriere.
At Tight End, Chigoziem Okonkwo returns after opting out of the 2020 season and will look to serve as a dynamic receiving weapon for Tagovailoa in their first on-field action together.
Behind Tagovailoa in the backfield, Tayon Fleet-Davis will step into the starting role. Despite playing in just one game a season ago, Fleet-Davis was named to the 2021 Doak Walker Award Watch List, a testament to the flashes of his full time potential.
One area of concern for the offense is in the trenches, as the depth at offensive line isn’t a strength of this year’s Maryland team. Jaelyn Duncan, Spencer Anderson and Johari Branch all return after starting every game a season ago.
Sophomore Mason Lunsford, who made his first career start against Rutgers last season, is expected to slot in at Left Guard, while Junior College transfer Aric Harris is presumed to start at Center, after winning the job in camp.
“[Offensive] Line has been a concern from a depth standpoint,” Locksley said. “Aric came in, picked up our system very well. It’s a testament to the type of mental intelligence and football intelligence he has.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Maryland is tasked with replacing Chance Campbell, who led the team with 43 tackles a season ago before transferring to Ole Miss after the 2020 season. The Terps return a deep secondary, featuring third-year starter and two-time All-Big Ten Honorable Mention Nick Cross, along with Jordan Mosley, who chipped in 41 total tackles in 2020.
At the cornerback position, the Terps are especially deep, boasting a unit of Deonte Banks, Jakorian Bennett, Isaiah Hazel and Tarheeb Still, among other depth.
“We’ve got three starting corners, we have the flexibility,” Locksley said. “We feel good about the depth at corner, they all have the ability to be nickel defenders for us on the inside, and when you’re able to do that with those guys it opens up the ability to play a lot of players.”
In the front seven, the Terps boast a multitude of experience, with five out of seven starters being upperclassmen. Graduate student Sam Okuayinonu will lead the defensive line from the end position, while Ami Finau and Mosiah Nasili-Kite fill out the rest of the line.
“Sam [Okuayinonu] is a guy that didn’t play a lot of football early in high school, and there is nobody that benefited from the pandemic more than him,” Locksley said. “He’s worked himself into where I think he’s an NFL prospect.”
As for the linebacker corps, Fa’najae Gotay returns and is expected to play at one of the middle linebacker spots in Maryland’s 3-4 defense, alongside true sophomore Ruben Hyppolite II, who made one start a season ago and appeared in four total games. On the outside, Durell Nchami, Lawtez Rogers and Deshawn Holt are all expected to contribute.
On special teams, Joseph Petrino returns for his senior year after starting every game during his three year career. Maryland also features a two-headed attack in the punting game, as juniors Anthony Pecorella and Colton Spangler are expected to continue splitting duties based on field position.
And in the return game, Maryland is expected to rely on a combination of Jarrett, Demus Jr., Still and Jeshaun Jones, putting some of their best athletes in a position to make plays.
With an incumbent at the QB position in Tagovailoa, a host of talent around him at the skill positions, and a defense that features a stout secondary, the Terps will attempt to break ground on finding the season-long in-conference competitiveness they’ve been seeking since they joined the Big Ten back in 2014.
“It was a very, very competitive camp for us in all three phases,” Locksley said. “We made great strides as a program and we’ve been able to develop depth at a lot of positions. It was very competitive for us.”
Maryland takes on West Virginia on Saturday at 3:30 to kick-off their 2021 campaign.
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