2021 Maryland football has a chance to separate itself from its 2016 counterparts

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

Four weeks of football have passed and Maryland football is still perfect. Of course, 4-0 is far from indicative of the play that transpired in the opening four contest, but head coach Mike Locksley and company have achieved something special — a start the program hasn’t enjoyed since 2016. 

Strangely enough, Maryland’s 2016 group is the exact team this year’s squad does not want to be. 

Just five years ago, Maryland football was beginning a new era. A doomed, somewhat uninspired era under Randy Edsall had just concluded and new coach DJ Durkin was tasked with providing  hope for a program so familiar with futility. 

In 2016, Durkin had the fortune of being left with the remnants of “The Movement,” a DMV to UMD pipeline that Locksley and Edsall had forged in the years prior, landing Maryland some of the best recruits in the area. These athletes included receiver DJ Turner, defensive back Tino Ellis, linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. and several others. 

The results were a demanding 4-0 start to the season, one that included a 50-7 victory over Purdue, a Big Ten foe, and a cumulative scoreline of 173-58 against their first four opponents. Outside of the promising start, 2016 was a year tarnished by mediocrity. Of the next nine games, Maryland managed to win just two and the intense high of the early season regressed to a familiar hopelessness from years past. From there, the Terps continuously grew worse in Durkin’s second and final year.

Today, in year three of Locksley’s tenure, there’s an explicit standard to reach and maintain and a fervor to improve — even with a flawless record. 

“These kids know that they didn’t play up to the standard and they were eager to get in,” Locksley said of the Terps win over Kent State, “especially with a short week and get the corrections necessary.”

For a team faced with similar circumstances of the 2016 team that enjoyed nearly the same kind of early season, non-conference success, the mindset Locksley has in place provides an opportunity for his current group to ensure 2021 is somewhat different. 

Against the Big Ten sqauds teeming with talent that litter the rest of Maryland’s schedule and specifically No. 5 Iowa, a classic Big Ten powerhouse that lives through its running game and stout defense, a persistent, dissatisfied mindset could prove to be handy. 

Regardless of the outcome or the opponent, it’s clear Locksley has his bunch set on a path of improvement on a week-to-week basis. And the talent of Iowa certainly gives Maryland an early chance to learn from the nation’s best.

“I think where we spend our time and what we need to learn is how not to beat ourselves,” Locksley said. “… get back to playing the standard of football we want to play on offense, which is not having to self inflicted wounds, sacks, drops, penalties, interceptions, fumbles, those are all controllable variables that that we can control on our offense.”

Not only do the Hawkeyes have an defensive line that can pose problems for Maryland’s thin but recently touted offensive line group and a set of ball-hawking defensive backs that can pester both Taulia Tagovailoa and his deep receiving core, but it plays with a brand of discipline on the defensive side that Maryland has yet to capture — a brand that the Terps could learn from as the ranked Buckeyes and Nittany Lions await in the weeks to come. 

The stage is massive and the opponent is tough but the potential to learn and become an even better team presents itself in an intimidating form. 

Maryland and its offense in particular have shown, so far, that the pieces can work. Tagovailoa and Dontay Demus Jr. have a cemented themselves as a one-two punch, the receivers outside of Demus are perfectly capable to be threats of their own, the running back room is deep and the men manning the trenches have managed to keep their quarterback upright. 

“And for us going against a team like Iowa that doesn’t beat itself very often. on offense, we got to play clean [and] we got to execute,” Locksley said. 

Iowa, and its nationally regarded defense, will do everything in its capacity to march into Maryland Stadium and throw a wrench in all of the progress and promise of Maryland and its offense.

And the Terps, if they’re any different from their 2016 peers, will have to find a way to grow regardless of who remains undefeated at the end of the night.

“We feel like it’s a big opportunity for our program,” Tagovailoa said, “The biggest thing is preparation. Not really focusing on the outside, the build up to all of us, not just continuing to do what we’ve been doing.”

Week Five’s contest will air on Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m ET.