In his third year at the helm of Maryland’s football program, head coach Mike Locksley has a chance to truly propel the Terps forward.
For the success of the team, and presumably Locksley’s credibility as a head coach, this step forward needs to be tangible, unlike the five game snafu of 2020. The step forward needs to indicate that Maryland football is headed in a positive direction, one far from the state the program has endured in the past decade.
Moreover, the expectation for Maryland football, and specifically Locksley, is to win. And through impressive recruiting, scouting and culture development, Locksley has put the program in the perfect position to do exactly that.
So, ahead of the season opener, here’s a roster analysis of the 2021 Terps.
On offense, scouting, recruiting and good fortune has earned Maryland some stability in the quarterback room. For the first time in a long time, Maryland football has the gift of a surefire, week one, starting quarterback in Taulia Tagovailoa.
“It’s definitely a steadying force for us to have a returning starter at quarterback.” Locksley said. “That has not been a luxury, at least in my 13 years here with that position, to be able to come back and then have a returning starter healthy, no questions about it.”
Maryland is fully devoted to Tagovailoa. His 1,011 passing yards, 61% completion percentage and seven passing touchdowns, (in just four games no less) were worthy of honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Coming into this year’s campaign, his previous efforts earned him a spot on the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Watch List and the the Maxwell Award Watch List for the 2021 season. Both awards are typically granted to the elite passers of college football, a mold Tagovailoa could develop into if he can stay healthy.
The newest addition to Maryland’s QB room is VMI graduate transfer, Reece Udinski. In his last full season in 2019 he threw for 3,276 yards and 19 touchdowns en route to a second-team All-Southern Conference selection.
“Reece Udinski has definitely improved us and improved that room, and it created some competition, and I think that’s brought the best out of all those guys,” Locksley said.
After losing one of the nation’s best workhorse running backs to the NFL, a collection of unproven ball carriers will be tasked with filling the void that Jake Funk left behind. Fifth-year senior Tayon Fleet-Davis will be the leading man for the lofty undertaking. Though he likely won’t be able to live up to the 8.6 yard per carry mark that Funk fulfilled in his super senior season, Fleet-Davis now has an official opportunity to be a primary running back after missing the majority of last season.
Fleet-Davis, a Doak Walker award candidate, brings a promising ability to catch out of the backfield and block, proving to be more than simply a runner. He will be joined by Peny Boone and Isaiah Jacobs, the two lead runners last season behind Funk. For an offense that has recently suffered in the trenches and lacked running back depth in 2020, with Funk as the only tailback on the roster to rush over 100 yards for the season, Fleet-Davis shoulders a massive responsibility as his replacement.
Fortunately, there is promising depth in one area on offense.
At receiver, Maryland holds one of the most talented groups in the conference. Former five-star prospect, Rakim Jarrett, highlights the Terps pass catching group. He, like Tagovailoa, is due for a breakout season of his own after a 17 catch, 252 yard, two touchdown campaign as a true freshman. Senior Dontay Demus, the Terps leading receiver last year, will be back along with junior Jeshaun Jones and senior Brian Cobbs who combined for over 350 yards and two touchdowns last year.
Their youth, with sophomore athletes like Jarrett, Nebraska transfer Marcus Fleming and DeaJuan McDougle, coupled with their aforementioned upperclassmen pass catchers make this position the most exciting for the Terps present and future. Additionally, Chigoziem Okonkwo, who missed last year with myocarditis, also will look to have a considerable role in the passing offense as the team’s top tight end.
At the offensive line, like years past, many questions remain on whether the position will continue to show signs of improvement and point to a more cohesive iteration of Maryland offense — especially with the transfers of starters Marcus Minor and Johnny Jordan, who provided some veteran presence for the young group.
“The O line has been a concern from a depth standpoint,” Locksley said, “it’s the one position group that through recruiting, as of right now, we haven’t been able to fill all the needs and voids that we’ve had since we’ve been here”
For now, returning starters Jaelyn Duncan, Johari Branch and Spencer Anderson, will provide some foundation as newcomers and former rotational lineman Aric Harris, Mason Lunsford, Ja’Khi Green, Evan Gregory and more will likely be asked to provide more depth.
On the other side of the ball, Maryland returns a majority of last year’s production. On the defensive line, super senior Sam Okuayinonu, Mosiah Nasili-Kite, last year’s sack leader, and Ami Finau will be anchoring the interior. Lawtez Rodgers will be poised to lead the edge rushers in production.
Behind them, Ruben Hyppolite and Fa’Naje Gotay will be the Terps top two linebackers of 2021 after combining for 41 tackles and demonstrating their explosiveness and speed at the position. Terrance Lewis, Demeioun Robinson and Branden Jennings, headliners of the 2021 recruiting class, will join the veteran duo and likely tally considerable minutes as true freshmen.
Much like the receiving core, the defensive backs have proven to be formidable as well. With Nick Cross and Jordan Mosley at safety and Tarheeb Still, Deonte Banks and Jakorian Bennett holding down the corner position, the defense’s deepest group is clearly the secondary. The established core will be compiling snaps as the rest of the group that includes Corey Coley, Beau Brade and others, continues to develop.
“Jakorian [Bennett] is a starter for us, Deonte Banks is a starter for us, as well as Tarheeb Still, and then we have Kenny Bennett who also will be able to play a lot of football and may end up starting,” Locksley said. “So, we feel good about the depth at corner.”
Special teams this year continue the trend of reliability last year with upperclassman Joseph Petrino and punters Anthony Pecorella and Colton Spangler returning to solidify that end of the field.
The coaching staff has also been faced with some turnover. This offseason, Brian Stewart rejoined the program to reclaim his position as defensive coordinator after previously holding the position from 2012-2014 as a coordinator under head coach Randy Edsall alongside Locksley, the offensive coordinator at the time.
Dan Enos, a former associate of Locksley during his stint with Alabama in 2018 will also be taking over as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Locksley believes Enos’ understanding of his offensive philosophy will help the offense take the next step and foster some consistent success.
It would be especially fitting if the coaching duo largely responsible for Tua Tagovailoa’s breakout 2018 season helped Taulia grow his wings and truly become elite in his second year as starter. Of course, the conditions in College Park in 2021 vastly differ from those of Alabama in 2018, but any step forward for the youngest of the Tagovailoa brothers could prove to be monumental for the success of the offense and the team.
Regardless, the conditions are set and the roster is there. The results don’t have to be perfect, Maryland football doesn’t have to reestablish its former glory as an east coast powerhouse program. It just needs to improve, show progress, stay #LOCKedIN. In year three, it’ll be up to Locksley and his staff to steer the ship in the right direction — a positive direction.