It’s been nearly 11 months since Maryland football last took the field. The roster has flipped, the staff has changed, and the COVID-19 pandemic threw everything in doubt. The Big Ten announced a conference-only schedule in August, then postponed the season a week later, then reversed course to play fall football after all.
Questions linger on and off the gridiron, but after all the twists and turns, Maryland is slated to begin its 2020 campaign at Northwestern with a 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff Oct. 24. Even with only a bit more than a week to go and preparations for that game underway, Terps head coach Michael Locksley knows nothing will be certain until it happens this season.
“Based off of how 2020 has been for all of us, I am on pins and needles to get to [that first game]. We’re not going to take it for granted. We’re not going to assume that we’ve arrived,” Locksley said at virtual media availability Oct. 14. “It’s kind of like when you prepare to play a game — as we like to say, the hay is never in the barn until we kick it off. So I continue to remain very cautiously optimistic that we can continue to move forward with our preparation.”
The Terps team that travels to Evanston, Ill., will look much different than the group from last season. There are 31 new scholarship players on the roster, from true freshmen to JuCo recruits to power-conference transfers. Fourteen starters from the final depth chart last season have moved on. And the quarterback room has a combined 15 college passes to its name.
Maryland’s depth chart still has plenty of question marks, but here’s a rundown of how each position group looks as we approach opening weekend.
In case you needed a dose of normalcy in 2020, you’d be delighted to know that Maryland once again has a quarterback competition grabbing the headlines in fall camp. This year’s contestants are sophomore transfer Taulia Tagovailoa and redshirt freshmen Lance LeGendre — two former four-star prospects with potentially bright futures. Tagovailoa, the younger brother of Dolphins quarterback Tua, has long been considered the favorite among the two.
Because it’s Maryland, depth at this position is imperative, but an offseason of attrition leaves those two as the Terps’ only scholarship options. Tyrrell Pigrome is playing at Western Kentucky, Tyler DeSue stepped away from football and incumbent starter Josh Jackson opted out of this season, likely ending his career as well. Maryland has three walk-ons in its back pocket — sophomore Eric Najarian and freshmen David Foust and Josh Ettlinger. Of those three, Foust seems most likely to see emergency action.
All of one year ago, this was Maryland’s greatest position of strength without a doubt. But with Anthony McFarland and Javon Leake declaring early for the NFL Draft and Lorenzo Harrison medically retiring from the sport, the Terps’ backfield is now littered with question marks. The only returning backs are Jake Funk (who’s missed most of the last two seasons with injuries) and Tayon Fleet-Davis (who returns to the team after being charged with a DUI last November). They’ll be joined by freshmen Peny Boone and Isaiah Jacobs, both high three-star prospects.
It’s anyone’s guess how carries are distributed among these four during the season — they all have clear talent but none are obvious stars. Funk appears to be the leader right now, but plenty can change during the course of nine games. It seems safe, though, to say all four of these backs will be given a chance to show what they can do.
Dontay Demus returns after leading Maryland with 41 catches, 625 yards and six touchdowns last season. Jeshaun Jones, who burst onto the scene as a freshman before tearing his ACL in camp last summer, is back on the field. And the Terps expect an immediate impact from five-star freshman Rakim Jarrett, the headliner of their 2020 recruiting class. It’s as talented a trio as Maryland has anywhere on its roster.
This also might be Maryland’s deepest position group. Brian Cobbs, Carlos Carriere and Darryl Jones were Maryland’s Nos. 2-4 receivers last year and could still be productive in supporting roles. Then there’s another layer of younger wideouts that includes true freshmen Deajaun McDougle, Nick DeGennaro and Corey Dyches, redshirt freshman Dino Tomlin and redshirt sophomore DeJuan Ellis.
With Tyler Mabry graduated and Chigoziem Okonkwo being held out due to a medical condition, Maryland entered camp with only one returning scholarship player at the position — Malik Jackson, a redshirt freshman. To fill out the group, the Terps have moved Tyler Baylor from defensive end and Kameron Blount from linebacker. The next option beyond them figures to be 6-foot-8 senior walk-on Zack Roski.
Okonkwo tweeted Oct. 14 that he expects to be cleared to play soon, and his potential return changes the outlook of this position group drastically. If he can get back on the field, he’ll be another weapon in the passing game. Otherwise, it’s unlikely tight ends remain as involved in the passing game as they’ve been in Locksley offenses of the past.
This group has a handful of familiar faces, but remains a question mark after struggling mightily last season, when it allowed three sacks per game. Redshirt sophomore Jaelyn Duncan looks to anchor the line at left tackle after slowly establishing himself last year. Redshirt junior Marcus Minor started 10 games at right tackle in 2019, but appears more likely to play guard this season. Senior center Johnny Jordan initially opted out of the season but has opted back in and should man the middle.
With versatile interior lineman Austin Fontaine having opted out, Maryland continues to seek answers at the other two spots. JuCo pickup Johari Branch could step in at left guard, while redshirt sophomore Spencer Anderson appears to be the favorite at right tackle with Minor shifting inside.
Beyond that, the depth options are largely untested. Redshirt senior TJ Bradley and redshirt junior Tyran Hunt both hope to finally see rotational action at one of the tackle spots. Redshirt sophomores Evan Gregory and Amelio Moran (another JuCo addition) could back up on the interior. Maryland also has a stable of rookies and redshirt freshmen to fill out the two-deep.
Maryland has struggled here for several years now, and there aren’t many established names up front entering 2020. None of last year’s starters return — defensive end Brett Kulka and defensive tackle Keiron Howard graduated, while nose tackle Oluwaseun Oluwatimi opted out of this season. So who will step in to replace them?
Redshirt senior Sam Okuayinonu and redshirt junior Lawtez Rogers are the most experienced in-house options, appearing in 11 and 10 games last year, respectively. Anthony Booker made three appearances as a rookie last year, preserving his redshirt. JuCo transfers Ami Finau and Mosiah Nasili-Kite bring the type of size the Terps have long been missing up front and could start as newcomers. And while NC State transfer Joseph Boletepeli is listed as a linebacker on the roster, but at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, he’s an option up front as well.
There’s a few different ways the two-deep could shake out here, but the depth of choices is some reason for optimism.
Both on paper and in fall practice, this group has been the strength of the defense. Redshirt senior Shaq Smith, a former national champion at Clemson, returns after making 10 starts last season. Redshirt junior Ayinde Eley made nine starts in 2019. Junior Chance Campbell made just two starts but tallied 54 total tackles. Redshirt sophomore Durell Nchami is back from a torn ACL in camp last year. Sophomore Cortez Andrews looks primed for a leap, and freshman Ruben Hyppolite was the highest-rated defensive signee in Maryland’s 2020 recruiting class.
Nchami is expected to man the weak side as a frequent pass rusher (this hybrid role is called the JACK under this staff and the BUCK by the previous regime). Smith primarily played in that role last year but shifts back to his more natural spot at middle linebacker. Campbell and Eley have both primarily played inside as well. Andrews and Hyppolite could be competing for the outside linebacker spot. Maryland’s most prominent depth options here are redshirt sophomores Fa’Najae Gotay and Ahmad McCullough.
Maryland’s corners are young but do bring some experience into 2020. Deonte Banks started eight games last season alongside now-graduated Marcus Lewis, while Lavonte Gater appeared in all 12 games as a backup. Both players are entering their sophomore campaigns, and it seems their primary competition will be in the form of sophomore Jakorian Bennett, who spent 2019 at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.
The depth options here are less proven. Redshirt sophomore Vincent Flythe opted out of the season, opening the door for redshirt freshmen Erwin Byrd and Isaiah Hazel (a converted wide receiver) and true freshmen Devyn King and Tarheeb Still.
Sophomore Nick Cross is the headliner here and potentially the star of the defense; the former national top-60 prospect shined in five starts last season. Redshirt senior Antwaine Richardson is favored to start alongside him after returning from a torn ACL last spring. Jordan Mosley made seven starts in 2019, but his role for this year is unclear — he’ll likely be a rotational player either at safety or outside linebacker.
Other two-deep contenders include redshirt junior and former receiver Tahj Capehart, redshirt junior Kenny Bennett, redshirt freshman Osita Smith and true freshmen Beau Brade.
Junior Joseph Petrino enters his third year as Maryland’s placekicker, while sophomores Colton Spangler and Anthony Pecorella appear likely to share punting duties again. Junior James Rosenberry is back after starting 12 games at long snapper last year.
The return game is less clear. Javon Leake was an ace kick returner and Rayshad Lewis and DJ Turner led the team in punt returns last year. All three players are gone. Gater returned three kickoffs in 2019 and Jeshaun Jones returned one punt in 2018, so there’s not much to lean on here. Redshirt freshman Dino Tomlin (Mike Tomlin’s son) has emerged as a likely option in one or both areas, but several others could earn a look.
The offensive staff — offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Scottie Montgomery, running backs coach Elijah Brooks, wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, tight ends coach Mike Miller and offensive line coach John Reagan — remains intact from last year, and that continuity should be a plus in a hectic 2020. Maryland’s strength and conditioning coordinators, Ryan Davis and Mason Baggett, are also back for their second season.
On defense, though, only coordinator Jon Hoke has retained his position. Brian Williams has moved from outside linebackers coach to defensive line coach, replacing Delbert Cowsette. Former quality control coach Brawley Evans has been promoted into Williams’ old role. Former cornerbacks coach Cory Robinson is now with the New Orleans Saints; he’s been replaced by Henry Baker. And George Helow replaces John Papuchis (now at Florida State) as special teams coordinator and inside linebackers coach.
It’s Year Two for Locksley, although he’s said it feels more like Year 0.5 amid the pandemic and an offseason with heavy roster turnover. Expectations aren’t high after going 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten) in 2019 and closing on a seven-game losing streak, and wins and losses don’t feel as important with safety concerns hanging over the season. But if the Terps can be consistently competitive and the young guns can show signs of growth, it’ll leave fans optimistic heading into the future.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics