In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic affected Jaelyn Duncan just like everyone else. The Maryland offensive lineman spent last spring and summer stuck in his house, surrounded by family but separated from close friends. If he couldn’t go to a private gym to work out, he had to find an open field. He admits he got lazy at times and wasn’t always eating the best foods.
But Duncan is not like everyone else. He’s 6-foot-6, 315 pounds and an athletic freak of nature. When the 2020 football season came around, he locked down the Terps’ left tackle spot as a redshirt sophomore, showing huge improvement from the year prior.
Duncan only began playing football in high school, but it was immediately clear he had a bright future in the game. Maryland head coach Michael Locksley, who has coached dozens of eventual pros at the college level, doesn’t see a limit on Duncan’s potential as the left tackle enters his redshirt junior year.
“He’s still a guy that is fairly new to the game of football, started playing it late,” Locksley said. “And still, from a natural skill set, [he’s] probably one of the more talented offensive tackles I’ve had a chance to be around. With each and every practice and each and every game, he continues to improve.”
When Duncan first took the field at the age of 14, the size was there, but the skill wasn’t.
“I was humongous and I just sucked,” Duncan said, “and people didn’t understand why, but they didn’t know I had just started playing.”
He developed gradually in three years at Northern High School before transferring to St. Frances Academy in Baltimore for his senior season in 2017. Duncan’s potential alone earned him dozens of college offers from all around the country; he was a consensus four-star prospect, ranked as the No. 11 offensive tackle and No. 145 overall player in the country by the 247Sports Composite. He committed to Maryland in June 2017, choosing to play close to family and friends in his home state rather than pursuing opportunities at more prestigious programs.
Duncan knew he was fortunate to earn a scholarship through football. To this day, he’s grateful the sport entered his life.
“I looked at football really like a way out,” Duncan said. “If I had never found football … I don’t think I’d be here today. So I really just think about that every day — football is really why I’m here and why I can do what I’m doing right now.”
It was the season at St. Frances, though, that transformed Duncan as a player and person. There was more talent around him, which made him work harder than he ever had to before. Practicing against five-star defensive end Eyabi Anoma was unlike anything he’d faced before. But the transfer, and the work, paid off — Duncan earned Baltimore Sun first-team All-Metro honors for his play at left tackle, and the Panthers went 13-0 against a local and national schedule in 2017.
St. Frances co-head coach Henry Russell saw Duncan mature at St. Frances.
“Early on in his football days, he could just push people around, and when he came to us, he didn’t really have a great work ethic,” Russell said. “He kind of just was, ‘I’m bigger than everybody, I’m better than everybody.’ When he got with us, that wasn’t the case. He wasn’t able to dominate.
“And so I think when he realized that, he started learning how to work and what work means and how to really push yourself. And I think seeing where he started with us to where he finished with us, there was a huge difference in just his mindset and being able to take on tough work and challenges.”
Once he reached the college level, Duncan was essentially back at square one. He redshirted his first season, like many offensive linemen, to adjust to the speed of the game. In 2019, as a redshirt freshman, Duncan battled for the left tackle spot in camp and ultimately started the final 11 games at the position. While his potential was clear, Duncan struggled against the Big Ten’s premier pass rushers. Locksley, in his first year as the Terps’ head coach, wanted more out of him.
“Throughout the whole season, [Locksley] would tell me that he could see me doing better than what I’m doing right now, he [doesn’t] think that I’m pushing myself to my full potential,” Duncan said. “He said I can be one of the best left tackles he’s ever seen — like, I can do that — but he said I’ve got to work for it.”
That work, of course, became harder to put in during the pandemic. It wasn’t easy for Duncan to stay in shape away from the program, especially at his size. It wasn’t easy without the physical and nutritional resources that being at Maryland would have provided.
It also wasn’t always easy to find the motivation, but Duncan knew he had to grind through the offseason to be as great as he wanted to be. Thanks to a change in mindset and motivating words from his mother, Duncan grinded through the offseason and showed up ready for a breakout season when the team got back together to prepare for the 2020 season.
Maryland only played five games in 2020, posting a 2-3 record, with four games canceled due to coronavirus outbreaks. But Locksley is adamant the offensive line was the team’s most-improved position group, with Duncan in particular making a leap in his second year starting at left tackle.
“Even though Year Two was a small sample size … the jump that Jaelyn made from his redshirt freshman year to his redshirt sophomore year was phenomenal, and you can see the work was put in,” Locksley said. “You can tell that he really had a good understanding of the fundamentals of playing that position.”
Now, with the Terps in spring practice, Duncan is suddenly the veteran of the group, his 16 career starts the most among the team’s offensive linemen. Maryland lost two veteran linemen via the transfer portal in the winter, and the only senior in the current group is a junior college transfer, so newcomers will look to Duncan and fellow juniors Spencer Anderson and Evan Gregory for guidance.
“Now you’ve just got to work hard — you can’t set a bad example for the younger players coming in,” Duncan said. “You don’t want them coming in, not working hard, thinking that they can just sit around, because that’s not what the team is trying to be like. We’re trying to grow, so we need players to come in and see what we’ve got going on so they can just get on the train and follow suit, work hard and try to be the best they can be.”
One of those younger offensive linemen is sophomore Ja’Khi Green, who played with Duncan at St. Frances. The Panthers, who have become a national powerhouse, had just one former player on Maryland’s roster when Duncan committed. The Terps will have five St. Frances alumni on scholarship in 2021, including three incoming freshmen.
Maryland also has another new offensive line coach, as Brian Braswell was promoted from an analyst role to replace John Reagan. Braswell will be Duncan’s third position coach in four years and the Terps’ sixth offensive line coach in seven seasons. But the two already had a connection with Braswell being around the group last year, so it’s been an easy transition.
While expectations are mounting for the third-year starter, Duncan has even loftier expectations for himself. The 2020 All-Big Ten honorable mention pick isn’t shy about saying he wants to chase a first-team all-conference selection. He wants to be an All-American, and he believes he can reach that level. And those around him believe that if he continues to work the way he has, his game will take him to the next level as well.
“I don’t see why he couldn’t play 10 or more years in the National Football League because there aren’t too many guys walking around this earth that have all the pieces in place like he does — footwork, hands, [and he’s a] great kid, just a special person,” said St. Frances associate head coach Messay Hailemariam. “He’s kind but he’s also tough. He’s becoming nasty on the field, which is what he needed. And that’s going to really motivate him to be successful and not have limits.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics