But then that reason for belief crumbled. The Terps scored fewer than 20 points in eight of their final 10 games. They won one Big Ten game — against Rutgers, which had fired its coach six days before the matchup. A few key players dealt with injuries, and the offense never managed to resemble what it showed during those first two weekends. It didn’t help expectations that one of those early blowouts came against Syracuse, which was ranked when it visited College Park but finished the season with two wins in the ACC.
As Maryland heads into its second year under Locksley, the staff didn’t have spring practices, which could have been a valuable month for this roster dominated by underclassmen and transfers. But the coaches and players insist the Zoom calls that took place instead because of the novel coronavirus pandemic helped the team develop mentally.
“They’ve done a lot of things in the offseason to teach us — really teach us — football, so we can understand where we are with everything and how to get better,” junior wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. said.
Despite the extended break from organized on-field work, the players benefit from playing in a familiar system, rather than learning a new one as they did in 2019 after Locksley’s hiring or in 2018 with a new coordinator. All offensive position coaches remain the same as last season, too.
But the leader of the offense will have changed when the season begins Oct. 24 at Northwestern. Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa or Lance LeGendre, who played sparingly in 2019, will run the offense, with their success probably determining how much the unit improves. Last year’s starter, Josh Jackson, opted out of what would have been his final college season, and backup Tyrrell Pigrome transferred to Western Kentucky.
Maryland hasn’t had a quarterback pass for more than 1,500 yards since 2014. Last season, Maryland had the third-worst passing offense in the Big Ten, ahead of only Rutgers and Northwestern. Injuries at that position and the lack of stability have hampered the offense in recent years. Tagovailoa and LeGendre had standout high school careers, but neither has played much in college.
Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery said in August that LeGendre “has probably had the most growth of any quarterback, both physically and mentally, that I’ve seen from one year to the next.” Montgomery praised how quickly Tagovailoa picked up Maryland’s system, which is heavy on run-pass option plays, even though he could only learn virtually after announcing his transfer in May.
Locksley has not publicly named a starter, and the Terps scrimmaged for the first time earlier this month. The defense was ahead of the offense, Locksley said, which is typical for preseason camp, but the unit still had too many plays with unforced errors — drops, sacks, penalties and turnovers.
“We’re going to play good teams, obviously, playing a Big Ten-only schedule. Those teams don’t need help beating us,” Locksley said last week. “For me, if there was a takeaway from the scrimmage, … the percentage of plays that have what we call self-inflicted wounds, it was way too high for me.”
The strength of this Maryland offense lies with its wide receivers, who, if given consistent performances from the Terps’ quarterback, could have standout years. Led by Demus, who had 625 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2019, the Terps’ returning players accounted for 65 percent of last season’s receiving yards — far more than the running backs group, which lost standouts Anthony McFarland Jr. and Javon Leake. The group of receivers also added Rakim Jarrett, a five-star local prospect, and sophomore Jeshaun Jones, who’s healthy after a torn ACL kept him out last season.
The functionality of an offense, however, depends on more than one position group. Those receivers need a complementary running game and a solid quarterback. That quarterback needs a capable offensive line; last season, Maryland allowed 38 sacks as its blockers were burdened by injuries. There are enough questions scattered throughout the offense, both by way of promising newcomers and worrisome absences, that it’s obvious Maryland’s personnel will look different this year. But the more important question is whether it’ll be better.
Here’s where each position group stands, including the returning players who started at least half of Maryland’s games last season:
Maryland has two scholarship quarterbacks in Tagovailoa, the brother of Heisman Trophy finalist Tua, and LeGendre. Tagovailoa was Alabama’s third-choice quarterback last season, and LeGendre was the Terps’ third option as a freshman while he preserved his redshirt year. Tagovailoa completed 9 of 12 passes during his freshman season. LeGendre completed 1 of 3 attempts and rushed for 104 yards.
Returning starters: Dontay Demus Jr., Darryl Jones
Maryland’s wide receiver group is its deepest offensive unit with established returners in Demus, junior Darryl Jones (eight starts with 158 yards in 2019) and junior Brian Cobbs (three starts, 243 yards). Jeshaun Jones — who had receiving, rushing and passing touchdowns on the first three touches of his college career — is back from a knee injury, and the group adds Jarrett, the top recruit in Locksley’s 2020 class. All five could be starters.
Seniors Jake Funk and Tayon Fleet-Davis have experience in the program but have spent their careers behind other talented backs on the depth chart. Funk tore his ACL in each of the past two seasons and returns for a fifth year. Maryland added two freshmen, Isaiah Jacobs and Peny Boone, who could play early.
Maryland lost its top two tight ends — graduate transfer Tyler Mabry and Chigoziem Okonkwo, who’s out this season for medical reasons. Redshirt freshman Malik Jackson appeared in one game last season and hasn’t recorded a catch, but he’s probably the starter. Defensive lineman Tyler Baylor and linebacker Kameron Blount moved to tight end because of the depth issues.
Returning starters: Jaelyn Duncan, Johnny Jordan, Marcus Minor
Maryland’s offensive line lacked depth last year and lost a few veterans this offseason. Austin Fontaine, a starter in 2019, opted out of the season, but the group returns Duncan at left tackle, Jordan at center and Minor, who started at right tackle last season but will move to the interior in 2020. Sophomore Spencer Anderson earned considerable playing time as a backup last year, and junior college transfers Johari Branch and Amelio Moran could provide immediate help.