Part two of the Maryland Football Preview: The Question Marks
Last week “Coach’s Corner,” with the help of Count von Count, wrote in glowing terms about the strengths of the 2019 version of the University of Maryland football team: five excellent running backs and, finally, some high-quality depth at the quarterback position. The Old Coach didn’t even mention that the receiving corps has some young talent that will be able to contribute much more this season because of implementation of coach Mike Locksley’s offense, one that he used so effectively at Alabama last year.
The loss of outstanding sophomore wide receiver Jeshaun Jones to a knee injury in the first week of practice took away one of the team’s most talented weapons. But, thankfully, the Terps have four other sophomores who made significant contributions last year. Look for 6-foot-3 Dontay Demus, 6-2 MJ Jarrell, 6-2 Brian Cobbs, and 6-2 Darryl Jones to put pressure on Big Ten secondaries all season. Sean Savoy, the Virginia Tech transfer junior, joins this group to give Maryland a real threat at slot receiver. Another receiver who could make an impact is freshman Isaiah Hazel, who was the top-rated offensive player in Maryland last year and chose the Terps over Alabama. With the added emphasis on the spread offense and better quarterback play, this young group should be able to put points on the board in bunches.
While tight ends were never a part of the passing game in the Durkin years, Locksley’s offense uses tight ends and running backs to create mismatches in coverages. All-Mid-American Conference tight end Tyler Mabray (6-4, 248 pounds) transferred from the University of Buffalo after graduation and will join sophomore Chigoziem Okonkwo to give the Terps a great one-two threat. Locksley has already stated that he intends to use some of his surplus running backs in the slot position, so this bodes well for building an exciting and explosive spread offense.
But, as all football coaches know, it takes an offensive line to be able to move the ball effectively and consistently. And this will be the key to the 2019 offense. Tackles Damian Prince and Derwin Gray are now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and former starter Brendan Moore is gone, so there are gaps to fill.
The challenge for the coaching staff will be to mold the experienced returning offensive linemen along with younger players into a cohesive unit. Seniors Terrence Davis, Ellis McKennie, and Sean Christie will be called on to give some stability to several highly ranked, yet untested teammates. Tyran Hunt, Marcus Minor and Johnny Jordan are likely starters, while redshirt freshman Jaelyn Duncan, a former four-star recruit, and two position transfers from the defensive side of the ball, redshirt freshman Austin Fontaine, a four-star recruit, plus junior TJ Bradley, provide some depth. To be able to compete week after week in the physical Big Ten requires depth on the O-line. Will the inexperienced Terps rise to the occasion?
As the old expression goes, however, the O’s for show and the D’s for dough. Championship teams are built on solid defenses. Here is where Maryland has the most question marks. The defensive line is undersized and short on experience. That’s not a good combination for facing some of college football’s biggest and best offensive lines. Two seniors saw limited action last year in rotation roles, as Brett Kulka and Keiron Howard played the most snaps of any returnees. Sophomore Brandon Gaddy, the heaviest defensive lineman at 311, will be joined by JuCo transfer Sam Okuayinonu to challenge for playing time. This group will have to step up its game if the Terps defense is going to have any success.
The linebacker situation changed dramatically, going from a unit that had few returning quality players to a team strength with the addition of Shaq Smith, a graduate transfer from Clemson. The 6-2, 251-pound former five-star recruit, who has two years of eligibility left, will play on the outside. The other side will be anchored by 6-3, 220-pound Keandre Jones, a senior transfer from Ohio State. Both of these players will bring a wealth of experience, having played for two of college football’s elite programs. Inside linebacker will be handled by senior Isaiah Davis, the second-leading tackler on last year’s squad, and sophomore Chance Campbell. Experienced depth will be an issue should any of the four get hurt.
The secondary will be without NFL first-round draft pick Darnell Savage, but it should be solid with several returnees in Tino Ellis, one of the Big Ten’s best corners, who will pair with senior Florida State transfer Marcus Lewis, who had to sit out last year. Senior Antoine Brooks, who was voted by coaches to the All-Big Ten Team in 2018, will line up as the nickel corner, but could show up anywhere on the defensive side of the ball. Sophomore Jordan Mosley, who saw action in 10 of 12 games last season, will see a lot of action, along with redshirt freshman Raymond Boone. Incoming freshman Nick Cross, the top-ranked Maryland high school player last year, will likely play free safety this year.
There are questions about the special teams that will need addressing. In the spring game, the three punters who played were atrocious. Granted, they were kicking with a crosswind that was difficult, but that is an area of grave concern for coordinator John Papuchis. Incoming freshman Colton Spangler, who chose Maryland over Auburn, was an outstanding punter at Chesapeake High School last year and just might be the answer. Sophomore Joseph Petrino returns after a successful year as the primary Terps placekicker. He made 10 of 12 field goals last year and tied a school record with four field goals in a game. Punt and kick returns will be handled by Jevon Leake, who is a threat to go all the way every time he touches the ball. This should be a strength for Maryland.
In less than two weeks, the Terps will meet Howard University in the season opener. Not many of the questions will get answered in that game because of the level of the opponent. But after facing Syracuse, Temple, and Penn State in the following weeks, we should have some answers.
Maybe this year, if Maryland can stay healthy, teams will actually have to “Fear the Turtle.”