On a chilly afternoon in December, red confetti stretched across the makeshift football field inside Yankee Stadium as Maryland football coach Mike Locksley turned to the Terps faithful sitting in the stands.
They had just watched Maryland defeat Virginia Tech 54-10 in the Pinstripe Bowl, securing the program’s first bowl victory in 11 years and first winning season since 2014.
Maryland had taken a major step forward in Locksley’s rebuild, and the coach wanted to reassure the fans that this was only the beginning.
“The best is ahead,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Terps entered their first day of preseason camp with high expectations to deliver on the words Locksley shouted over a microphone seven months ago. Confidence is at an all-time high, with players setting lofty goals such as double-digit wins and even a Big Ten Conference championship.
Those goals might seem far-fetched given that Maryland plays in one of the toughest conferences in college football and has been to one major bowl game in the past 20 years, but last year’s season has given the team a new mentality.
“From 3-9 to 2-3 to winning a bowl game, those are pretty big steps,” junior receiver Rakim Jarrett said. “I think we still have more work to do.”
As he enters his fourth season at the helm, Locksley said the energy around the team is palpable, and it’s apparent in the locker room.
Senior offensive lineman Spencer Anderson said “everybody is on edge.”
Sophomore defensive back and former McDonogh standout Dante Trader Jr. said everything has ramped up.
“We don’t want just that bowl game or seven wins,” said Trader, who’s expected to have a bigger role on defense, possibly as a starting safety, after totaling 16 tackles in 2021. “Now we [have] to strive for nine and 10 wins and a Big Ten championship.”
Maryland’s excitement for the fall has been driven not only by last year’s success, but the continuity and health of this year’s group. The Terps’ offense boasts a combined 163 starts, while the defense has 16 players who have started at least one game.
The Terps return their entire offensive line, which is led by senior left tackle Jaelyn Duncan, a former St. Frances standout who could be a high pick in next year’s NFL draft. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos is back for his second season, while Brian Williams, who has been with the program since 2019, was elevated to defensive coordinator during the offseason.
“Even though we’re still a young team, not a lot of seniors, we have a ton of experience in terms of guys returning that have started,” Locksley said. “Having continuity on our roster with our coaching staff is another key to the excitement.”
Williams said the defense is “relatively healthy” going into camp before knocking on a wooden podium. The Terps will return cornerback Deonte Banks and outside linebacker Durell Ncami, who has shown flashes of becoming one of the most explosive edge rushers in the country. Meanwhile, junior cornerback Tarheeb Still feels “stronger than ever” after offseason surgery on his left shoulder, which bothered him last year.
“The sky’s the limit for this team,” said Still, an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2020. “We [have] a lot of pieces. We just have to put it together and make it happen.”
One of the biggest returning pieces is senior receiver Dontay Demus Jr., a three-time All-Big Ten selection who only played in five games in 2021 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Demus, who is expected to play in the season opener against Buffalo on Sept. 3, said he feels good heading into camp, and it’s easy to see why.
The team boasts one of the most talented groups of receivers in the country, including junior and former five-star recruit Rakim Jarrett, senior Jeshaun Jones and Florida transfer Jacob Copeland. Leading them is star quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa.
“We have the chance to be one of the best, if not the best,” Demus said of the Terps’ wide receivers. “Having guys that can play inside and out and not have no drop off makes us excel as a team more.”
Tagovailoa, who set Maryland single-season records in passing yards (3,860), completions (328) and completion rate (69.2 percent) in 2021 while tying former Terps quarterback Scott Milanovich’s single-season record of 26 passing touchdowns, has grown from a technical and fundamental standpoint, Enos said.
“When his feet and eyes are good, he’s very good,” said Enos, who has previous stops as an offensive coach at Cincinnati, Miami (Florida), Alabama and Arkansas. “I showed a couple of clips from the bowl game where his pocket posture and eyes were perfect.”
Locksley said the next step for Tagovailoa, the brother of former Alabama star and Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, is to “emotionally mature” and not let mistakes linger and throw him off his game. The Alabama transfer enters his third season as the starter, and could soon be joining his brother in the NFL.
No matter where you look, Maryland is oozing with confidence. Whether you buy into the Terps’ stated goals or not, they strongly believe in the foundation Locksley has built and are ready to prove they can take another step forward.
“This is not the 3-9 Maryland or the team that lost [59-0] to Penn State a couple of years ago,” Jarrett said. “Everyone thinks we have a chance to compete, and that’s what we are going to do.”