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Maryland football’s top performers halfway through the 2021 season

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Taulia Tagovailoa has been the team’s most valuable player through six games.

Maryland v Ohio State Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Maryland football saw some highs and lows through its opening six games in 2021.

The Terps started off the season by sweeping its nonconference slate and going 4-0 for the first time since 2016, but then they crashed back down to earth with back-to-back underwhelming performances against two elite Big Ten teams in Iowa and Ohio State.

Despite the mixed bag of taking care of its weaker opponents and being unable to compete with the top teams in the conference, Maryland still has a chance to reach the six-win mark. There are just six games left on the schedule, and Maryland’s next game will come against Minnesota on the road on Oct. 23 after the bye week.

But first, let’s look at some of the Terps’ top performers as we are now halfway through the 2021 season. Keep in mind, this is by no means a ranking with a specific order, but more standout players from Maryland’s roster so far.

Taulia Tagovailoa

Maryland’s starting quarterback has been the most influential factor in the Terps’ first four wins this season. Taulia Tagovailoa has taken major strides this season and has emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, despite delivering not-so-inspiring outings over the last two games.

Tagovailoa is still among the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks when looking at some statistical categories. Within the conference, he has the most passing yards in the conference (1,776), he’s first in completion percentage with a clip of 72.1% and he’s tied for the second-most passing touchdowns with 14. Tagovailoa also has the most completions out of Big Ten quarterbacks.

He was instrumental in Maryland’s opening four games, however, the Terps will need a major bounce back from Tagovailoa over the course of the rest of the season. Despite combining for four touchdowns in his last two contests, Tagovailoa added seven interceptions to his resume. It was an excellent first half of the season for the junior overall, and he will be the key piece to lift Maryland to at least six wins.

Tayon Fleet-Davis

Coming into the 2021 season it wasn’t clear if redshirt senior running back Tayon Fleet-Davis, who had just 26 scrimmage yards a year ago, would be able to handle the load of the starting running back spot. The 6-foot back out of Oxon Hill, Maryland, has instead solidified his role in the offense through six games.

Fleet-Davis has recorded at least one catch out of the backfield in each game so far, and he’s received seven or more carries in four of six games. He’s been a versatile back for head coach Michael Locksley, and he’s totaled 338 rushing yards on just 55 attempts, along with five total touchdowns. He’s also hauled in 18 catches for 145 yards, which is good enough for the fourth-most receiving yards on the roster.

Fleet-Davis may have only received 11 combined carries over the past two games, but his dual-threat ability has helped him become a mainstay on the offense each week. Fleet-Davis enters the bye week averaging 6.1 yards per carry and that’s the sixth-best mark out of all the Big Ten running backs.

Dontay Demus Jr.

Before going down with a season-ending knee injury against then-No. 5 Iowa back on Oct. 1, wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. was toe-to-toe with Tagovailoa for the team’s most valuable contributor. In the first four games before being ruled out just over a quarter into his fifth game, Demus was on pace to be one of the most productive wideouts in the conference.

He reached the century mark in three out of the first four games, then added another 61 yards against the Hawkeyes before exiting. Demus’ totals were astonishing, as the senior finished his 2021 campaign with 28 catches for 507 yards and three receiving touchdowns. Even after missing the sixth week, Demus’ numbers still rank at the top of the charts in the Big Ten receiving-wise.

Entering the bye week, Demus’ receiving yard total ranks third in the Big Ten and he’s still tied for the fifth-most catches in the conference. It’s amazing what he was able to do for just under half of a season, and it’ll make Maryland fans wonder what kind of season Demus could’ve ended up having if he didn’t go down with a season-ending injury. The Terps’ offense will need to heavily adjust without Demus, as well as Jeshaun Jones, who exited the game against Ohio State with a lower-body injury.

Rakim Jarrett

Sophomore wide receiver Rakim Jarrett may not have had the elite-level production that Demus showed in the first half of the year, but he’s been a critical factor for the offense in his own right. The second-year wideout has built off his season where he was given a 2020 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection, and he was the clear-cut No. 2 wideout with Demus still in the lineup.

Now with Demus gone, Jarrett will need to step into an even bigger role for the offense after registering five receiving touchdowns in the team’s first six games. Jarrett has had a catch in every game, and he’s had 40 or more receiving yards on four separate occasions. His speed is extremely noticeable when he’s on the ball, and he’s been able to use that speed in a very positive way halfway through the season as he’s broken free for multiple deep ball touchdowns.

Jarrett ranks with the 16th-most catches in the Big Ten, while also sitting at the No. 11 spot for most receiving yards in the conference. His five touchdowns have him tied for third amongst Big Ten wideouts at this point in the season. Jarrett will be the most heavily involved receiver moving forward, and he’ll have to carry a large weight on his shoulders if this offense can excel in the games ahead.

Nick Cross

It was a preseason expectation that junior defensive back Nick Cross would be one of the best players in the secondary in the Big Ten. And while Maryland’s secondary was a disappointment in the team’s two most recent games in which it conceded 51 and 66 points, the overall first half of the season has seen Cross closely live up to those lofty preseason expectations.

Cross ranks first on Maryland with 21 solo tackles, tied-first for interceptions with two and third on the roster with four pass break-ups. He played a major role in Maryland’s first win of the season over West Virginia, and Cross had his first interception of the season in that contest to help the Terps to a 1-0 record. His other interception came against Illinois in the tight 20-17 win.

He also forced one fumble this season and he ranks near the top of the Big Ten for defensive backs in total tackles with 28. Cross will likely get back to form after struggling against Iowa and Ohio State, and Maryland will need him to if the program hopes to right the ship in the second half.

Tarheeb Still

Similar to Cross, sophomore defensive back Tarheeb Still is one of the few truly elite players on the defensive side of the ball for Maryland. Still has progressed coming off his stellar freshman season, in which he was named a Freshman All-American by The Athletic.

Still has recorded at least three tackles in all but one game this season and he is second on the team with five pass break-ups, one more than his counterpart Cross. Still had a season-high of seven tackles against both West Virginia and Ohio State, and even though his play has dipped as of late, he remains an integral part of this secondary and will be a critical defensive piece the rest of the way.

Still also recovered a fumble earlier this season against Kent State, showing his versatility from just about everywhere on the field. Still ranks in the top-10 in the conference in pass deflections and top-30 in solo tackles.

He’s started in all six games this season and if he maintains his perfect bill of health, Still will be for sure locked into the lineup in the remaining six games.

Sam Okuayinonu

Where would Maryland’s defense be without one of its best super seniors? Graduate student Sam Okuayinonu has been a monster in the opening half of the 2021 season, and the defensive lineman has made career-high contributions in a lot of defensive categories.

Okuayinonu is fourth on the team in total tackles and he has one quarterback hit. However, Okuayinonu’s collective sack total is what separates him from the rest of the defensive line positional group. The Lowell, Massachusetts, native has a team-high five sacks in six games, two more than the next best player on Maryland. He also has registered 7.5 tackles for a loss, which is by far and wide the team-high.

Okuayinonu’s five sacks are tied for the most in the Big Ten, along with defensive lineman Boye Mafe of Minnesota. Okuayinonu has been a wrecking ball against opposing defenses, and Maryland is near the top of the Big Ten in sacks primarily because of his efforts.