It’s no secret that Maryland football’s last two losses, which came against then-No. 5 Iowa and then-No. 7 Ohio State, stemmed from the nagging injuries the roster has been facing recently.
Maryland has been a depleted team on the defensive side of the ball as of late. Freshman linebacker Branden Jennings hasn’t played since exiting during the win over Kent State back on Sept. 25. Defensive backs Jakorian Bennett and Kenny Bennett, who were absent in the Terps’ 66-17 loss to the Buckeyes, are still on the mend and will be game-time decisions before Saturday’s game against Minnesota. To top it all off, junior Durell Nchami was just ruled out for the remainder of the season earlier on Tuesday.
The Terps have also dealt with major injuries on offense. Maryland arguably lost its mid-season MVP in senior wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. in the game against the Hawkeyes on Oct. 1, when the wideout was twisted up on a kick off return. Demus was soon after ruled out for the remainder of the 2021 season with a knee injury.
Then the wide receiver corps, which used to be one of Maryland’s deepest and most talented positional groups, suffered another huge blow against Ohio State. Jeshaun Jones went down in the first quarter against the Buckeyes, and then after the bye week wait, head coach Michael Locksley revealed that Jeshaun Jones would undergo surgery after suffering the lower-leg injury and that he will be out for the rest of the season as well.
All of these injuries certainly had an impact on the program’s two most recent losses before the bye week, but it’s hard to overlook the impact that the absences of Demus and Jeshaun Jones will have on the program’s offense for the rest of the season.
Even with just Demus gone against Iowa, Maryland’s passing offense often seemed lost with the star, to say the least. Then, in the lopsided game with Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, the passing offense once again stalled without either Demus or Jeshaun Jones lining up as one of quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa’s weapons. It has been fairly rough sledding for the Terps’ passing game and the team has put up just 453 combined passing yards over the last two games.
And with two of the original top three wideouts on the roster going down for the rest of the season, things aren’t going to get any easier in the passing game. If Maryland is going to reach its magic number of six wins with a 4-2 record and six remaining games left in the 2021 season, then putting the majority of the offense’s faith in Tagovailoa’s arms is likely the right way to go.
However, can Tagovailoa rely on his current wide receivers to get the job done?
Outside of sophomore wide receiver Rakim Jarrett, Maryland’s wide receivers aren’t necessarily sure things to carry the load in the passing game. The senior trio of Darryl Jones, senior Brian Cobbs and Carlos Carriere has just 29 combined catches through six games this season. Darryl Jones leads that trio with 14 of those receptions for 134 yards. The remaining receivers, while they are very talented, are likely not going to produce the catches or yards that Demus and Jeshaun Jones were able to give Maryland on a weekly basis.
Despite it originally being an area of depth, what Maryland has now with its receiving core is simply not enough to compete offensively in the Big Ten, that is unless two positional groups see an uptick in usage in the passing game to help Tagovailoa.
Simply put, Maryland’s passing offense, and the offense as a whole, will likely not survive the rest of the season if the program’s tight ends and backs are unable to break out. However, based on the last few games, it seems Maryland may have a few quality options to help pick up the slack through the air.
The logical choice on the Terps’ roster to see a massive uptick in targets and receptions for the second half of the season is none other than senior tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo. Okonkwo has been a rising force on offense for Maryland over the course of the past three games.
After nabbing just four catches for 22 yards in the opening three wins of the season, the senior has rattled off three straight games with at least three catches and he has combined for 123 yards in the games against Kent State, Iowa and Ohio State. His efforts have been well-received by the head coach, who praised Okonkwo’s pass-catching ability.
“Chig has really developed himself... he’s a talented matchup for us, a guy that we’ve gotta continue to find ways, you know, I’m big on trying to find ways to get your best player the ball and Chig is one of those best players for us.” Locksley said. “I have been happy with the way Chig has progressed in our system and definitely a guy that we’ve gotta continue to find ways to get targets.”
Shortly after the loss to Ohio State, in which Okonkwo led all Maryland pass catchers with five catches for 56 yards, Tagovailoa preached about his growing trust in his tight ends, specifically Okonkwo. The overall budding connection between the Terps’ quarterback and starting tight end is something that Okonkwo has taken notice of, too.
“I feel that our connection is definitely getting better,” Okonkwo said about his recent on-field performances with Tagovailoa.
Okonkwo has done a much better job receiving-wise in the last three games and his presence is very noticeable on a per snap basis, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him continue his consistent production heading into Minnesota. Before Saturday’s matchup, Tagovailoa reiterated that Okonkwo will be relied on heavily moving forward.
“Chig, he’s a great person, great player,” Tagovailoa said. “He’s one of our big leaders... starting from the beginning of the season. I feel more comfortable as we keep playing together and I could say he’s kind of my comfort, or a safety blanket, stuff like that, he’s where he needs to be all the time, you know, he can do whatever we ask him to do.”
But Okonkwo isn’t the only other talented tight end that will get more looks in the passing game. Sophomore Corey Dyches, who has had at least two catches in every game except the West Virginia contest, has exhibited his own unique skill set in the passing game. Locksley specifically mentioned Dyches when asked about the players that will need to step up on offense.
Dyches has scored one touchdown this season and his season-high in yards for a single game was 45, which came against Iowa. He'll likely be another player that will receive a few more looks from Tagovailoa as the season progresses.
Maryland’s running backs, specifically redshirt senior Tayon Fleet-Davis, are primed to get more involved in the passing game. Fleet-Davis is by far and away the best receiving back on this roster, and he’s hauled in 11 more catches than the next-best running back not the team.
The six-foot running back has seen his production drop in Maryland’s latest two games with just 70 combined scrimmage yards, but he’s added at least two catches in all games but one this season. Just like Okonkwo, Tagovailoa’s growing trust in Fleet-Davis in the passing game out of the backfield is something to keep an eye on.
“Fleet, you know, he can do it all,” Tagovailoa said. “Passing game, I can give him like a three-yard out route and he’ll take it 20 yards. He makes people miss and that’s what he does. In the run game, he can read holes, he’s fast and very shifty and he helps us a lot on our offense. Looking forward to getting him more involved in our passing game as well.”
One back that Locksley pointed out during Tuesday’s media session was sophomore Peny Boone, who had a few season-highs against Ohio State with nine carries for 41 yards, along with one reception.
“The room of running backs that we have with Fleet-Davis and Colby McDonald stepping up now as well as Peny Boone,” Locksley said about the players that need to get more touches moving forward. “Peny’s had a great week of practice during this bye week and I am excited for him with the injury there to Isaiah Jacobs, that kind of, now Peny is the next man up.”
Boone brings massive size for a back with a 6-foot-1, 245-pound frame, which may not be ideal for the passing game. However, he’s had at least one reception over the last two games, showing that there’s room for him when Tagovailoa goes through his progressions.
And of course, there’s still senior Challen Faamatau, the 5-foot-11 running back who added a team-high 71 rushing parsed on nine carries. He also chipped in with two receptions for 19 yards as both his rushing and receiving yardage were season-highs for Faamatau.
All-in-all, Maryland has plenty of options for Tagovailoa through the air outside of its fairly thin wide receiver corps. The absence of Demus and Jeshaun Jones will surely sting for the remaining six games left on the schedule, but Maryland has a chance to capitalize against a Minnesota pass defense that ranks in the bottom half of the Big Ten on Saturday.
For the Terps quest to six wins, it’s now or never for the tight ends and running backs to breakthrough in the passing game.