Moments after Maryland football’s star wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. injured his leg on a kick return against Iowa on Friday night and had to be carted off the field, he was seen yelling at the Maryland sideline, “I’m coming back.”
While strong-spirited and optimistic moments after what looked to be a gruesome leg injury, Demus’ message didn't reign true. He would miss the rest of Friday night’s beatdown by Iowa and will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury that requires surgery, head coach Mike Locksley announced on Tuesday.
The actual ligaments that are torn or details surrounding the injury have not been disclosed yet as Demus will head to Birmingham, Alabama to visit another doctor as he discovers the full extent of the injury.
Demus’ impact on the Terps' prolific offense and junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was insurmountable. The senior was the clear number one receiver for Maryland and one of the best in the entire Big Ten. But more than just his incredible route running and pass-catching ability, the connection Tagovailoa and Demus developed together was the backbone of an offense that relies on its passing attack.
When Demus went down Friday night at the beginning of the second quarter, Tagovailoa said he could hear Demus screaming on the field. The soft-spoken leader wasn't going to let his “brother” suffer there alone. When Locksley went on the field to see what was going on with Demus, Tagovailoa went too.
“I mean, that's my brother, so I was just trying to be there for him,” Tagovailoa said. “I just told him, ‘we got his back.’”
In four games, and part of a fifth, this season, Demus had 28 receptions for 507 yards and three touchdowns. He ranked second in the conference in total yards and yards per game. He is on the top of every opposing defensive coordinator's list of players to try to control when facing the Terps.
That production can't and won't be replaced by one player. Maryland has been lauded all year for having one of the best receiving rooms in the country. Before the season started, Locksley said it was the best receiving room he had ever coached.
While that was in large part because of the two stars on the outside in Demus and sophomore Rakim Jarrett, it wasn’t just the superstar prowess that made it such a highly-touted position group. The depth at the wide receiver position for Maryland is a strong suit on the roster, and now the Terps will be able to showcase just how deep they are.
“As we develop out team,” Locksley said. “That’s one of the things I always talk about is, it’s got to be a next man up mentality.”
Jarrett, a former five-star recruit, will step into a much bigger role as Taulia’s number one target. Jarrett is off to a nice start to the season already with 21 catches for 276 yards and four touchdowns.
Without Demus lining up beside him, Jarrett will garner more attention than ever before, but he is more than capable of living up to the challenge.
“I don’t really think you can fill the void that he left [Demus],” Jarrett said. “It’s going to take all the other receivers to step up, including myself, to collectively do it.”
Some of those other receivers the Terps will look to step up are Jeshaun Jones and Darryl Jones. Jeshaun Jones replaced Demus as a starter on this week's depth chart and is third on the team in receptions. Darryl Jones is fourth among receivers on the team in receptions. Both weapons will certainly see their share of targets increase in the weeks to come.
It won’t just be the receivers who will need to step up as pass catchers. Tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo has been solid this season, particularly in the red zone, after not playing last year due to medical reasons. He has eleven catches and three touchdowns.
Another sneaky good pass catcher is running back Tayon Fleet-Davis. The senior is the primary ball-carrier for the Terps, but Davis’ impact might be even greater in the passing game. He is fourth on the team in receptions with 16 for 114 yards and a touchdown.
None of these guys are Demus, but Tagovailoa will look anywhere he can to get the help he needs.
Maryland’s staff hopes Demus’ production on the field can be replaced, although it will be a tall task, but Demus’ off-the-field presence with his attitude and leadership are qualities even tougher to replicate.
Demus served as the heart and soul of the team, a veteran presence that younger guys looked up to, not just because of his unmatched talent, but also his relentless work ethic. Guys like Jarrett have learned a lot from Demus they can continue to use, but for the time Demus is away from the team and trying to figure out his next steps, his lead-by-example personality will be missed.
“He just brought all the energy,” Jarrett said. “He was the vocal guy, he was the most experienced. He led by example, how he went out in practice everyday to how he carried himself off the field. He was a pro guy to be around in a college locker room.”
Locksley said he had a “tough, honest” conversation with Demus after last season about what was required to take the next step. According to his head coach, Demus was a completely different player and worker after that dialogue. All summer and training camp, his teammates and the coaching staff were getting to see the player Demus was becoming. Through the first four games, the rest of the college football universe got to see it too, right up until the brutal injury that ended his season.
The immediate future is murky for the Terps’ offense without Demus on the field, particularly with a tough schedule on the horizon that includes playing four of the top 11 teams in the country, kicking off with No. 11 Ohio State on the road this Saturday. But Demus’ future is even more uncertain.
Prior to the injury, the Baltimore native was projected as a first or second-round pick, with his stock only rising as his terrific senior season was taking shape. His draft position is hard to predict now with the uncertain timetable of his injury, but the presumption is it will negatively affect his stock, regardless of if he is cleared for the draft combine in March or the NFL Draft in April.
But if anyone is up for the challenge and will do anything in their power to return to excellence, it’s Demus. When the injury was announced, he posted a simple message on his Instagram story that read, “I love adversity.”
Both Demus and the Terps will face quite a bit of it in the weeks ahead.