Having a star running back was supposed to be a thing of the recent past for Maryland football.
Maryland was coming off multiple seasons where now-NFL running backs Anthony McFarland Jr. and Jake Funk lit up opponents with their hard-running style to help propel the Terps’ offense to something more than it should’ve been. It’s no secret that Maryland relied on its extremely talented backs to carry them offensively in 2019 and 2020.
Just take a look at the stats to see how impressive both were in the tail-end of their Maryland careers.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back McFarland, who played in College Park from 2017-19, had a remarkably efficient sophomore season just two years ago before he ventured off to the professional football world.
McFarland appeared in 11 of 12 games and made seven starts as the lead runner of Maryland‘s backfield in the 2019 season. In his final season with the program, he had eight touchdowns and averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 114 rushing attempts. McFarland was one of the lone bright spots on a Maryland team that went just 3-9 overall and 1-8 in Big Ten games.
The Hyattsville, Md., native was eventually drafted as the first Terp at No. 124 overall in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Steelers, which opened the door for long-time back Funk to take the reigns of Maryland’s ground game.
Funk then stepped as the starter in the backfield during Maryland’s COVID-19 filled season a year ago, where the program notched two wins in just five total games. Funk muscled his way into the spotlight after being with the program since the 2016 season, and brilliantly overcame two separate ACL tears that came in 2018 and 2019.
He ended the 2020 season with four starts in five games and registered an astonishing 8.6 yards per carry, which helped him gain a 2020 Third Team All-Big Ten selection. He did so on just 60 carries and he also tallied three touchdowns. Funk was second in the FBS and first in the Big Ten in yards per carry and his 2020 effort placed him at second in the Big Ten that season for rushing yards per game with 129.
And just like McFarland, Funk’s final season with Maryland earned him a draft spot in the 2021 NFL Draft as the Los Angeles Rams selected the former Terp in the seventh round at the No. 233 overall spot.
Coming into the 2021 campaign, in which the hopes for head coach Michael Locksley’s squad have likely never been higher, and unlike recent years, Maryland’s running back room was one of the most unproven areas of the team entering the season.
Redshirt senior Tayon Fleet-Davis was the presumed No. 1 running back on the depth chart entering the season as the most experienced back, despite not being an obvious choice for the lead-runner role with plenty of young and talented runners behind him. Locksley said in the preseason that Fleet-Davis was really stepping into a more vocal leadership role on a budding roster of talented players.
Fleet-Davis has been with Maryland since 2017 and received a fair amount of carries from 2018-19, and he averaged just over two yards per rush and under 30 rushing yards per contest. Fleet-Davis wasn’t featured nearly as much last year, and he had just one game under his belt and managed 26 yards on 10 carries.
It was safe to say that the Terps’ ground game had more questions than answers entering the 2021 season. However, through four games, in which Maryland is off to its first 4-0 start since 2016, Fleet-Davis has been a revelation in the backfield.
Though Maryland’s offense has taken a clear shift from deploying a constant running game to a heavy passing game, Fleet-Davis ran away with the starting job right off the bat against West Virginia back on Sept. 4.
Fleet-Davis exploded en route to Maryland’s 30-24 win to kick off the season, totaling a team-high with 18 rushes and 123 yards, and he added four catches for 18 yards.
Then, Fleet-Davis put on an encore performance in the Terps’ blowout win over Howard a week later, tallying eight rushes but rushing for an extremely efficient 66 yards and one touchdown.
“We got some really great running backs, I like to say Fleet and Jacobs, they’re the best running backs I’ve ever seen,” sophomore offensive lineman Mason Lunsford said after Maryland’s 62-0 win over Howard. “We’ve been working on a lot in practice, it’s been one of our points of emphasis, trying to get the run game together.”
In Maryland’s latest two wins over Illinois and Kent State combined, Fleet-Davis added another 122 rushing yards to his total on 18 carries. He did have a costly fumble in the 20-17 win over Illinois, but he worked his way to his first of two multi-touchdown games so far. The other came in a two-touchdown performance against Kent State when Fleet-Davis rushed for two touchdowns on his seven total attempts.
All in all, Fleet-Davis has had stellar offensive production this season despite coming into the year with no sorts of lofty expectations.
Through Maryland’s four wins, Fleet-Davis is averaging an absurd 7.1 yards per carry, over 77 rushing yards per contest and he has five total touchdowns. The 7.1 yards per carry this season eclipses what McFarland was able to do in his final season (5.4 YPC), albeit Fleet-Davis not getting as many carries as McFarland did.
Heading into Maryland's fifth game of the season, here’s how Fleet-Davis ranks within the Big Ten: 11th in total rushing yards, seventh in yards per rush, ninth in rushing touchdowns and 11th in rushing yards per game average. Not too shabby for a starting running back on a team that seemed almost destined to take a step backward in the ground game in 2021.
Yet, what makes Fleet-Davis so effective for Maryland in the backfield is something that he does better than both McFarland and Funk.
He’s an excellent pass catcher.
McFarland and Funk both had fewer receiving yards per game, 11.5 and 17 per game, respectively, in their final seasons than Fleet-Davis is averaging this year.
Maryland’s starter has hauled in 14 catches for 102 yards through four games for an average of 25.5 receiving yards per game. He’s been a reliable check-down option for quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, and in the Terps’ last two games alone he’s had nine catches for 77 yards.
Fleet-Davis’ offseason work has clearly translated into more production on the offensive end, and his teammates have already taken notice of what he can do on the field.
“He’s been a key, really for real, key factor... he’s really put in the work and he’s really deserving of everything he’s getting right now,” senior wide receiver Brian Cobbs said on Fleet-Davis. “He really busted his butt the whole entire offseason. He’s even much more of a vocal leader than he was in the past, he’s encouraging guys, and he just wants everybody to win so like I said everything that he’s getting right now he’s really deserving of it.”
Now, after leading the program’s ground game through four wins, Fleet-Davis will be one of the team’s captains for its upcoming Friday night matchup against the mighty No. 5-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes in College Park.
Fleet-Davis’ leadership, along with his increased production, are both aspects of his game that this Maryland team has clearly benefitted from early on in the season en route to the program’s best start since 2016. And even though he didn’t come into this year with the highest of expectations, Fleet-Davis is certainly making his presence felt in what has been a successful season for Maryland so far.
“Tremendous leader, very funny guy, great guy to have in the locker room,” junior punter Anthony Pecorella said of the redshirt senior. “He has worked his butt off this whole offseason to make sure that this is his year before he makes his move. So, tremendous guy, tremendous leader and tremendous football player.”