Maryland football’s offense consistently receives a hefty amount of attention from fans and media alike, and rightfully so, especially after the program’s strong 30-24 win over one of the better Big 12 teams in West Virginia.
Junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa put on a show in College Park, throwing for 332 yards on 72.2% pass completion, while also committing no turnovers. The wide receiver duo of Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett also performed at an elite level, combining for 255 yards and two touchdowns.
However, scoring aside, if the first week of Big Ten football proved anything for the Terps, it was that this team will go as far as their defensive studs take them.
The weekly spotlight on the defensive side of the field will be shone on defensive backs Nick Cross and Tarheeb Still in nearly every matchup. Maryland’s top players in the secondary came to play and filled up the stat sheet in the Terps’ first matchup victory over West Virginia, something that was a common occurrence during the program’s five-game schedule last season.
Cross, a 2020 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection, left off right where he was last season with a solid performance against the Mountaineers. He had six tackles, all of which were solo, and collected one interception to go along with one forced fumble. The interception came in the second quarter when Maryland trailed 21-17.
This kind of performance is nothing new to Cross, who was an integral part of Maryland’s defense back in 2020. Cross’ six solo tackles against the Mountaineers beat his season-high mark of last season, which was four solo tackles in one game, though. He was one of the most effective defenders all game for Maryland, and his presence certainly did not go unnoticed.
Head coach Michael Locksley knows that Cross is one of the key leaders on this defense and that he leads by example.
“He has the ability with his speed and his and his athleticism and size to really impact the game like, you know, few safeties are capable of because he has elite-level speed but then also as a very physical player,” Locksley said of Cross.
Cross’ teammate in the secondary, Still, knows how valuable the junior defensive back is to the Terps’ defense as a whole.
“Obviously Nick is a great player on the field and then off the field, he’s just a better person, you know, he’s a guy that’s gonna be there for you, you can call him if you need anything,” Still said of his teammate Cross. “On the field, he’s actually a true leader, you know, if you don’t know what’s going on, he’ll let you know, and he’ll make sure you’re lined up in the right spot. I think his passion for the game, he just wants to win,” Still said. “So like, you love to play with player like that.”
Originally coming to Maryland as a four-star recruit, Cross has developed into one of the nation’s best. He has been starting in games for the Terps ever since he started five games as a freshman in 2019, and his on-field ability has only improved over the seasons in College Park.
Still, who expressed his appreciation for playing alongside a high-caliber player like Cross, is the other piece of the puzzle to Maryland’s secondary and is just as important.
Still was one of the most outstanding freshman players a season ago. He started four games at cornerback in 2020 for the Terps and quickly racked up positive reviews. He led the nation with two pass breakups per game, which helped him get an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten last season. Still was also named a Freshman All-American by The Athletic during a pandemic-filled season.
The Sicklerville, New Jersey native entered this season with lofty expectations. He was tabbed as a 2021 Pro Football Focus Preseason Second Team All-Big Ten selection and a 2021 Athlon Sports Preseason All-Big Ten selection as well.
It’s safe to say Still is ready to take another elite step for this Maryland defense after his efforts in the win against the Mountaineers. His presence in the secondary was undeniable when West Virginia visited Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium just under a week ago, and his stats showed just that.
Still tallied a team-high seven tackles, four solo, over the course of the contest. He also managed a sack to round out his solid performance.
And even though he's still fairly inexperienced when looking at his overall career totals, considering he’s just a sophomore, he’s easily one of the most exciting pieces on this Maryland roster.
“I love the kid because when you watch him play, he’s just having a blast out there,” Locksley said about Still. “Just to see a guy, as young as he is, and as inexperienced as he is in games. Just plays with the confidence that he does, we put them in the nickel slot which is a tough place to play.”
Still stands at just 6-foot and weighs around 185 pounds, but his quickness is almost unmatched on Maryland’s defense. His instincts are top-notch as well, and his stellar week one performance should be more of an expected effort moving forward.
“I just love the game, I just like playing football, I just like making plays, like having fun with my teammates, so like I think it’s just a natural love for the game since I was young,” Still said.
Cross and Still are both undoubtedly two individually high-end skill players with elite abilities on defense. But what separates this duo is that they evidently bring their skills onto the practice field, where they can challenge Maryland’s passing offense to help it improve over time.
“Nick and Heeb, very, very competitive,” Tagovailoa said about both Cross and Still. “Coach always says they play the game like they’re just having fun and that’s really how they play. Every practice is like a game to them, you know, they’re pressing, talking, always going full speed every time and sometimes coach has to tell them slow down. Players like that on the team continue to get us better and help us win games.”
Now, that duo’s energy and competitiveness will have to look ahead to its matchup coming up against Howard University, which will take place on Sept. 11. The last time Maryland faced Howard, it crushed it 79-0, in what was a memorable win from the beginning of the Locksley era. But even though they will face an opponent that doesn’t provide as much roster strength as a Big Ten team, the Terps’ secondary duo will not undermine them.
“We know to play every opponent the same, you know, not truly look at the name of the front of jersey, but to just look at it as a game that we have to win, and they have, they do have some good players, you know, they have a nice quarterback, some good receivers some good playmakers,” Still said of Howard. “So we just have to execute the game plan that the coaches gave to us, and then I think we’ll be okay.”