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What to watch for in Maryland football’s spring game

Maryland’s annual red-white game will take place on Saturday at noon.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

Maryland football will take the field in front of fans this Saturday for the first time since its dominant Pinstripe Bowl victory over Virginia Tech in late December. While this iteration of Maryland football features a plethora of new faces, there is a hoist of returners that are coming back for the 2022 season.

The Terps will look to build on their first season with a bowl game win since 2010 with much of their offensive production returning. The start of the 2022 season begins with spring practices and scrimmages, which Maryland has participated in for the last month, culminating in an intrasquad scrimmage in front of the fans at Maryland stadium that will take place this Saturday at noon.

Head coach Mike Locksley has made it clear his goal is to get out of the game healthy and give fans a glimpse of what's in store for the fall.

The teams will consist of the first-team offense and the second-team defense making up one squad, and the group on the opposite sideline will be the first-team defense paired with the second-team offense.

Here are some things to watch for on Saturday.

Maryland’s improved offensive line and young running backs

Maryland will be a pass-first offense, just as it was last year, due to its prolific quarterback and array of weapons on the outside. Defenses will always game plan primarily against the pass when lining up across from the Terps, however, Maryland’s offense can go to another level with an effective run game.

The run game starts with the guys up front. Last season, Maryland entered the year with question marks surrounding the offensive line unit and the lack of depth at the position group. This year, the big men up front are poised to be a top position group. All five starting offensive lineman from last season returned with young guys coming in to provide much needed depth.

Inexperience on the line contributed to an influx of penalties and poor discipline, often at the most inopportune times or in red zone situations. With experience, Locksley expects that will be cleaned up this season.

Continuity across the offensive line unit also helps the quarterback. The more the group is in rhythm with the guy under the center, the more time it will allow Tagovailoa the opportunity to make plays.

“The two key things for us to take the next step is how connected and how committed we’ll be, and that connection is really, really important with quarterback, O-line and quarterback receiver,” Locksley said.

As for the run game, question marks surround who will take the bulk of the carries in the backfield and who has emerged throughout the spring. Locksley has applauded younger guys like Colby McDonald, Roman Hemby and Antwain Littleton II, all who have little experience carrying the load in the backfield. However, whoever emerges as the fall draws near or if it’s a by-committee approach, will also be the beneficiary of an improved offensive line unit.

“We’ve made an emphasis on establishing the run and developing the second offensive line [this spring],” Locksley said.

If the run game is a real threat for this offense, it will only open up Tagovailoa’s game and the passing attack.

Maryland fans will get a look at which running backs have emerged in recent weeks and the enhanced offensive line on Saturday.

How will the new guys perform and who will step up at linebacker?

The spring game is the first look to see the new additions in a Maryland uniform. This includes some of the highly touted transfers and freshman Locksley brought on board this offseason. The spring game is not the same competitive environment displayed in a behind-the-scenes practice or an in-season game in the fall, but it will be a chance to see new faces perform on both sides of the ball.

One of the guys Maryland fans are eager to see is Florida transfer Jacob Copeland, who adds even more star power to an already talented wide receiver room. Copeland comes from Florida after the best season of his career, where he had 41 catches for 642 yards and four touchdowns. The junior has already impressed throughout spring workouts. He’ll have a chance to do it on a brighter stage on Saturday and to showcase the connection him and Tagovailoa have built in their short time together.

Wide receivers Dontay Demus Jr. and Jeshaun Jones will both not play in Saturday’s game as they recover from season-ending leg injuries they suffered last season. This will allow other receivers to get opportunities on Saturday.

Another guy to watch out for is freshman linebacker Jaishawn Barham. Barham was a four-star linebacker and one of the top recruits Maryland signed from the 2022 class. The Terps are thin at linebacker, so Barham could have a big role as a freshman during the 2022 season.

While linebacker is not Maryland’s deepest position group after the departure of two top 2021 recruits in Terrence Lewis and Branden Jennings, the Terps do have some experienced players to lean on, including junior Ruben Hyppolite II, redshirt senior Ahmad McCullough and senior Vandarius Cowan. Locksley mentioned he’s been impressed with these guys’ leadership and play throughout the spring, so it will be interesting to see how they progress this fall.

The Terps struggled to stop the run last season. If it can tighten up its run defense, starting with the defensive line and linebacker groups, Maryland’s defense will make a jump.

How will Maryland replace tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo?

The Terps went from having virtually no tight end production in 2020 to having tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo emerge as a productive weapon in 2021. Following the season, Okonkwo opted to enter the NFL draft and forego his eligibility, so Maryland’s offense has a big hole to fill in his absence.

Okonkwo became a security blanket for Tagovailoa, particularly in the red zone, and proved to be a capable blocker. Okonkwo’s departure can not be understated, but Maryland’s coaching staff is hopeful it has the manpower to replace him.

Sophomore tight end CJ Dippre has a huge opportunity to prove himself this spring and earn the starting tight end role this fall. Dippre appeared in all 13 games last season and earned the start in the Pinstripe Bowl. He caught three passes for 25 yards on the season.

Another name to watch in the spring game and heading into the season is redshirt sophomore tight end/wide receiver Corey Dyches. The Potomac, Maryland native played both wide receiver and tight end last season, earning two starts at the latter position.

He emerged as a pass-catching threat with 19 receptions for 208 yards and four touchdowns last season. While Dyches is capable of playing wide receiver, he is listed as a tight end and, with a crowded receiver room, will likely get most of his reps at tight end.

“I see my room having a lot of potential,” tight ends coach Mike Miller said. “They all have a lot of potential because they’re big athletes. They can run, they can catch the football, they have the right mentality and that’s the standard of tight end play in our room, the bar has been set high.”