The beginning of fall camp always breeds unbridled optimism.
Everyone is at full health and every game on the schedule appears, at a minimum, winnable. Any soon-to-be-revealed deficit has yet to come into clear view, leading to high expectations and lofty goals.
All of the above applies to Maryland, which kicked off fall camp Wednesday with a strong declaration from fifth-year head coach Mike Locksley.
“We’re now ready to compete for Big Ten championships.”
Locksley’s message to not only his team, but the nation as well, is identical to the one he made at Big Ten media day less than a week prior — the same one that even caught some of his players off guard with its straightforwardness.
“I was just like, ‘Wow, he said that?’” sixth-year wideout Jeshaun Jones recalled Wednesday. “And that’s just because we knew we were there and we felt like we were taking those steps to get there, but I didn’t know that we were pushing it out there. But I’m fine with it. I’m with it one thousand percent.”
The message from Maryland brass every season since Locksley took over has been an aim to continue building the program to a point where it can be competitive with its high-pedigree peers within the Big Ten. Last year, competitive games against eventual playoff qualifiers Michigan and Ohio State offered credence to Locksley’s attempts to narrow the gap between his team and the nation’s best, but hurdling the barrier of actually beating the top teams in the league is one that has proven to be quite steep.
Yet the notion that the Terps feel confident enough putting additional pressure on themselves to elevate themselves to elite status is a testament to their steady growth since Locksley took over in late 2018.
When Locksley arrived in College Park, the program was reeling. Deep-seated off-the-field issues had Maryland in a position where competing with the Big Ten’s best felt at best like step two, only possible once a reconfiguration of the way things were done was completed.
“You know, for the last three, four years, I’ve had a ton of players come to me and say ‘Coach, we want to talk about championships’ and I said ‘Man, until we can worry about taking care of the things we can control, we can’t talk about championships,’” Locksley said.
Now almost a half-decade into his tenure, Locksley seems sufficiently satisfied with his program’s growth to begin aiming for championship contention. While the play on the field will ultimately determine whether the Terps are actually ready to apply for admission into that sphere, the team’s words make it clear that the internal adjustments have been resoundingly successful.
“What people don’t see is the family aspect of it,” senior safety Beau Brade said. “You know, when I first got here as a freshman, there were so many different cliques and different friend groups. And you know, I heard before I was here there was a couple people like, you know, maybe stealing or doing this stuff you don’t want on your team. But now, like everybody hangs out together. Everybody goes out together. We’re all friends. We’re all family.”
Now, Locksley says, is the proper time for the team to begin flipping those successes onto the field in a more substantial manner. A Big Ten championship seems far-fetched for a program yet to win more than seven regular-season games since joining the conference and 22 years removed from its last conference title, but there is ample reason to believe that this year’s Maryland team has the necessary pieces to take another step forward after an eight-win 2022 campaign, including a second consecutive bowl victory.
It all starts with quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who despite a $1.5 million offer to transfer elsewhere, as reported by The Athletic, is back for his fourth season in College Park. There have been hiccups along the way — namely some untimely interceptions — but there is no denying that Tagovailoa has been the integral piece of Locksley’s rebuild. With no obvious replacement in tow, this fall will be the last shot for Maryland to capitalize on Tagovailoa’s presence by spring-boarding itself into the next echelon of Big Ten programs.
“I think now we’re at that point where, you know, we’re gonna compete for championships and stuff like that,” Tagovailoa said. “So I think all the hard work and the years built up to now have brought us to the place where we are. That’s how we feel — like we’re ready.
“I felt like I wasn’t gonna leave this place without my cleats touching the turf in Indianapolis [the site of the Big Ten championship game].”
As defensive coordinator Brian Williams bluntly put it Wednesday, “Goals are one thing, but if your habits don’t reflect the goals, then they’re just words.” The Terps now have a month to prepare for the start of the season, when they’ll have their first chance to prove to the world that their grand aspirations are more than just words.
“Let’s go. Let’s win. Let’s do it,” senior linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II said. “Because we have the talent, we built the culture, and now it’s time to go win.”