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Maryland football hopes the Mike Locksley era is the one it’s been waiting for

Starting our State of the Program series, and a summer of football preview content, with a look at where the Terps have been and where they’re going.

Maryland footbal vs Texas Jordan McNair, 2018

The Maryland sports offseason is almost here, with only five track and field athletes still competing. It was a wild year for Terrapin athletics. There were national championships in men’s soccer and women’s lacrosse, and a trip to the title game for field hockey. Maryland athletes won some of the highest honors in their sports. But there were also some lows, both on and off the field.

This summer, we’ll be going in-depth on every Maryland varsity program, looking at where it’s been and where it’s going. The series starts with football, and this piece also leads off a summer preview series that will spend the next several weeks focusing on every position group. Let’s get to it.

Maryland football

Established: 1892
All-time record: 649-596-43
Championships: 1953
Last 5 years: 25-37, 13-32 Big Ten
The coach: Mike Locksley (first season)
Fall 2018: 5-7, 3-6 Big Ten

Where it’s been

Maryland has never been a football powerhouse — its last time ranked in the postseason AP top 10 was 1976, and it’s finished in the top 25 just once since 2003. Since moving to the Big Ten, the Terps have fallen victim to crushing injuries and/or tough schedules seemingly every season. Life in the East division with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan has led to far more ugly results than upset victories.

But tragedy and fallout off the field makes all that seem less important. Offensive lineman Jordan McNair collapsed at a team workout last May and died June 13. The university launched an external investigation, but stayed mostly quiet until bombshell reports in August made that impossible. A second investigation into the program’s culture showed a history of chaos across the entire athletic department. The board recommended reinstating DJ Durkin, but president Wallace Loh fired the coach one day later after players reportedly walked out of a team meeting. Board chairman James Brady resigned a day after that. It was all a mess, and Maryland is still picking up the pieces.

The team still had its moments last season under interim coach Matt Canada, knocking off eventual Sugar Bowl champion Texas and starting the year 5-3. But Maryland lost its last four games to fall short of a postseason berth, although it nearly upset Ohio State in the process. The coaching search bled into December, and Locksley — who had been considered for the job after an interim stint in 2015 — was the choice ahead of Canada and Pep Hamilton. The program’s first African-American head coach called it a “dream job” and vowed to turn Maryland into a football family.

Where it’s going

Locksley’s hiring paid dividends early. He retooled the Terps’ recruiting class in less than two months between his hiring and National Signing Day. He added multiple impact transfers. He hired a staff that blends youth and experience. He’s said all the right things, and everyone’s saying the right things about him. Anyone in the program will tell you that with the talent already on board, the plethora of blue-chip recruits in the area and the facility improvements on their way, it’s an exciting time for Maryland football.

But those words have been spoken before. And in those other instances, action didn’t follow. There are reasons to think this era could be different — Locksley’s DMV recruiting history is second to none, and he’s got plenty to show prospects in Cole Field House — but right now, the questions are the same as they were when Durkin took over three years ago. What’s the realistic ceiling? And how soon can the Terps reach it?

The 2019 team should give some hints to those answers, for better or worse. Like in past seasons, there’s enough talent to turn some heads, but scattered question marks and a daunting schedule will serve as reality checks. Locksley’s 3-31 head coaching record (2-26 at New Mexico, 1-5 in his interim stint at Maryland) won’t make anyone feel better if things start to go south. There’s always excitement when a new coach comes in, though, and Locksley has certainly helped his own cause so far.

Names to know

We’ll be going in-depth on every member of this roster before the summer is over, but it’s hard to pick a small handful given the size of football rosters. Discussion about the 2019 Terps will start with running back Anthony McFarland, who broke out late last season to record over 1,000 yards as a redshirt freshman. Defensively, Antoine Brooks Jr. enters his third year as a key starter, and he’s moved to safety in a new defensive scheme after two seasons at nickel corner.

But perhaps the Terps’ biggest X-factors are a pair of transfers. Quarterback Josh Jackson is favored to win the job under center, and if the redshirt junior can provide the spark Maryland’s been missing at the most important position, the offense immediately reaches another level. And linebacker Keandre Jones can be a defining Locksley story — the local kid who learned the grass wasn’t always greener somewhere else, came back home and became a star. The Ohio State transfer should be eligible to play this fall, and he’ll be an immediate leader on a defense that loses a lot in the front seven.

The mission

Maryland has hit the reset button three times this decade and hopes Locksley can provide the lift it’s been looking for. The program’s ceiling varies depending on who you ask, but the Big Ten East will always make life difficult. As the Terps strive toward national relevance, a return to the postseason would provide a promising first step.