Welcome to the final installment of the Testudo Times summer football preview series. We’ve spent the last two months focusing on every Maryland position group — quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs — and we’re winding down with specialists this week.
Cody looked at Joseph Petrino and the kickers on Monday, Wes wrote about the inexperienced punter group on Tuesday and Sean checked out the long snappers yesterday. We’ll close with the return game, where several of the playmakers we’ve written about earlier this summer could showcase their skills in a different way.
This phase of the game is adjusting to a new scheme too
A new coaching staff always brings about changes on offense and defense (here’s a more in-depth look at those new schemes). But the special teams units are undergoing renovations as well, and learning those changes comes before choosing someone to line up back deep.
Head coach Mike Locksley said the Terps will use Saturday’s scrimmage to try out kick and punt returners, but he knows what he’s looking for.
“For us, the guy that goes back there to return kicks and punts, the first thing they’ve gotta do is be able to secure the ball, and then the next thing we’re gonna do is find the guy who gives us the best chance to make plays back there,” Locksley said after practice Wednesday. “We’ve got a lot of skill, especially in the running back room, and we feel really confident about that, and we’ve also got some experienced guys that have done both punts and kicks.”
Here’s a list built to include players Locksley mentioned, players with experience returning kicks and punts and a couple wild cards with unique skill sets.
The big name we know we’ll see in the return game is junior running back Javon Leake. He led the Terps with 17 kick returns, 409 yards and a touchdown last season, and added 232 yards on 12 runbacks in 2017. He’s got as much breakaway speed as anyone on the roster, and while we’re sure to see that in the backfield this season, he still won’t be the primary running back, which leaves kick returner as a spot for him to shine.
Jake Funk also brings a decent amount of returning experience into 2019, although he’s usually lined up further from the end zone and scooped up shorter kickoffs. Funk had nine kick returns for 166 yards in 2017 and three for 49 yards the year prior. After injuries shortened his season in 2018, he’s back healthy and should fill a similar role.
Locksley also mentioned Anthony McFarland Jr. and Rayshad Lewis as players who would receive opportunities in the return game. McFarland’s breakaway speed was on full display late last year, when he had touchdown runs of 81 and 75 yards in the same quarter against Ohio State (he finished that game with 298 yards on the ground). Lewis, a receiver turned corner who might switch back to receiver, returned seven kicks for 146 yards in 2018.
One dark horse could be Nick Cross, a four-star freshman safety. Kick returns more reliably allow players to reach their top speed, and Cross’ top speed is well-documented. He’s a high school track star whose personal best of 6.33 in the 55-meter dash was top-10 in the country this indoor season.
Last season, Taivon Jacobs had 16 of the 18 punt returns by the whole team, recording an unspectacular 30 total return yards (1.9 per attempt). Jeshaun Jones had one runback, while Jesse Aniebonam scooped up a blocked punt and took it 45 yards for a touchdown against Temple. Jones tore his ACL in practice Monday, and Jacobs (and Aniebonam) have graduated. So this role is still very much up for grabs.
The only Terps left on the roster with experience running back punts are Lorenzo Harrison III, who returned one for six yards in 2016, and Sean Savoy, who had three return yards on one attempt last season at Virginia Tech. As of right now, both players are day-to-day with hamstring injuries.
DJ Turner, another name mentioned by Locksley, profiles as a decent fit for this role. So do McFarland, Lewis, Cross and, if you’re feeling saucy, quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome (we’re nowhere near this being realistic yet, for what it’s worth). Provided Harrison and Savoy return healthy by the end of camp, they could factor in as well.
That’s a crowded group, and most of the returns will probably go to one or two of these players, but having more options is always better at this time of year.