Prior to year two under head coach Mike Locksley, Maryland football saw plenty of attrition on the offensive side of the ball.
Quarterbacks Tyrrell Pigrome, Tyler DeSue and Max Bortenschlager left the program, leaving the door open for redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre and Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa to compete for the starting job, while the team also lost the heart of its running back stable with Anthony McFarland Jr. and Javon Leake heading to the NFL.
The COVID-19 pandemic created even further struggles for the offense, as spring practice and summer camp sessions were replaced with online meetings through Zoom and limited voluntary workouts.
That wasn’t enough for the Terp wide receivers and quarterbacks though. As restrictions began to lift, players that remained in the area made a daily effort to meet up and work on developing as much chemistry as they could in hopes of an eventual 2020 season.
“It was almost every day it felt like it was [LeGendre or Tagovailoa] texting or calling me, like, ‘Let’s go throw. Let’s go do some reps, let’s run routes. Let’s do just do top of the routes and be on for running.’ Or, ‘Let’s run intermediate routes because my arm is a little sore.,’” said redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jeshaun Jones, who returns after sitting out 2019 with an ACL tear. “It was just cool to see that and it was cool to know that they actually wanted that bad.”
At times, Locksley said, the group was even a bit too eager to put the extra work in.
“No matter what’s happened program wise, whether it’s a pause, they’ve done the individual things on their own, at times, you know, to where I had to get on a Zoom and say, ‘Hey, you can’t be out on this field. These fields are off limits,’” Locksley said. “These guys would go try to find grass or fields anywhere they could. And I thought our quarterbacks did a good job of organizing those things, and hopefully we’ll see the dividends of it as we continue to move forward.”
Connections built during the summer sessions have translated well into fall practice, with players noting there is a new level of trust. Despite being in competition, both quarterbacks have been able to make highlight-reel plays with this wide receiver group, showing off the combined talent with a lot of deep throws.
.@tauliaa12 ➡️ @RakimJarrett— Maryland Football (@TerpsFootball) September 22, 2020
“[Chemistry] was actually foreign until we all got together around June,” junior wide receiver Brian Cobbs said. “We’ve just been working ever since then, whether it’s getting in the indoor or just talking about the offense, different things that we can change within our routes to make them more comfortable with throwing us open. So then by the time now that we’re actually at practice, it’s like second nature.”
Playmakers only @cobbs_brian pic.twitter.com/2MDOQrKfcZ— Maryland Football (@TerpsFootball) September 19, 2020
ONE-HANDED @JeshaunJones06 is just showing off now. pic.twitter.com/tM826YspR7— Maryland Football (@TerpsFootball) September 25, 2020
The Terps’ receiving core returns nearly all of its production from 2019, led by junior Dontay Demus Jr, with DJ Turner’s fall transfer being the main unexpected loss. The unit also brings back Jones from injury, Virginia Tech transfer Dejuan Ellis and added four freshmen, including five-star 2020 signee Rakim Jarrett, who has impressed so far.
“He has really strong hands at the catch point,” Cobbs said of Jarrett. “He’s real creative within his routes, so having him on the field in different personnel packages, we know wherever the balls on him that he’s gonna come come down with it, whether it’s a one handed catch, jumping over a defender or something like that. It’s really exciting to see him out there.”
For Maryland though, the receiver position is not just highlighted by the top talent, but rather the depth of the entire group as a whole.
“[The group has shown] a lot of discipline, high level playmaking from one to 13,” Cobbs said. “Being quarantined, we were subject to a lot of Zoom meetings. Getting them those extra mental reps and stuff like that, it really paid off. So, now, coming out here to practice there’s not mental errors or anything that coaches have to clean up. We’re just out there ready to play and executing.”
With so much talent at the position going into the second season under Locksley and offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery, Maryland has the tools to rely on its passing game more than past years to help formulate a balanced offense.
In order for the Terps to reach their potential in the passing game, chemistry on the field must be combined with trust from players and coaches to make changes on the fly and avoid being readable, while also playing within the offensive system.
“I definitely feel like a new sense of trust,” Cobbs said. “Just being around in year two, knowing what [Locksley] expects, and then the rest of the coaches expect. They trust us in a different type of way, and we trust them. So having that big trust relationship really helps things, it makes things easier.”
With the season-opening game against Northwestern less than two weeks away, this chemistry will be crucial for the Terps to improve on a 2019 offense that had a mere 50.3 percent completion percentage and 174 passing yards per game, which ranked at No. 123 and No. 114 in the nation, respectively. The program hasn’t had a completion percentage above 60 percent since 2007.
The Terrapin defense has proven to be one step ahead of the offense through scrimmages and practices so far, Locksley said, but competition will only continue to elevate the product on the field when the season-opener comes.
“The energy is to the level,” defensive back Tahj Capehart said. “Defense is competing, offense is competing. They’ve got playmakers on the other side and we’re just trying to do our jobs on the defensive side. So we’re definitely getting after it at practice, talking a little crap to the offense, going back and forth. ... We’re excited about the season.”