Following its first scrimmage last Saturday, Maryland football held a virtual media availability with head coach Mike Locksley, wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. and defensive end Lawtez Rogers Wednesday afternoon.
With just 16 days until the team’s first game of the season at Northwestern on Oct. 24, here are the biggest takeaways.
The offensive line remains a work in progress
Since taking over the Terps program, Locksley has often emphasized the importance of building the strength of the team’s trenches, the offensive and defensive lines, and this was a clear priority for his coaching staff heading into 2020.
Locksley and offensive line coach John Reagan are working to turn the tide on the group, which has been a consistent struggle in recent seasons. The 2020 class includes six offensive lineman with large frames to help rebuild the group that lost Ellis McKennie and Sean Christie from last season and saw Austin Fontaine opt-out of this season.
“Offensive line is one of the position groups that most of those guys don’t come into their own until three years in your program,” Locksley said. “I think because of what this position group has gone through over the years here — I think they had five different position coaches over the course of five seasons — it’s good to have the continuity with Coach Reagan coming back.”
Locksley’s expects to sophomores Jaelyn Duncan and Spencer Anderson to benefit from that experience and show a lot of improvement after struggling a year ago. Neither was expected to play a huge role last season, but that suddenly changed with a cluster on injuries at the position, forcing them to develop early.
He also mentioned how starting right tackle Marcus Minor has benefited from a move to the interior offensive line, while JUCO transfers Johari Branch and Amelio Moran were tabbed as guys that can provide “immediate help.”
The battle for starting quarterback continues
Without any spring ball and the team in just its second week of being allowed to practice in pads, head coach Mike Locksley isn’t rushing his decision on whether freshman Lance LeGendre and sophomore Taulia Tagovailoa will be the starting signal-caller ahead of the 2020 season.
“We want to give all the guys opportunities to show their abilities and that they have the ability to put points on the board,” Locksley said. “And so we’ll continue to put the quarterbacks in those situations, continue our evaluation of the position, and at some point here, in the next two and a half weeks, we will name a starter.”
LeGendre appeared in three games last season, completing just one of his three pass attempts while rushing 13 times for 104 yards. Tagovailoa has a similarly limited on-field resume, completing nine of his 12 passing attempts for 100 yards in his five appearances for Alabama in 2019.
There hasn’t been much to separate the two dual-threat quarterbacks from what Locksley and the coaching staff have seen so far, but considering how important the team’s quarterback play will be this season, putting the right guy under center is crucial.
What else to know about the offense
Last season, Locksley made it clear he wasn’t happy with his team’s consistent string of unforced errors in games, whether it be penalties, fumbles or interceptions. And he expressed the same frustration following Saturday’s scrimmage.
“We’re gonna play good teams, obviously playing a Big Ten only schedule,” Locksley said. “Those teams don’t need help beating us.”
Locksley noted having a higher margin of error, which is how he refers to the percentage of plays that have “self inflicted wounds,” is typical for a first scrimmage with pads, but he hopes to see improvement in the team’s timing on offense.
The head coach also remarked at the running talent heading into this season, despite losing its two best players in Anthony McFarland Jr. and Javon Leake. Seniors Tayon Fleet-Davis and Jake Funk are both expected to inherit sizable shares of backfield touches, while freshman backs Peny Boone and Isaiah Jacobs figure to play into the rotation as well. But it’s a clear consensus that the team’s strength lies in its depth at wide receiver.
“Things are clicking well on offense,” Demus said. “Everybody’s understanding their part and what they have to do to help the offense.”
Another position in question ahead of the season is at tight end, which will also be without two of its top options from a season ago. Tyler Mabry is currently fighting find a spot on an NFL roster, while junior Chigoziem Okonkwo opted out of the season back in August for medical reasons, forcing two defensive players in Tyler Baylor and Kam Blount to shift across the ball and try to fill the void.
“The tight end position has always been one of high importance and what we do on offense,” Locksley said. “We’ve been able to create some depth at that position and create competition at it that I think is important.”
Locksley added that Baylor has made impressive strides as a run-blocker, while Blount figures to be more of a pass-catching option. Redshirt freshman Malik Jackson, the only true tight end of the group, has also been getting reps. It remains unclear how each figures into the game plan at the position this season.
What else to know about the defense
Though Locksley stressed that tackling needs to be improved, he noted that the defense is a bit ahead of the offense at this point in fall camp.
Some of challenges accompanied that with limited padded practices this offseason remain, but the second-year head coach was impressed with his team’s defensive speed in the scrimmage.
“I saw an increase in team speed and our guys ability to get to the ball, whether it’s in the secondary our second level players, our linebackers,” Locksley said. “Increase in team speed, seeing us run to the ball and just how we’re playing the run up front really was impressive.”
Rogers said the group has matured a lot since allowing 34.7 points and 449.4 yards per game a season ago, and he noted how much energy they’ve brought to practice each day.
“Something that I feel as though will set our defense apart is we are hungry. We’re a hungry defense, we have a lot to prove. We have a lot to show,” Rogers said. “You can see it every day we go out on the field. We don’t take any days off. We’re working every day, perfecting our craft every day. So I’m really excited, I’m really excited about our defense.”