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Led By Chigoziem Okonkwo, Tight Ends Ready For Bigger Role With Maryland Football

June 6, 2019
Late in the third quarter of a blowout against Illinois Oct. 27, quarterback Kasim Hill found freshman tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo wide open in the back of the end zone from 25 yards out.

It was the first touchdown thrown to a Maryland tight end in more than two years -- a span of 764 pass attempts -- and the only one thrown to a Terps tight end during the entire 2018 season.

The position group has caught a combined 16 passes since 2016, but if Maryland's spring game is any indication of how first-year head coach Mike Locksley is going to run his offense, tight ends could play a significant role in 2019.

All four touchdown passes thrown during the spring game April 27 were caught by tight ends. Okonkwo, a rising sophomore, caught two to go with 63 receiving yards. Rising redshirt senior Michael Cornwell and rising junior Robert Schwob caught the other two.

"Maybe call Irv Smith from Alabama and ask him if we threw to tight ends," Locksley said when asked after the spring game what role the position group would play in his offense. 

Smith, a tight end under Locksley at Alabama, was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft after combining for 10 touchdowns and more than 800 receiving yards in two years with the Crimson Tide.

Okonkwo -- who, at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, has similar size as Smith -- said he has watched Smith's film and expects to be used in a similar fashion under Locksley this fall.

"I watch all his film. I watch everything because we're very similar players," Okonkwo said. "That's one thing I really loved when I saw [Alabama's] tight ends last year, I was like, 'Oh, this guy is just like me. I can do everything that he's doing in this offense.'"

"I knew from watching the [national championship game] that we were going to do a lot of special things this year," Okonkwo added.

Redshirt freshman Tyler DeSue threw touchdowns to Cornwell and Schwob during the spring game.

"It felt good getting the big guys the ball. They don't get enough love," DeSue said. "They blocked well. They caught the ball well. They balled out."

And as for Okonkwo, DeSue said, "It's ridiculous. He's a tight end that can play like a receiver. He creates all sorts of matchup issues."

As a freshman, Okonkwo made the most of his limited role in former interim coach Matt Canada's offense, averaging 11.5 yards per catch on his six receptions. He also carried the ball three times for 72 yards, including a 54-yard scamper against Illinois on one of Canada's patented jet sweeps.

"Last year, it was fun doing jet sweeps," Okonkwo said. "I didn't do a lot of jet sweeps in high school so I had to learn how to do that all through last year. This year though I think it's a lot better for us to be split out and get in space where we can [create] mismatches on linebackers and safeties instead of running the ball."

At times, it felt like tight ends were a forgotten group under Canada and his predecessor DJ Durkin, limited to run blocking or acting as decoys for other players, Okonkwo said. But under Locksley, that is likely to change.

"We feel like we've got a few good tight ends in our program," Locksley said. "... All those guys have a really good understanding. They kind of are the guys that are going to create matchup issues so we're going to play and use all of our weapons in this offense. You'll see the ball distributed ... because we want to get our best players the ball."

The increased role is a welcome sign for Okonkwo, but no matter where he finds himself lining up on the field this fall, whether it's at tight end, split out wide or in the slot, the rising sophomore is confident he can produce big plays for the Terps.

"Last year, a lot of the plays we ran, we weren't in the read," he said. "It was kind of like we were a decoy, but this year we're [in] that read. If the linebacker goes here, you've got to throw it here. It's a lot easier than last year because last year it really felt like we were just running around being decoys for everybody else."

"I can do everything I think," he added. "I can do all of it. I feel like I can be a big game-changer for us."

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox