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In the wake of one of the most difficult seasons in program history, the Maryland football team is facing a new beginning with the 2019 season.
Maryland came under intense scrutiny after offensive lineman Jordan McNair suffered heatstroke during a team workout May 29, 2018 and died two weeks later. Head coach DJ Durkin was placed on administrative leave in August and was replaced on an interim basis by offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Durkin was fired in October.
On the field, the Terps finished 5-7 (3-6 in the Big Ten) and came within a failed two-point conversion of defeating then-No. 9 Ohio State in overtime.
After being hired in December, new head coach Michael Locksley set out to build his roster, install schemes on both sides of the ball and establish a culture for the team. Ahead of the Terps' first fall practice Aug. 2, Locksley called the opportunity to assess his full team on the field for the first time "Christmas in August."
"This is an opportunity for us to open up the gifts we've recruited and the team we've inherited and see what we get," Locksley said. "Typically you get what you earn."
The team hasn't had a winning season since 2014 and hasn't been bowl-eligible in five of the past eight years. While expectations are low for Maryland -- the Terps are expected to finish toward the bottom of the Big Ten East -- Locksley sees 2019 as an opportunity rather than a challenge.
"What we've done in the past doesn't really matter. It's what we do today and that's always going to be our focus," he said. "The way we honor Jordan is how we compete, practice and how we prepare. That's something our team has embraced."
In some ways, Locksley's job has been made easier by the pre-existing relationships he has with upperclassmen, like running backs Anthony McFarland Jr., Lorenzo Harrison III and offensive lineman Ellis McKennie, whom he recruited during his previous stint with Maryland as the team's offensive coordinator from 2012-2015.
"The trust factor, that buying-in curve we'll call it, is totally gone ... because the players that were already on the roster had relationships with Locksley," said Adam Friedman, a mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "That speeds up the timeline of installation and everything else because they didn't have to build that trust and that relationship."
As has been the case for the past several years, one of the biggest questions facing the Terps ahead of their season opener against Howard Aug. 31 will be who starts at quarterback.
Kasim Hill, who started the first 10 games of the 2018 season, is no longer with the team. Redshirt junior Josh Jackson, a transfer from Virginia Tech, is the favorite to win the job.
Jackson started 13 games for the Hokies in 2017, throwing for 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns and running for 324 yards and six touchdowns. Last season, he played just three games before suffering a broken leg.
"It's a full competition," said Jackson, whose father, Fred, was a longtime assistant at Michigan and has known Locksley for decades. "Everybody's going to have a chance and I've competed many times, so I'm going to try to be the best I can and hopefully that means I get to be on the field."
Redshirt junior Tyrrell Pigrome, who appeared in 11 of 12 games in 2018 and started the final two games of the season, is also in the mix. Redshirt junior Max Bortenschlager (eight starts as a sophomore), redshirt freshman Tyler DeSue and freshman Lance LeGendre will also make their case for the job ahead of the season.
As for what offense the eventual starter will run?
"What we ran at Alabama, that's what we're going to run here," said Locksley, who spent the last three seasons as an assistant under Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban. "If you want a scouting report, you better watch a lot of Alabama film."
For the second year in a row, running back is easily Maryland's deepest position. McFarland, a redshirt sophomore, is back after posting 1,034 yards rushing and 7.9 yards per carry in 2018. While McFarland finds himself on several preseason award watch lists, junior Javon Leake has been called a starter-caliber player by his coaches. Leake offers the triple threat of running, catching and returning kicks.
Leake boasts a career 9.5 yards-per-carry average and averaged 24.1 yards per return in 2018.
"I can do all of that for the team [and] be a leader," said Leake, who is eager to prove he and McFarland can be one of the country's top running-back tandems. "We've been talking about this since we got in here. I think me and him could be something special, something people really haven't seen. Ant Mac and I have a lot coming this year."
With the departure of Taivon Jacobs, sophomore receiver Jeshaun Jones was set to be the team's top returning receiver before tearing his left ACL early in camp. Sean Savoy, a junior transfer wideout from Virginia Tech, brings experience to the group. He caught six touchdowns and had 642 yards receiving with the Hokies from 2017-2018.
The offensive line, a strength last year, will be a question mark this season with the loss of Derwin Gray and Damian Prince to the NFL. Senior left guard Sean Christie and junior Johnny Jordan (six starts at center) provide some experience after helping block for the third-best rushing attack in the Big Ten (230.2 yards per game) in 2018.
Meanwhile, senior Oluwaseun Oluwatimi will lead the defensive line of a 3-4 defensive structure that Locksley said will be predicated on putting pressure on the opponent.
"I'm not a bend-don't-break guy as a personality," Locksley said. "We want to pressure people; we want to be aggressive."
In 2018, the team was tied for third in the Big Ten in takeaways per game (1.9) but struggled to put pressure on the passer, ranking second to last in the Big Ten in sacks with 18.
Two players who will be key in executing Locksley's vision are transfer linebackers Keandre Jones (Ohio State), a senior, and Shaq Smith (Clemson), a graduate student. Both are Maryland natives who chose other schools when Locksley was passed over for the Maryland head coaching position in 2015.
Senior defensive back Antoine Brooks Jr. looks to fill the void in the secondary left by Darnell Savage Jr., selected by the Green Bay Packers in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Brooks earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2018 and led the team with 9.5 tackles for a loss. Fellow senior Tino Ellis brings additional experience to the unit. Freshman Nick Cross could play right away.
Locksley's first recruiting class ranked 47th nationally and 11th in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports. The class included three consensus four-star recruits: Cross (DeMatha), wide receiver Isaiah Hazel (Wise) and Legendre (New Orleans).
Though the Terps will not get a chance to beat Texas three years in a row, there will be several opportunities to face top competition. Maryland's schedule includes five opponents ranked in the preseason top 25, including Syracuse (No. 22) Sept. 7, Michigan (No. 7) Nov. 2, Ohio State (No. 5) Nov. 9 and Michigan State (No. 20) Nov. 30.
Maryland's Big Ten opener is a Friday night affair against Penn State (No. 14) Sept. 27, and the school announced campus will be cleared the day of the high-profile matchup.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 256: August 2019
Originally published Aug. 15, 2019