Michael Locksley said the quiet part out loud when he referred to Maryland’s bowl game as “almost like a preseason game.”
The relevance of bowl games has drastically diminished in recent years due to overlap with the transfer portal frenzy and early signing day and the increased prevalence of opt-outs. But that doesn’t mean Maryland’s Dec. 30 tilt against Auburn in the Music City Bowl is devoid of meaning.
In fact, for those looking to get a head start on understanding the 2024 Terps, it’s invaluable.
Roster attrition has created opportunities for younger players, buried down the depth chart and burdened with inexperience, to play.
No position better embodies that transition than quarterback. Taulia Tagovailoa’s unexpected decision to opt out of the bowl game gives the Terps a preview of two of the players, Billy Edwards Jr. and Cameron Edge, who will vie for next year’s starting gig. Both will play against the Tigers, per Locksley.
Edwards Jr., soon-to-be a redshirt junior, transferred from Wake Forest two years ago and has played sparingly. In 2022, with Maryland trying to become bowl eligible, he started for an injured Tagovailoa against Northwestern and threw for 166 yards and a touchdown.
“Obviously, this is a little bit different than the opportunities I’ve had here in the past two years,” Edwards said. “I’ll have two weeks to prepare, more than a couple seconds in some of those games ... if you prepare the right way, I can go in there with a lot more confidence and just have fun and play.”
Junior wide receiver Tai Felton played with and against Edwards as both grew up in Northern Virginia. He described Edwards as a “big-armed quarterback” with good size at 6-foot-4.
“He can stand in the pocket very well. He can read the defense and, for how big he is, he can take a lot of hits so he can run the ball very well,” Felton said.
Locksley said the offense will not change dramatically regardless of the quarterback.
“Billy throws the ball really, really well,” Locksley said. “He’s a traditional pocket quarterback, but he also has some sneaky athleticism that I think catches people off guard.”
Edwards said his size could allow the Terps to run him more. He often came in for Maryland on quarterback sneaks and scored six touchdowns.
Edge, a redshirt freshman, has considerably less game experience — he’s got just three pass attempts to his name. But the former three-star recruit from Delaware earned praise from Felton for his football intelligence.
“He checks the line ... making the right decisions and reading coverages,” Felton said.
Those two are trying to make strong first impressions in the opening stages of a quarterback competition that will extend into the spring. It will also include N.C. State transfer MJ Morris. Locksley kept it simple when asked what he’d like to see from Edwards and Edge in the bowl game.
“Protect the football, score points.”
The Terps will also have a different starter at cornerback opposite Ja’Quan Sheppard with Tarheeb Still’s declaration for the NFL draft. Locksley highlighted a litany of names, including Lionel Whitaker, who could factor into Maryland’s plans inside or outside.
Corey Dyches’ and Rico Walker’s departures put an increased focus on Preston Howard to assume the starting tight end role, and freshman Dylan Wade to become a strong backup.
Maryland’s receiver group has not had any notable opt-outs but will likely see more rotation as the Terps try to see their younger talent. They will likely give sophomore Shaleak Knotts extended time.
Locksley has long praised the former four-star recruit, saying he believes Knotts has the tools to be a star. But, after two years and a mere 11 catches, the coach said it’s time for the receiver to “have that breakout.”
Freshman defensive lineman Dillan Fontus and linebacker Michael Harris could also see extended playing time at defensive end.
Getting in players’ heads
The Terps’ bowl game could also preview college football’s future. Maryland and Auburn have agreed to allow in-helmet audio communication between players and coaches.
In the NFL, where this technology is used, one player on each side of the ball gets the mic. The audio feed cuts off when the play clock hits 15 seconds. For the Terps and Tigers, two players on each side of the ball will get it.
Linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II said, so far in practice, the Terps have given the communication capabilities to the quarterback and center and a linebacker and safety. Locksley said it’s unclear yet when the audio will shut off — or if it will at all.
The coach hinted at the Michigan sign-stealing scandal when discussing the technology and said he wanted his team to be ready in case it is widely adopted. The Terps just began practicing with the equipment, and it has already sparked learning moments for the coaching staff.
“We’re learning that less is more. You get this thing and you can say, ‘Hey, Billy, look at the boundary safety. It looks like he’s off the hash. Go to the left and throw it,’” Locksley said. “You can do all that. But sometimes that’s too much. That’s why we want to practice with it.”