What you need to know about Maryland football ahead of season opener against Towson

Published 8/31/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT

If Mike Locksley had made documentaries about any of the first four preseason camps he ran as coach of the Maryland football team, they would have been rife with distractions and behind-the-scenes intrigue.

That’s not the case in 2023. Locksley feels he has finally established the culture he wants. Fall camp, then, was focused on simply getting better this year. He came into it hoping to see if the Terps are ready to meet the high expectations he’s set for his fifth season. His team begins play Saturday in College Park against Towson, his alma mater, after developing the calluses the coach believes necessary to get through a tough season.

In performing to his standards this August, Maryland also validated Locksley’s belief that it should be talking about the potential for a Big Ten title — even in a division boasting three teams in The Associated Press Top 10 and two in the top four.

“I think this was by far the most productive camp that I’ve had since I’ve been back here as the head coach,” Locksley said Tuesday.

He reflected on the reaction to his declaration of championship intent, which generated many headlines.

“To me, I don’t know what the big deal about saying that is,” he said. “... We now have the foundation that I think is necessary in the locker room with the player-driven culture that allows us to go do just those things.”

No matter how daunting the schedule may be, this much is clear: The Terps have a talented roster that could hit program marks that are all but distant memories.

So here is a look, ahead of what could be the best football season College Park has seen in a while, at what you need to know about the Terps and what has Locksley feeling so hopeful.

Most likely to be taken for granted

Let’s get this out of the way because it’s both very obvious and still worth noting: Taulia Tagovailoa is Maryland’s most valuable player. Even in a 2022 season when he didn’t always look settled and missed time with injury, Tagovailoa ranked fourth in the conference with 17.02 expected points added, per Sports Info Solutions.

EPA examines how many points an offense gained/lost on a specific play based on modeling that accounts for score, down, distance and more. For example, a 3-yard run on third-and-3 is weighted differently than one on third-and-6.

Tagovailoa’s first season with Maryland was 2020. Here’s how Maryland quarterbacks ranked in the conference before him (minimum 100 attempts, using only the highest-ranked quarterback because, of course, the Terps used more than one multiple times).

  • 2016: 10th
  • 2017: 19th
  • 2018: 9th
  • 2019: 15th

In none of those seasons did the quarterback record a positive EPA. Tagovailoa has done so in every one of his years as a Terp. Maryland fans, cherish him while he’s here — you know how frigid and unforgiving a quarterback-less wilderness can be to navigate.

Most likely to exceed expectations

A year ago, CBS Sports ranked Maryland’s receiver room — a group boasting Dontay Demus Jr., Rakim Jarrett, Jacob Copeland and Jeshaun Jones — as the third best in the nation.

But none of those players would finish among the Big Ten’s top 10 in receiving and only Jones and Jarrett would be in its top 25.

This year’s group has less pedigree but could be just as good, if not better.

Maryland brought in two key transfers. Tyrese Chambers, from Florida International, averaged 23.69 yards per route run on targets at least 20 yards down the field, second among FBS wide receivers with at least 20 such chances. Kaden Prather, a former West Virginia Mountaineer, stands 6 feet 4.

So Chambers is a deep threat and Prather a ball winner, right?

“You got it backwards,” Locksley said when asked about the two transfers’ talents. “Kaden is a big, down-the-field, big-play threat. Tyrese is an in-the-middle, option route runner that creates space.”

Jones, the Terps’ leader in receiving yards a year ago, and Tai Felton, who saw ample time as a sophomore, return, as do a host of inexperienced but electric talents including sophomores Octavian Smith Jr. and Shaleak Knotts, who were both four-star recruits.

How the pieces will fit together remains unknown — Maryland hasn’t released a depth chart, a departure from previous years. Locksley said the Terps would have a rotation but declined to share specifics.

Most likely to make first-team All-Big Ten

Defensive back Beau Brade had a simple answer when asked what the expectations for linebacker Jaishawn Barham were in his sophomore year.

“I’m expecting a first-team All-Big Ten. I want All-American for him. He’s a dog,” Brade said. “... He just got bigger, faster, stronger. He’s a smart, intellectual player.”

The idea that Barham has room for improvement feels evident — he’s just one season removed from being a high school senior, after all — and absurd just because of how good he already was last year.

Barham registered the highest pass-rush productivity rate, a metric from Pro Football Focus that combines sacks, hits and hurries and examines them relative to a player’s pass-rush snaps, among 16 Big Ten linebackers with at least 50 such snaps.

He was tied for the fourth-fewest missed tackles on run plays among conference linebackers with at least 150 run snaps, with just three according to PFF.

His play earned recognition. The Bednarik Award honors the best defensive player in college football. Barham was one of six conference linebackers to make its preseason watch list.

Biggest question mark

Locksley did not reveal who will start on the offensive line. That unit must protect a quarterback who’s sub-6 feet, barely over 200 pounds and plays a skittish style that invites pressure. Maryland allowed 43 sacks last year, the most in the Big Ten, despite having a line that sent three players to NFL training camps and a fourth to LSU.

The one returner is Delmar Glaze, who will likely move to left tackle and be a solid piece there. Around him lies uncertainty.

Locksley said the Terps have eight or nine players who can play but the group lacks any kind of pedigree.

Returners include guard Amelio Morán, a redshirt senior with one career start, and center Aric Harris, a nine-game starter in 2021 who was third string last year.

Two likely starters, tackle Gottlieb Ayedze and guard Corey Bullock, come from Frostburg State and North Carolina Central, respectively. Mike Purcell, the potential starting center, last played at Elon.

“I like guys that have chips on their shoulders that want to prove that they can play at this level,” Locksley said. “We’ve got some really talented guys … [who] have come in and really been able to help fill the gap that we’ve lost.”

If they can’t fill those gaps, they could be leaving ones for defensive linemen to crunch Tagovailoa and sink the rest of what looks like a high-powered attack.

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