Maryland football should benefit after its young players had to grow up fast last season

Emily Giambalvo

Washington Post

Apr 22, 2021

Cornerback Tarheeb Still

Cornerback Tarheeb Still led Maryland as a freshman with eight pass breakups. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

When Coach Michael Locksley talks with talented high school football players, working to convince them to become Maryland Terrapins, he sells them on the future. There are no recent titles to lure prospective players, but Locksley believes this program, recently a bottom feeder in the Big Ten, has an “unlimited ceiling.” So he shares that vision, and the teenagers on the listening end of the conversation are assured they have a chance to help fuel that rise.

“He was very straightforward with me as far as what he wanted to do with the Maryland program and how I could be a factor in taking this program to the top,” said Ruben Hyppolite II, a sophomore linebacker. “I believed it from Day 1. I just stuck it out, and I just rode with it. I trusted in him.”

Hyppolite signed with the Terps as one of the best players in the 2020 class. He believed in the program as Locksley navigated his first year in charge and only picked up one conference win in the 2019 season.

Other highly rated recruits — most notably five-star wide receiver Rakim Jarrett — joined that signing class, too. Once they arrived on campus, their talent and the lack of veteran contributors pushed them toward the front of the line for playing time. That’s an enticing part of playing for a rebuilding team. And so Hyppolite, Jarrett and other eager newcomers developed into key cogs in Maryland’s system, with some earning starting roles. Now they’re back for another season, and Saturday’s spring game will serve as a modest indicator of their growth.

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Tarheeb Still, a cornerback who led the team with eight pass breakups, entered last season hoping to contribute early, and he became one of the team’s most important freshmen. He started four of the Terps’ five games, improving as the season progressed. Locksley said Still showed the consistency of a veteran and never seemed fazed by the pressure of the college game. This season, he will continue to star on defense and also has carved out a new role as a returner on special teams.

“He’s just an amazing player,” junior linebacker Fa’Najae Gotay said. “He comes out to practice every day. He works hard. He competes every day. He doesn’t treat it like he’s glory. He treats it like he’s nobody, and that’s the type of player you need.”

These young players, only a year or two removed from high school and thrust into Big Ten competition, buoyed Maryland’s efforts last season. The Terps finished the shortened season with a 2-3 record, but they showed signs of progress after facing significant struggles the year before. In 2019, the Terps lost six games by at least 26 points.

During the 2020 campaign, freshmen and sophomores who are returning for this upcoming season — players such as Still and safety Nick Cross on defense, Jarrett and quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa on offense — accounted for nearly half of all starts. Numerous upperclassmen who had meaningful roles are set to return, too. Of the 38 offensive and defensive players who started a game last season, 30 are still part of the team in 2021.

The defense lost linebacker Chance Campbell, who led the team in total tackles and decided to transfer to Mississippi. But that position group is one of the deepest at Maryland. Two of the Terps’ best players in the 2021 class, five-star Terrence Lewis and four-star Branden Jennings, are linebackers who could contribute immediately. (Lewis, however, is out for the spring after he had surgery this winter to repair a torn ACL.) Apart from Campbell, nearly every defensive starter returns in 2021. The defensive line has Sam Okuayinonu, Ami Finau and Mosiah Nasili-Kite. Underclassmen had significant roles in the secondary, and all of those players are back.

“Guys actually want to show that Maryland can be one of those teams to compete for a Big Ten championship,” Still said of the team’s young core. “I feel like guys here want it more because everyone looks over us, like, ‘Oh, it’s Maryland.’ But I feel as though it makes everyone here more competitive and want to win more.”

Maryland's returning production -- Nearly every player on the Terrapins' roster who made significant contributions in 2020 is back for this season. While Maryland lost its lead running back in Jake Funk, the Terps returned players who accounted for 95 percent of all receiving yards last season, and the defense, particularly in the secondary, is filled with returners.

On the offensive side, Tagovailoa said he feels comfortable in the system and his timing with receivers has improved. Nearly every player who caught a pass in 2020 is still on the team, including standout wide receivers Jarrett, Dontay Demus Jr., Brian Cobbs and Jeshaun Jones. The offense showcased its ability in Maryland’s win at Penn State as Tagovailoa and Jarrett connected for 144 yards and two touchdowns, and other young players shined in all facets of the game.

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“Based on my experience and different places I’ve been,” new offensive coordinator Dan Enos said, “I see an offense that has a chance to be very special. I’m very excited about the talent level that is here.”

Maryland still has depth concerns on the offensive line and at quarterback. Two starting offensive linemen — Johnny Jordan and Marcus Minor — transferred after last season. Tagovailoa is the only scholarship quarterback on the roster, though walk-on Eric Najarian played well when he stepped in against Rutgers. This summer, the Terps will add quarterback Reece Udinski, who set school passing records at Virginia Military Institute. But he suffered a knee injury during the spring Football Championship Subdivision season, and it’s unclear whether he can recover in time for the fall.

Locksley has had three years to shape the roster, and the team is deep enough to have a third unit during spring ball. Most of these players committed under Locksley. Jarrett, whose signing was a milestone recruiting win in December 2019, said he thinks Maryland can be one of the top programs in the Big Ten and eventually in the nation. Now Jarrett and his peers who believed in Locksley’s vision are experienced, and they hope to reinvigorate the program.

“We’re showing that the new Maryland is here,” Demus said. “Things are about to change.”

Ruben Hyppolite II

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