By the time the Alabama football team decamped for last season’s College Football Playoff, Maryland had introduced Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Michael Locksley as its next coach. So when Alabama played those two games — even though its performance in the championship loss was far from a showcase — Terrapins fans watched, too, hoping to glean insight into what their offensive-minded coach would bring to College Park.
This spring, Locksley said he and his staff have installed the same system he ran at Alabama, one that shattered program records after Nick Saban pivoted a few years earlier to a more spread-oriented attack with run-pass options. Whether that will work at Maryland, where there is no Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback nor a sea of five-star recruits, will start to show in the fall.
Saturday’s spring scrimmage at Maryland Stadium might provide some answers as to what to expect from the new system. But these glorified open practices are usually far from revelatory, especially in Maryland’s case, with the presumed starting quarterback, graduate transfer Josh Jackson from Virginia Tech, not yet on campus. When asked to describe the Terps’ scheme, offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery said it is “yet to be determined” but that all great offenses must have a strong running game.
“It’s pretty vague, I know,” said Montgomery, who will call plays. “ . . . We’re a personnel-driven offense. That’s what everyone needs to know. We’re going to put the personnel on the field that suits us best, that’s conducive to excellence. So right now, as we’re going through the process of finding that out, we really don’t want to define who we are.”
Montgomery and the rest of the offensive staff stepped into a program with promising young players, especially at running back and wide receiver. Last season, 46 percent of the team’s rushing yards and 57 percent of its receiving yards came from freshmen. Those newcomers, particularly running back Anthony McFarland and receivers Jeshaun Jones and Dontay Demus, will now find their roles in this system.
“That is really unusual,” Montgomery said of the amount of talent among the underclassmen. “Of course, before I came up here, I did all the research on all the guys, and I don’t know if there are many places that have that much skill in those guys and the offensive front at that age.”
Five Alabama players finished last season with at least 690 receiving yards, more than double the total of Maryland’s leading receiver, senior Taivon Jacobs with 328 yards. (Alabama played three more games than Maryland thanks to the conference championship and playoffs.) Behind those five players, the Crimson Tide also had two running backs, Joshua Jacobs and Damien Harris, with at least 200 receiving yards. None of Maryland’s backs broke 100 receiving yards.
Multiple players said they have watched Alabama film in their preparation. Locksley said it has been helpful to have tight ends coach Mike Miller and graduate assistant Nick Cochran on staff because both followed him from Alabama and are familiar with the system.
The new coaches want to use running backs “all over the place,” McFarland said, adding that his position group has also been learning the slot receiver and wide receiver positions. Locksley said that running backs and tight ends — the latter group had only 82 total receiving yards last season — will be used if they create a matchup issue.
The running back corps is perhaps Maryland’s strongest offensive asset. Behind McFarland, sophomore Tayon Fleet-Davis and junior Javon Leake will figure into the rotation after showing bursts of ability last year. Plus, Locksley said redshirt juniors Lorenzo Harrison III and Jake Funk are expected to be back in the fall after dealing with injuries.
Running backs coach Elijah Brooks said he thinks his group is “as talented as any program in the country.” Though this is Brooks’s first time coaching at the collegiate level, he has plenty of experience with managing a crowded backfield from his time at DeMatha, a local high school powerhouse. At one point, he had four future Big Ten running backs on his roster — McFarland, Harrison, Wisconsin’s Taiwan Deal and Penn State’s Mark Allen.
This season will require creating a similar balance for Brooks, who said he will give input for Locksley to decide whether the team will lean on a player who is having success in a game or go more with a scripted play chart.
“There’s so much talent,” Leake said. “I’m competing with some of the best backs in the country. You’ve just got to bring your ‘A’ game every day because you know the other person is not going to slack.”
The obvious caveat for anyone hoping the production of Alabama’s offense will translate in College Park is that the Crimson Tide’s system included quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the sophomore who threw for nearly 4,000 yards with 43 touchdowns and six interceptions en route to becoming a Heisman finalist.
Maryland never established much of a passing game last season, averaging 141.3 passing yards per game to rank 13th of 14 Big Ten teams. Kasim Hill started the first 10 games before tearing his ACL, and backup Tyrrell Pigrome finished the season under center.
After accepting the Maryland job, Locksley quickly began to pursue help at quarterback. Jackson, the Virginia Tech transfer who is finishing his degree this spring, and Lance LeGendre, a four-star recruit from New Orleans, will join the team in the summer. While there will still be an open competition for the job, graduate transfers frequently go places where they feel confident they will have a meaningful role.
Through the spring, Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager have taken reps with the first team, further proof that this personnel-driven system is still missing its primary leader.
Until there is a clear starting quarterback, questions about the offense will linger. With the principles Locksley has installed, the scheme will certainly look different from the last. Players’ skills might be showcased in new ways. But will this offense be more effective against the Big Ten’s best programs? That will require more than a few intrasquad scrimmages to find out.