Jaelyn Duncan, a redshirt freshman from Owings Mills, Md., will settle into his spot at left tackle, tasked with fending off top defenses during his team’s gantlet of a Big Ten East slate. Yet the young player has never stepped onto the field for a college game — not in garbage time of a lopsided matchup, not when injuries forced shuffling among the group last season and not even thanks to the NCAA’s new rule that allows players to participate in four games while preserving their redshirt.
So throughout preseason camp, Duncan said, his inexperience “challenged me to push myself a lot more because I know that I’m stepping up to a big role.”
The offensive line that Locksley will call upon when the season opens Aug. 31 against Howard combines youth such as Duncan’s with a few established starters from last year. But the greater concern lies not in this crew but in the players standing behind it on the depth chart, waiting for the inevitable need to plug holes if injuries or other circumstances keep first-choice players off the field. Heading into the season, Locksley said, his team has seven offensive linemen who “we feel really good about, that we can count on.”
“We've got to obviously have at least 10 to be able to have a two-deep throughout the season,” Locksley said, “which means some of these young guys are going to have to be forced into development.”
To begin the year, Maryland will presumably rely on an offensive line that includes two starters from last year’s best group, though center Johnny Jordan also received significant playing time in 2018 when filling in for injured teammates. Left guard Sean Christie and right guard Terrance Davis return to their spots from last season; the two tackles, Duncan and Marcus Minor, have far less game experience.
“We've got a lot of guys that can play multiple positions,” Jordan said. “We're just building depth, rotating guys in at different spots, just getting a lot of guys reps that haven't gotten reps in the past and seeing what they've got against our really good defense.”
By joining Duncan on the left side, Christie, a sixth-year senior who has played in nearly every game the past three years, can pass along beneficial expertise to his teammate. On the right, Davis and Minor, former high school teammates at DeMatha, team up, and Jordan said there is obvious chemistry between those two.
Last year’s veteran line graduated center Brendan Moore, left tackle Derwin Gray and right tackle Damian Prince, so newcomers such as freshman Mason Lunsford and junior college transfer Parris Heath will need to develop quickly to help fill out the depth chart. Other underclassmen such as Spencer Anderson, Evan Gregory and Tyran Hunt have worked with the second-team group in practice, alongside fifth-year senior Ellis McKennie.
But Locksley and his staff have still needed to manufacture some depth by moving Austin Fontaine and Breyon Gaddy over from defense. Fontaine made the switch in the spring, and Gaddy joined the position group in the preseason. With Maryland playing a 3-4 defense this year, the team has more flexibility to move linemen to the offensive side of the ball.
“We do have a lot of young guys that can play, a lot of young guys that are stepping up, a couple guys switched over from defensive line,” Christie said. “They're making good headway. They're good now. They're going to be really good in the future. So I think my process is to be the older brother, the guy that's been here for a long time, continue to act like that and just help everybody, aid them along.”
In the Terps’ first scrimmage of preseason camp, the offense “felt the effect of the pass rush, especially on third down situations,” Locksley said, calling that “the one area where I was really concerned on the offensive side during the scrimmage.”
Some of those worrisome moments came by way of situational preparation, such as on third and longs when the defense has the advantage of knowing what’s coming. The following week, in Maryland’s second of two preseason scrimmages, the scenarios given by the staff were more evenly matched, where Locksley said the offense would be given a second-and-10 situation from which the team could create a more manageable third down. The pass protection in the second scrimmage was “way better,” Locksley said.
But still, with the nature of scrimmages and the preseason, questions remain. Maryland won’t truly know how well it managed to replace the three players who graduated last year until the team starts navigating its schedule. Only then will it start to become clear how well the less experienced linemen adjusted to these larger roles and whether they all developed enough to drive an offense that can win.