The tight ends’ performance — Okonkwo has five catches for 54 yards and a touchdown, and Mabry five catches for 46 yards and two scores — has provided an early indication of how new coach Michael Locksley’s offense will use the position group. Locksley has already begun reversing the recent trend of tight ends being nearly invisible in Maryland’s passing game.
“They catch anything I throw at them,” quarterback Josh Jackson said of his tight ends after the Terps defeated Syracuse.
The bump in production is not simply Mabry and Okonkwo reaping the benefits of the team’s prolific offensive showings in its games against Howard and Syracuse, in which the Terps compiled 142 points and 1,273 yards. The tight ends’ slice of the offensive pie has increased, too.
In Maryland’s revamped passing attack, which has showed vast improvement thanks to the addition of Virginia Tech transfer Jackson and the new scheme of Locksley, running backs and tight ends have both contributed in significant ways. Running backs have caught nine passes for 90 yards, while tight ends have added 10 receptions for 100 yards. The tight ends have accounted for close to 17 percent of Maryland’s receiving yards, which would be the highest mark in the past decade if it holds up for the entire season.
“They can’t cover [Okonkwo]; they can’t handle my blocks,” Mabry said of opposing defenses. “It’s like those Iowa tight ends last year. I feel like we’re going to be something special, me and him.”
Those Iowa tight ends were T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. Hockenson racked up a team-high 760 receiving yards last season, while Fant finished second with 519. Both became first-round NFL draft picks, and Hockenson won the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end.
While that standard will be difficult to match, Okonkwo and Mabry could still help Maryland resemble past Terps teams that boasted a handful of successful pass-catching tight ends, including Vernon Davis, who led the team with 871 receiving yards in 2005.
At Maryland’s spring scrimmage, before Mabry arrived on campus, tight ends caught four receiving touchdowns, providing a glimpse of what could unfold during the season, even though the performance came only in a glorified practice.
When asked after the scrimmage whether that showing indicated tight ends would be more involved in the passing game, Locksley said, “Maybe call Irv Smith from Alabama and ask him if we threw to the tight end." Smith caught 44 passes for 710 yards last season when Locksley was the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator.
New tight ends coach Mike Miller worked with receivers as a graduate assistant at Alabama, which Okonkwo used as evidence in the spring that his position group would have more of a receiving role this year. Maryland’s previous tight ends coach, Dave Bucar, had a background as an offensive line coach. With Mabry and Okonkwo combining for three scores in the first two games, they are beginning to prove that scrimmage wasn’t an aberration.
Mabry said that pass-catching opportunities weren’t specifically part of what drew him to College Park but that Locksley had mentioned he could help Mabry play at the next level and Mabry thought he would fit well in Locksley’s offense.
After a 2-0 start that has pushed Maryland into the Associated Press top 25, at No. 21, for the first time since 2013, Locksley’s offense has begun to garner praise as it approaches a Big Ten slate that will present more challenges. But Locksley’s system simply aims to create matchup advantages and get the ball in the hands of the best players. The position group identification in front of each player’s name matters less.
Players haven’t lacked ambition when describing the group’s capabilities. Jackson said he wants the offense’s reputation to be that “we have weapons everywhere.” He then rattled off each position group that surrounds him on the field and how he believes they could be among the nation’s best.
“We're going to have a great offense,” Jackson said.
And for the first time in a few years, tight ends will have a meaningful role in the attack.