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Taulia Tagovailoa fuels Maryland’s hopes as preseason camp opens

Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa should lead an explosive offense with coordinator Dan Enos. (Steve Ruark/AP)
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Michael Locksley is no longer the coach of a Maryland football program that’s wading through the early stages of a difficult rebuilding project. This is Year 4. References to key cultural change and the need for years-long development have drifted into the past. Locksley is in charge of a team constructed with his vision. And the Terrapins have improved each season, evolving from a Big Ten bottom-feeder to a bowl-eligible squad with a winning record.

As this program has developed, so has quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who has fueled Maryland’s rise while becoming more than just “Tua’s brother.” Rather than quarterback questions and concerns, Locksley has a talented offensive leader poised to break more school records.

So as Locksley’s team opened preseason camp Wednesday, the coach was comfortable saying, “We’ve got really high expectations for ourselves entering this ’22 season.” Some players have shared their ambitions for this year and beyond — competing for Big Ten championships — but Locksley wouldn’t elaborate on specific benchmarks. The ultimate measure, though, is always wins. Last year, Maryland finished 7-6, the team’s best mark since 2014. This season, the Terps have a chance to show they can achieve more.

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That starts with Tagovailoa. He gives Maryland stability every coach and fan base would embrace. The bright moments from Tagovailoa and his key receivers, who all return for 2022, offer promise that can overshadow preseason worries — the mostly untested running back group or the losses on defense, for instance.

Maryland’s entire group of starting offensive linemen returns from last season, and offensive coordinator Dan Enos said: “We feel like not only do we have a group that can play at a very high level, but we feel like we have very capable backups and young players that are going to be progressing into the future of the offensive line.” That should help Tagovailoa thrive.

Last season, Tagovailoa threw for 3,860 yards, breaking the program’s single-season passing record. If he replicates that performance this year, he’ll cruise past the school’s career passing record (7,301 yards from Scott Milanovich in the 1992-1995 seasons) and help the Terps generate an explosive offense.

Locksley believes Tagovailoa is an underappreciated quarterback — primarily because some outsiders formed their opinion on him based on his poor performance under the spotlight against Iowa last season — and this year, he said he wants the redshirt junior to continue to “emotionally mature.” Last season, Tagovailoa threw 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, but five of those picks came in the Iowa game.

“Sometimes when he’s a little bit maybe indecisive, he’s not quite as good,” Enos said. “The process of getting him to where he is very decisive on everything we’re doing, I think we’ll be able to eliminate a lot of the mistakes.”

Here’s what else to know about the Maryland football team heading into preseason camp:

Healthy wide receivers

The Terps lost a pair of standout wide receivers, Dontay Demus Jr. and Jeshaun Jones, to major knee injuries last season. Demus led the Big Ten in receiving yards before he tore his ACL in the fifth game. Both participated in the first official practice of the preseason.

Demus decided to put his NFL dreams on hold to return to Maryland, and even after dealing with a bone bruise in his foot in addition to the knee injury, he was surprised by the speed of his recovery.

“I’m pretty much doing everything except for a little less contact,” said Demus, a senior. “I feel like everything’s pretty 100 percent, to be honest.”

Jones, in his fifth season as a Terp, tore his other ACL in 2019 and said his most recent recovery process was “a lot smoother than my first time.” Jones and Demus join junior star Rakim Jarrett (829 receiving yards last season) and Florida transfer Jacob Copeland (642 yards in 2021) to form a formidable unit.

“I think it could be scary with all the weapons we have outside, with Lia in the pocket, the line up front, the backs we’ve got,” Jones said. “I think the pass game could really open up for us.”

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Inexperienced safeties

The Terps lost both starting safeties from last season, Jordan Mosley and Nick Cross. Mosley had been a regular starter for three seasons, and Cross developed into a third-round NFL draft pick. Their absences left questions about the position group.

Dante Trader Jr., a sophomore and projected starter, talked to his coaches about how Mosley and Cross left big shoes to fill. Trader said his coaches told him: “Don’t even look at it like that. It’s a whole new team, a whole new feel. You’ve got to set another standard.” Trader appeared in 12 games last season and could play alongside Beau Brade, a junior who would also be a first-time starter.

“We feel like we’re the most underrated position group on the team,” Trader said. “And we love it. As we should be, because we don’t have the guys that have been playing all the time. … We’ve got a lot to prove this year. We just want to let them know we’re a bunch of dogs.”

Young running backs

Maryland needs to identify reliable running backs for this season and will mostly lean on a group of young players: sophomore Colby McDonald, redshirt freshman Roman Hemby, redshirt freshman Antwain Littleton II and freshman Ramon Brown. Challen Faamatau, a junior college transfer who earned a scholarship before last season, also could be an option.

Enos said the staff is excited about the young backs. Littleton, McDonald and Hemby flashed their potential in Maryland’s bowl game last year, each scoring a touchdown. But they’re still an untested group entering this season.

A new kicker

Chad Ryland will take over kicking duties for the Terps, filling the position previously held by Joseph Petrino for four seasons. Ryland, a four-year starter at Eastern Michigan, transferred to Maryland after setting the Eagles’ single-season record for points (104) in 2021. He kicked a career-long 55-yard field goal late in the season and soon after made the jump to a Power Five program, using an extra season of eligibility granted to athletes because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Deep down, every kid’s dream is to go as big as possible and make kicks on the biggest stage, which I’m obviously going to have a chance to do this year walking into Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin,” Ryland said. “I’m fired up about that, and that’s something that contributed to my choice to come here.”

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