Neal Brown landed in Morgantown in January of 2019, inheriting a program that was set to lose some of its biggest stars in several seasons. From his recruiting, to his staff, even to the team’s uniforms and branding — Brown was forced to start from scratch at West Virginia after a successful stint at Troy.
A month before Brown joined the Mountaineers, Maryland athletic director Damon Evans unveiled Mike Locksley as the Terrapins’ new head football coach. Like his Mountaineer counterpart, Locksley saw plenty of highs at his previous stop, Alabama, including a national championship in 2017 and a Broyles Award nod in 2018, which goes to the nation’s top assistant in college football. Also like Brown, he’d have to start from square one in College Park.
The two head coaches will embark their respective third seasons against one another at Maryland Stadium on Saturday as they settle in to their programs after a trying two years.
The Terrapins enter 2021 in their most stable form since Locksley re-joined the program. 86 percent of their offensive production from 2020 is back for the upcoming campaign, and spearheaded by quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, a second-year starter.
“There’s definitely a steadying force for us to have a returning starter at quarterback,” Locksley said in his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “That’s not been a luxury, at least during my 13 years here with that position, to be able to come back and have a returning starter healthy, no questions about it.”
Tagovailoa (the brother of Tua Tagovailoa, the current QB for the Miami Dolphins and Locksley’s former signal caller at Alabama) started four of the Terps’ five games, but missed the season finale with COVID-19. He led Maryland to a 2-2 record, averaging 263.8 yards of offense per game in that span.
Maryland did, however, welcome two new coordinators to their staff — Dan Enos on offense and Brian Stewart on defense. While there are plenty of familiar players showing up on last year’s film, it’s difficult to predict how exactly they will line up, especially with such a small sample size — so Brown says WVU has to simply use their best guesses on what they’ll see from the Terps.
“They have one of the highest return rates precentage-wise, but there’s not a whole lot to go on,” Brown said. “They only played five games a year ago, and…they have new coordinators.”
Here’s a look at the rest of the Terps’ squad:
Take two for the Maryland offense
Experience is a priceless commodity in college football, and it’s one the Terrapins have plenty of on offense. Wide receivers Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett are the focal points of the passing game, bringing an average of 136 receiving yards per game back to the team for 2021.
As WVU’s Brown notes, though, with so many returners, there are plenty of Terrapins that WVU’s defense has to watch out for.
“There are probably four to six quality guys there at the receiver position, it starts for them at receiver with Demus and Jarrett, I think those guys are NFL players, explosive,” he said. “It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
Running back Jake Funk was the biggest loss on offense for the Terps after getting drafted by the Los Angeles Rams this past spring. Peny Boone and Isaiah Jacobs were the two backs behind him in 2020, combining for 36.75 yards per game a year ago as they each got 19 carries on the season. With Boone at 245 pounds and Jacobs at 221, they will provide a unique tackling challenge for WVU’s defenders.
“Mo” returners on defense
There is plenty more experience on the other side of the ball at all three levels, despite losing linebacker Chance Campbell, the team’s leading tackler a season ago.
Regardless, much of the tackling leg work came from the secondary. Three of the Terrapins’ top defensive backs will be back, including Nick Cross and Kenny Bennett, who grabbed the team’s only two interceptions last year. Safety Jordan Mosley is also back for his senior year as the team’s second-leading tackler — a testament to that unit’s ability to play physical defense.
That will be another test for Brown and offensive coordinator Gerad Parker as they attempt to attack the Terps’ primarily man-to-man pass defense.
“They’re coached well, they’ve got good instincts…they play the ball really well, they’re aggressive, they’re willing tacklers, they do a great job in coverage being able to collision and get on you and match routes in their man coverage, they do a good job disguising things,” Parker said. “They do a really good job, they should feel good about that position, I know it’s something we’ve talked about. It’s going to be a good challenge for our guys on the perimeter.”
Maryland brings size in the trenches, led by Mosiah “Mo” Nasili-Kite, who led the Big Ten in sacks per game with 0.8. He’s flanked with talent on the edge, namely junior Durell Nchami, who notched a pair of sacks in the season finale against Rutgers.