Four position battles to watch during Maryland football’s fall camp

After reporting back to campus on Monday, Maryland football will kick off its first practice on Tuesday afternoon as head coach Mike Locksley leads a veteran team into the 2023 season.

Maryland benefits from experience on both sides of the ball, whether that comes from key returning pieces or the transfer portal. Taulia Tagovailoa is back under center for his fourth season as the starting quarterback, and he’ll do so with a running back room returning all four contributors from a season ago while adding freshman Nolan Ray. The receiver room battled through attrition, but with Jeshaun Jones joining Kaden Prather and Tyrese Chambers as vets in the room, the weapons at Tagovailoa’s disposal gives Maryland confidence in its aerial attack.

The defensive line will need to replace all three starters, while the offensive line will look ahead to camp to iron out its starting five with at least three spots likely locked in. The linebacker room, meanwhile, exudes experience with versatile second-year linebacker Jaishawn Barham leading the way. With Tarheeb Still back in the secondary with Dante Trader and Beau Brade anchoring the backline, former Cincinnati cornerback Ja’Quan Sheppard gives the room another experienced starter. While the 15 practices ahead of the Sept. 2 opener against Towson will give the staff a chance to iron out its two-deep, what are the biggest position battles left to solve? We take a dive at what to watch.

Ironing out interior OL

Former All-Big Ten selection DJ Glaze returns as the lone starter likely slotted to replace Jaelyn Duncan at left tackle, while former Frostburg tackle Gottlieb Ayedze anchors the right side. Arguably Maryland’s biggest portal coup this offseason was flipping Corey Bullock from Cincinnati where he fills Spencer Anderson’s void at right guard. The latest addition in the portal was Mike Purcell, a former center at Elon who initially transferred to Duke before landing in College Park this summer. Purcell started 22 games in 33 appearances and after starting all 12 games at center at Elon last season, he joins the program with a chance to edge veteran Aric Harris as the starting center.

The biggest battle, though, remains left guard as Amelio Moran and Kyle Long remain the primary candidates to become the fifth and final starter.

Offensive line coach Brian Braswell will have 15 practices to not only identity his starting unit but build chemistry among them while a potentially new quarterback-center exchange adds to that complexity. Maryland’s offensive line struggled with consistency a season ago while allowing 43 sacks, the most in the Big Ten. Maryland’s offensive line is arguably its biggest question mark heading into the season and if the new unit can hit its stride into Big Ten play, the offense has a chance to create the explosive plays that Locksley and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis are looking for.

Finding second TE 

There’s little doubt that the Terps have enough complementary weapons at wideout to trot out three or four receiver sets to maintain a dynamic passing attack, but the emergence of Corey Dyches over the last two seasons makes him the alpha in a tight end room featuring a lot of juice. Dyches will get a chance to show off his improved blocking as he puts together his NFL resume heading into 2024, but his strength is clear as a receiving threat, whether across the middle, a redzone threat or in traffic.

Behind Dyches? That’s what camp can help separate. Second-year tight end Preston Howard has always shown the athleticism that translates to the Power Five level, but the former tight end-turned-quarterback has spent the last year transitioning into a Big Ten tight end as the McDonogh product flashed that in the spring game before earning the Most Improved Freshman Award. His added size gives Maryland another option in the passing game, while early enrollee Rico Walker has drawn praise for his transition as a big-bodied tight end.

Leron Husbands may not have the game experience but enters his third season with the program while freshmen AJ Syzmanski and Dylan Wade go through their first round of college practice. Can the unit find its blocking tight end? Will Maryland opt for a sixth lineman to fill the void? Maryland has done anything but shied away from the tight ends under Locksley, frequently trotting out the two tight end sets, but the unit will need one of its underclassmen to step up with the trenches under the microscope.

Replenishing the DL 

While Maryland loses all three starters from last season, the combo of Jordan Phillips and Tommy Akingbesote give the defensive line firepower while Taizse Johnson and former Angelo State lineman Tre Colbert gives the interior room the experience necessary in the rotation for Big Ten play. Maryland also added former Pennsylvania nose tackle Lavon Johnson and there’s confidence in the pressure the Terps can generate pressure against the pass, but arguably the biggest question on defense is whether the Terps can do so consistently.

Former Florida State defensive end Quashon Fuller now enters year two after appearing in all but three games last season and he’ll get first nod at filling Durell Nchami’s role from last season. Daniel Owens has added noticeable mass to his 6-foot-2 frame as he works on maintaining his athleticism to factor into the rotation, while freshmen DJ Samuels and Dillan Fontus give the room young pieces to rotate.

There are pieces to like along the defensive side of the ball, especially inside, as Maryland has a chance to be more dominant in the front seven than last season. Camp will give Maryland a chance to see who the final piece to the puzzle can be.

Who will the third CB be? 

Along with returning its starting safety tandem, Still’s return alongside Ja’Quan Sheppard’s return gives the Terps’ defensive backs confidence that they can build off last season’s success. But Still found the bulk of his snaps as a nickel corner with Maryland also flashing a 3-3-5 through conference play last fall, and with Still a perfect candidate to take over the nickel with Glen Miller providing experienced depth, Maryland will look in-house with its next wave of cornerbacks ascending through the ranks.

Second-year corners Gavin Gibson and Lionell Whitaker have both found themselves drawing praise heading into 2023, first Gibson after stepping in during the 2022 season while Whitaker was named most improved freshman on defense. Perry Fisher also enters his second season with the program and after transitioning from wide receiver to cornerback, the speedy Florida native has dialed into his technique to find himself a bigger role this fall.

Aside from Still and Shepard, it’s Corey Coley who has the most experience after starting in four games in 22 appearances over the last two seasons. Could Coley’s experience win out, or will Gibson and Whitaker’s continued ascension put them in line for impact roles in year two? Maryland has two dependable options in Still and Whitaker, but the upcoming practices and will give cornerbacks coach Henry Baker a chance to assess as they battle against a versatile receiver room.

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