By Alexander Dacy and Jacob Richman
Tayon Fleet-Davis and Fa’Najae Gotay met in the center of Maryland Stadium. After a year away from the annual tradition, the two faced off for the opening coin toss of Maryland football’s 2021 Red-White game. Fleet-Davis represented the offensive starters (White Team) and Gotay the first-string defenders (Red Team).
Coming off of an unusual but encouraging 2020 season, the Terps took the chance to show their talent at skill-positions and give a preview of how their young group of linemen have progressed during spring camp.
Here are four takeaways from the scrimmage, which the White Team won, 12-10:
Taulia Tagovailoa operated the backfield well, but struggled to finish drives
Entering his second season as the starter, Tagovailoa has been preparing to take his team to the next level. And, while he turned in an efficient performance, going 35-for-47 and throwing for 353 yards, his offense ground to a halt once it reached the red zone.
Maryland settled for four field goals and did not find the end zone once, as Tagovailoa went to the well a few too many times. He lofted several 50/50 balls in the corner of the end zone but overthrew his wideouts each time.
“Never been a ball completed out of bounds,” he said. “That’s something I’ve gotta work on. There was a little wind, little breeze so I’ve gotta learn how to handle all of those things.”
Tagovailoa did not receive much help from his surrounding talent, either, as the Terps committed four penalties of at least 10 yards in the red zone. His wideouts fumbled away promising drives twice, as Corey Dyches and Chig Okonkwo each had the ball knocked out by Jordan Mosley. Rakim Jarrett lost one on a botched punt return, too, wasting another shot for the starting offense to make some noise.
And the offensive line broke down several times as well. Tagovailoa was sacked four times, needing to scramble as red jerseys frequently closed in.
Still, Tagovailoa showed maturity leading his offense, completing 13 straight passes to start the second half. Even as drive after drive sputtered due to rushed plays, unforced errors or strong defensive play, Tagovailoa showed growth in his first spring game in College Park.
“Just playing penalty-free football and not Maryland beating Maryland,” Okonkwo said. “I feel like we all need to focus on the drops, holding the ball, all those little things.”
The starting offensive line was mostly overwhelmed by the front seven
After losing its two most senior offensive linemen in the offseason, Maryland was left with a physical yet inexperienced corps of talent in the trenches. In the weeks leading up to the spring game, coach Mike Locksley expressed concern that the group’s lack of depth and its limited time in game-like scenarios could lead to struggles.
Those growing pains were immediately evident Saturday.
On the White Team’s first drive, Tagovailoa scrambled out of the pocket and was hurried by Ruben Hyppolite into throwing a pass away. On third down, Lawtez Rogers broke past Johari Branch and Amelio Moran off the snap for a 12-yard sack, as Tagovailoa had no time to make a play.
“We got after the quarterback, we made some big plays when it counted,” Rogers said. “We held them to field goals, which I feel is really, really big. I feel like that can translate right over to the season. It shows the effort and determination that we play with as a defense.”
After that possession, the offense turned to a quick pass approach, nearly abandoning the run game and explosive plays altogether. Tagovailoa rarely took more than a three-step drop, and those rapid-fire strikes seemed to push his side down the field with greater ease.
That got the offensive line less involved so its weaknesses could be mitigated. Rogers finished with three sacks and won the Kris Jenkins Most Valuable Lineman Award, but with Tagovailoa looking downfield on nearly every play, the rest of the front seven spent more time in coverage.
Keeping the offensive line under as little pressure as possible will be critical for the Terps to operate a successful offense.
The receiving corps is deep and remains the biggest strength
Locksley has spent his first three seasons transforming Maryland’s receiving unit into one of the best in the nation. Returning their top four receiving options — Jarrett, Dontay Demus, Brian Cobbs and Jeshaun Jones — along with reintroducing Okonkwo, the offense offers plenty to be excited about come September.
And Tagovailoa knows he has options.
The All-Big Ten honorable mention spread the wealth throughout the game, finding eight unique receivers.
Tight ends Okonkwo and Dyches were efficient all day, combining for nine receptions and 120 yards. They were both targeted in the red zone early, with Okonkwo being the one to break the White Team inside the 10-yard line in the first quarter.
“They’re big guys, they’re very aggressive, they got speed,” Tagovailoa said. “They’re good whether we need them to block or run routes. I think it complements our offense with the stuff that we do.”
The Terps’ wide receivers each had their moments. Demus led the pack with 98 yards. Jarrett continued to be a workhorse for Maryland, fighting for every yard, particularly if the defense caught up with him on the outside.
Cobbs nearly had his crowning moment with a bullet from Tagovailoa that seemed to match his run in the end zone, but Deonte Banks was able to break it up at the last second. The senior would finish with 21 yards.
Running back Tayon Fleet-Davis was the one with the star moment on the receiving end, making an over-the-head, one-handed catch on a dump from Tagovailoa. He racked up 55 yards, making up for his struggles on the ground.
And though Jones was inactive due to a hamstring injury, he figures to be a big playmaker on the offense this season.
“It’s great when the defense has to worry about every single position,” Okonkwo said. “It’s just weapons all over the place.”
Jordan Mosley showed out
The senior defensive back made a statement, forcing two fumbles in the third quarter, one of which led to the only touchdown of the game. Running back Challen Faamatau took a 41-yard shot to Nick DeGennaro off a trick play, just after Mosley knocked the ball loose from Okonkwo.
In addition to the two force fumbles, Mosley led all players with eight tackles and two pass breakups.
For his success, Mosley won the game’s Stefon Diggs MVP Award.
“Jordan is a quiet leader for us, one of those guys that you don’t pay a lot of attention to him because he goes about his business the way he does and then he just shows up on the stat sheet,” Locksley said.