Through the first two games of Maryland football’s season, Taulia Tagovailoa hasn’t been pressured all too much.
But those few times the No. 1 quarterback has seen an opposing defender barreling toward him with nary a blocker in sight, Tagovailoa looks to Chig Okonkwo.
The tight end has already shone in the opening two contests of the Terps’ 2021 campaign, despite not taking the field in 2020. And that’s most evident when Maryland is driving down the field.
“In the red zone, he’s a big threat. He can do it all,” Tagovailoa said. “Any one-on-one matchups, I take him over anyone.”
Okonkwo has only four catches this year. But two were touchdowns, and both of them came on plays where Tagovailoa was pressured.
Against Howard, the Terps were down to the two-yard line with a chance to score their third touchdown in four drives. Okonkwo launched off the line of scrimmage, shirking a spot on the offensive line to find himself open toward the back of the end zone.
One less body on the line meant an opportunity for a Bison defender to rush Tagovailoa — but he didn’t flinch.
Off his back foot, Tagovailoa heaved a throw, perfectly placed for Okonkwo in the end zone.
“Our offensive unit is a pretty tight-knit group,” coach Mike Locksley said. “A lot of it is due to the fact that Taulia has really played a role in creating that chemistry that’s necessary. It was a big-time throw by him and a big-time catch by Chig.”
Locksley said Okonkwo had been operating on Saturday “nicked up,” so the coaches were cautious with his usage. But that didn’t stop him from making an impact play.
Rewind one week.
In the opening quarter of Maryland’s season-opener with West Virginia, the offense was powering its way toward the end zone, and Locksley dialed up a screen just for Okonkwo.
With four Mountaineers standing between Tagovailoa and his protection, the junior calmly floated a ball to the outstretched hands of his tight end. Okonkwo took it the rest of the way with almost the entire offensive line blocking downfield.
And that’s just the mentality Okonkwo has when he’s in the red zone.
“Score,” Okonkwo said. “If I get the ball, I have to score.”
With Tagovailoa adding much-needed quarterback consistency, the Terps have enjoyed strong offensive showings so far.
For Okonkwo and Tagovailoa, it all starts in practice.
“Building that trust between you and your quarterback, having him trust you to be able to make plays and want to throw you the ball [is key],” Okonkwo said.
Tagovailoa said they develop that connection and faith between one another in practice. From there, it’s just about replicating that on the field.
Okonkwo and Tagovailoa have had a great start to their partnership, sitting a perfect four catches on four targets for 22 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“He’s a matchup problem,” Locksley said. “He’s a guy that we’re going to continue to try and find ways to get him the ball.”
And Locksley has no reservations about Okonkwo’s role getting larger as Maryland’s season proceeds.
After just two performances, it looks as though his senior year will come as an affront to any who doubted Okonkwo’s ability to make a triumphant return to the Terps.
“As we continue to get through the season, you’ll see more and more what Chig’s skillset is, as he’ll be a major playmaker for us in our system,” Locksley said.