Mike Locksley believes Maryland football is ready to compete for Big Ten titles. His players agree.

COLLEGE PARK — In 2010, LeBron James had The Decision. This summer, Maryland football has The Declaration.
Since Thursday, when Mike Locksley proclaimed during Big Ten media day that the Terps can contend for a conference title, the coach’s comment has antagonized some corners of the college football community and galvanized others.
“Our program is at a point finally where we can say we’re here to compete for Big Ten championships,” Locksley said in Indianapolis at the time. “You haven’t heard me say that in the previous four times I’ve been in front of you guys, but I think now is the time. But we’re not going to let goals like winning championships get in the way of doing the work, and our players understand that.”
Seven days later, Locksley acknowledged the firestorm he set when he elevated his program into an echelon usually occupied by Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
“It seems to me a lot’s been said about the declaration that we’re ready to compete for Big Ten championships,” he said Wednesday morning a few hours before the team’s opening practice of the preseason. “For the last three or four years, I’ve had a ton of players come to me and say, ‘Coach, we want to talk about championships.’ I said, ‘Until we can worry about taking care of the things we can control, we can’t talk about championships.’ Well, with the player-driven culture that we’ve been trying to instill, I think now it’s shown itself to me.”
Among his players, Locksley’s audacity was welcomed with open arms.
“I think that was the mindset this whole time,” said redshirt senior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who was offered $1.5 million in name, image and likeness deals to transfer to an unnamed Southeastern Conference school, according to The Athletic. “I felt like I wasn’t going to leave this place until my feet were touching the turf in Indianapolis [the site of the Big Ten title game]. That was the whole plan this whole time. I’m happy that in my fifth year of college and fourth year here, we’re ready to do it.”
Maryland football coach Mike Locksley said he waited to declare the Terps ready to compete for Big Ten championships until he saw the players invest in a culture he has sought to grow since taking over the program before the 2019 season.
Maryland football coach Mike Locksley said he waited to declare the Terps ready to compete for Big Ten championships until he saw the players invest in a culture he has sought to grow since taking over the program before the 2019 season. (Darron Cummings/AP)
“I was more than OK with that,” senior cornerback Tarheeb Still added. “I feel as though we are [contenders]. Now we understand what we’ve got to do to get over the hump. We’re this close, but they say that’s the hardest part. I feel like guys are embracing it. It’s a player-led culture. So everything is here.”
History might not be on the Terps’ side. They last won a league crown in 2001 when they were a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference under Ralph Friedgen. And their best finish in the Big Ten since joining the conference was a third-place showing in the East Division in 2014 – the school’s debut.
This year’s squad returns only one starter to an offensive line that surrendered 43 sacks last fall and zero starters on the front end of its 4-3 defensive alignment. And gone are cornerbacks Deonte Banks and Jakorian Bennett, who were drafted in the spring by the New York Giants (first round, No. 24 overall) and the Las Vegas Raiders (third round, No. 104), respectively.
Then again, Tagovailoa, who has already set the program’s all-time records in passing yards (7,879), touchdown passes (51), and completion percentage (.674), was the first Terp to be named last week to the Big Ten preseason honors list. Redshirt sophomore running back Roman Hemby is back after ranking in the top six in the league in both touchdown runs (10) and yards per carry (5.3). Maryland is also riding back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 2013-14, and Locksley’s overall record over that span is 15-11.
Locksley said he waited to make his belief public until he saw the players invest in a culture he has sought to grow since taking over the program before the 2019 season.
“I saw our team take the new guys in our program and kind of say, ‘This is how we do things around here. You do it this way or you’re not going to be around,’” he said. “To me, when you start seeing that type of leadership in the locker room, the football part will be easy. We’ve got a great coaching staff that will get these guys in the best possible position to make plays. The thing we need to see to compete for championships is the right kinds of habits and behaviors, and those are the things that lead me to say what I said at the Big Ten media day.”
Hemby said Locksley’s faith in the players carried a lot of weight with them.
“We feel like being in talks of a Big Ten championship is pretty much just giving everyone else notice that that’s what we’re striving for,” the Edgewood resident and John Carroll graduate said. “We put realistic goals out there, and we feel like it’s a realistic goal for us. Moving forward, we’re going to act accordingly.”
To contend for a title, the Terps must hang with the conference’s traditional powerhouses of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, which have combined to capture eight of the last nine championships in 2014. Against that triumvirate, Maryland is a combined 3-22 with eight consecutive losses to the Buckeyes.
Last fall, the Terps dropped one-score games to Michigan and Purdue, fell to Ohio State by 13 points and absorbed an embarrassing 30-0 shutout by Penn State. Senior middle linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II said he and his teammates have to overcome the mental hurdles of facing the Big Ten elite.
“I think how we challenge them is mentally — how we approach the game, how we prepare and how we perform on the field,” he said. “Good teams like that, they don’t beat themselves. So if we’re going to call ourselves a good team, we can’t beat ourselves.”
Locksley said the program is in line with his five-year plan for Maryland. He also acknowledged whether the team can carry out the rest of his vision remains to be seen.
“There’s no doubt I feel like we’re a program that’s on track with where I wanted us to be,” he said. “But it sounds good in an air-conditioned room on Aug. 2. The next 30 days will give us a chance to see.”

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