Throughout the to-play or not-to-play nature of this offseason, the uncertainty of the situation — and the concern whether they’d ever make it here, approaching a football game once more — bore down on Jake Funk.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic spread and disrupted everyday life in America, the Maryland running back watched it disrupt the upcoming Big Ten season, too. Spring practices were canceled. All fall sport seasons were postponed in August. But then on Sept. 16, a breakthrough: The Big Ten season would occur after all, with a modified eight-game conference format.
“The whole thing was just a big mess,” Funk said.
As the Terrapins approach their first action in about 11 months when they face Northwestern on Saturday, there’s an outpouring of excitement. Players are eager to get back on the field, to hit an opponent, to experience some semblance of normalcy.
But so much of that hinges on the collective responsibility of 100-some college-aged athletes — and perhaps a bit of luck — to get through an exceedingly unique season full of safety protocols as well as stiff competition.
“If we want to play this game, and guys are committed to this game, and guys are committed to this season, you have to do these things,” Funk said. “You have to make the sacrifices. And telling guys we’re all sacrificing together. Everybody wishes they could go do what they want on a Saturday night some time, but ultimately, staying in bed and watching Netflix might be the best option nowadays.”
When Maryland last played a game — a 19-16 loss to Michigan State on Nov. 30, 2019 — coach Mike Locksley walked off the field encouraged by what he saw. Now, all this time later, Locksley feels that progress hasn’t been curtailed despite the unusual offseason.
There’s been a pandemic. Social injustice has persisted. The season was canceled, then reinstated. And the Terrapins welcomed more than 50 newcomers to the squad, a mix of freshmen and transfers.
Locksley’s just glad to continue to see the fight he saw toward the end of a 3-9 campaign remain through all of that. Still, even with Saturday’s season opener barreling closer, he knows his team isn’t out of the woods yet.
“I’m still cautiously optimistic. Every day, you hear about a coach that tests positive, or players that test positive, and then some of them are false positives,” Locksley said. “I’m still on, like I said, pins and needles that we can … get on the road, and then obviously the test on game day is going to be really important.”
Maryland’s success was derailed at times last season because of a lack of discipline, be that coming in the form of drive-stalling penalties or costly turnovers. That’s just as important this year, with a young quarterback under center and a defensive front with plenty of new faces.
One lapse in judgment off the field could also unravel the momentum that’s been built.
“You have to know what the right things to do [are] off the field, you have to separate yourself,” linebacker Fa’Najae Gotay said. “You can’t go to parties. You just have to do the right things off the field so that we have this opportunity to play.”
There are so many questions for how the Terrapins will play now that they can finally take the field.
Can Maryland’s offense capture the explosive nature it flashed at points last season despite running backs Anthony McFarland and Javon Leake heading to the NFL? Can its defense defend against the pass?
But there are nearly as many questions circulating off the field, and it’s those the success of the season may rest on.
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