COLLEGE PARK, Md. – After grabbing 81 combined balls the last two years and establishing himself as a go-to guy for quarterback Perry Hills heading into his final college season, receiver Levern Jacobs was an assumed starter this fall. The Terps had one other mainstay in D.J. Moore, but the rest of the unit consisted of unproven commodities.
But then training camp began and new head coach D.J. Durkin emphasized that each spot, regardless of who manned it previously or how productive they were in the past, was up for grabs. Jacobs, for his part, was someone Durkin routinely challenged during the summer, pushing the senior to live up to his talent and give even more.
The District Heights, Md., native evidently didn’t do enough, because his name wasn’t on the two-deep heading into Week 1.
“The thing about Coach Durkin is we always compete. Nothing is given. He makes you work each week for your spot. No one is guaranteed a starting spot. He brings that intensity each and every week,” Jacobs said. “But him getting on me just made me a better player…My mom always told me, ‘You start worrying when they stop talking to you (laughs).’”
Jacobs ended up catching just one pass through four games, but the lack of production undermined what he was doing in practice. The senior, with a renewed emphasis on details and blocking, worked his way up the depth chart, eventually reemerging as a starter in Week 5 against Penn State.
“In the past, if you look at his tape, he’s a very talented guy, but he didn’t always play with that type of effort and determination,” Durkin said. “So it’s really something we’ve addressed and continued to stay on him about all the way until right now. And it will continue, because it’s a fun thing to see him develop.”
Jacobs recorded two catches against PSU, but it was the Oct. 15 match against Minnesota when he truly made his presence known. The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder racked up a career-high 10 receptions for 82 yards, in effect becoming a security blanket for freshman quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome. It was the most catches for a UMD wideout since Stefon Diggs hauled in 10 balls in 2014.
“It’s nothing really to celebrate,” Jacobs deadpanned, noting the effort came during a Maryland loss. “There’s nothing really good to take away from that game.
“Coach Durkin, even when we lose, he makes it a point to pick out the guys that had decent games. But I’m kind of tough on myself. When I watch the film, there’s a lot of mental errors I had in the game. Even if [Durkin] doesn’t want to be tough on me, I’m tough on myself. I might have had a lot of catches, but I missed a lot of key blocks that could have opened up a bunch of big run plays. It’s definitely something I can build on.”
Yes, blocking has been drilled into the wideouts’ brains this year. Each receiver who has addressed the media has broached the subject, to the point where their sound bites sound more like those of offensive linemen.
“He’s really done a good job blocking the perimeter and giving extra effort down the field for us pretty much all year,” Durkin said of Jacobs. “That is something our staff has challenged Levern to do.”
“I just think I took my game to a knew level with my blocking. People know I can catch the ball, but getting down and dirty and blocking, that’s something I’ve brought to my game this year. Every week we do the perimeter drills, with DBs and receivers blocking. And I think we have some of the strongest DBs, and in the game it makes it a lot easier. So that helps.”
Jacobs’ key seal came during the 43-point blowout victory against Purdue. He took out a Boilermakers’ corner 16 yards downfield as running back Ty Johnson hit edge, the block springing the Terps’ speedster for a long touchdown.
That play, more than any catch he’s had this year, sticks in Jacobs’ mind.
“It’s kind of fun to get a block and see your guy running downfield,” he said. “I just get excited when I [block] now. It’s pretty cool and exciting.”
Couple that improved skill with a double-digit reception outing, and Jacobs, in effect, has some swagger back.
Even if he won’t admit it.
“You can see the confidence in him when he walks around,” Durkin said. “You know when you’re giving good effort and helping your team. You carry yourself a certain way, and you also know it when you’re not. He’s doing that [helping the team] right now, and we certainly need him to continue that.
“I was proud of him. He made some plays throughout the [Minnesota] game and gave us some chances, and we’ll continue to use him that way.”
Now, it’s up to Jacobs to consistently bring the effort each and every week. The Terps are on a two-game skid, have a reeling but still dangerous Michigan State team coming up Oct. 22, and still must face the Big Ten’s elite during the latter half of the season.
“It only gets tougher from here on out, and the guys know that,” said Jacobs, who made sure to mention the difference between the starters and backups is next to nil in terms of repetitions. “We work our butts off now, but the only thing we can do now is be better in the film room, prepare even more and prepare even better.”