As University of Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson stepped to the podium Dec. 3 to introduce DJ Durkin as Maryland's new head football coach, he did so with the football team having just completed a 3-9 season. The 2015 campaign capped a rocky tenure for former head coach Randy Edsall, who was fired midseason and won just 22 games in nearly five years as fan interest waned.
Anderson knew he had to inject life into the program. He rattled off what Maryland was looking for, and he found it in the former Michigan defensive coordinator.
"The qualities included having a strong and dynamic leader with a great energy for our program, an innovative football mind, being engaging and having a great personality that would appeal to our fan base and to our donors and to our alumni," Anderson said Dec. 3. "We wanted someone with a strong background that had a great, winning pedigree, and we wanted somebody who was going to be a national and great recruiter."
So far, Durkin has displayed exactly those qualities, albeit before a game has been played. The Terps rank 15th nationally on Rivals.com's recruiting rankings for 2017. Durkin and his staff have made inroads securing local talent, something that's yielded mixed results for coaching staffs in the past.
Durkin's energy appears to be infectious, and it's rubbing off on fans in addition to recruits. Empty swaths of bleachers at Maryland Stadium became too common in recent years. Jeff Ermann, the publisher of InsideMDSports.com, a popular hub for conversation among Maryland fans, said toward the end of Edsall's tenure fans had become "mostly apathetic, which is actually worse than angry."
The tenor of fans, however, has changed given the start Durkin's gotten off to in recruiting, in addition to the positive vibe he gives off whenever he talks about the program.
"With Durkin, it's hard to imagine people being any more positive and happy about the decision [of] who they hired. People are very optimistic," Ermann said. "They'd obviously love to see a winning record and a bowl game, but more than anything, they're just rejuvenated by [Durkin's] energy and the energy in the program and the staff that he's built. They're off to their best recruiting start in probably a decade right now."
'Flipped Their World Upside Down'
Fans, though, are ultimately won back by winning games, and Durkin gets his first shot at that Sept. 3 when the Terps take on Howard University in College Park, Md., to kick off the season. Though Durkin inherits a three-win team, the Terps aren't without talented players to build the program.
"Part of this transition, this process with our players, we've kind of flipped their world upside down and doing a lot of things differently ... and I think they've done a tremendous job of responding," Durkin said of his players at Big Ten Media Day July 26. "We've had a tremendous amount of feedback from our players and just how they've responded and done well, it's a lot to be excited about for us."
Leading rusher Brandon Ross graduated, but senior Wes Brown (317 yards rushing in 2015) and sophomore Ty Johnson (250 yards) return at running back. The team's leading receivers from 2015 return in senior Levern Jacobs (35 catches for 425 yards), sophomore D.J. Moore (25 for 357) and junior Taivon Jacobs (21 for 264).
Senior left tackle Michael Dunn, who has 37 starts on his resume, leads a talented offensive line with the likes of former well-regarded recruits Derwin Gray and Damian Prince, both sophomores, and redshirt freshman Quarvez Boulware. Gray, Prince and Boulware are all from Washington, D.C.
On the defensive side of the ball, senior cornerback William Likely and junior linebacker Jermaine Carter (103 tackles, including 14 for loss) lead the way. Junior linebacker Jalen Brooks (64 tackles last year), junior lineman Jesse Aniebonam (3.5 sacks) and senior lineman Roman Braglio (three sacks) also return.
Likely, a 5-foot-7 playmaker, was used in all three phases of the game last year. Likely defended 11 passes, made 44 tackles, returned a kick for a touchdown, returned two punts for scores, caught five passes and rushed for 93 yards. Likely will have a chance to impact all three phases once again, according to Durkin.
"[Likely is] a dynamic guy. I know from coaching the other sideline against Will, one of my biggest concerns or worries was when he had the ball in his hands," Durkin said. "So we definitely want to take advantage of that and use him to the best of our team's ability as much as we can."
The Terps, of course, will have to address the quarterback position. Maryland's two returning passers, seniors Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe, combined for 28 interceptions last year. Hills completed 50 percent of his passes; Rowe, 46.1 percent. Hills, however, was Maryland's second-leading rusher, toting the ball 109 times for 535 yards.
Hills and Rowe will be joined in the competition this summer by freshmen Tyrrell Pigrome, a 5-foot-11 dual-threat signal-caller out of Alabama, and Max Bortenschlager, a 6-foot-3 pocket passer from Indiana. They'll also be joined by redshirt freshman Gage Shaffer, a 6-foot-7 passer out of West Virginia who was part of Edsall's 2015 recruiting class.
For whoever wins the job, the top priority will be limiting turnovers after last year, when opponents scored 108 points off Maryland turnovers.
'They're Recruiting A Lot Of Highly Rated And Super Talented Kids'
Pigrome and Bortenschlager won't be the only freshmen to have a chance to compete for spots. The Terps, according to Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Analyst Adam Friedman, have a few other skill position players in the 2016 recruiting class who could make an impact this year, including three DeMatha standouts -- wide receivers Tino Ellis and DJ Turner and running back Lorenzo Harrison -- as well as running back Jake Funk (Damascus) as a special teamer.
J.C. Jackson is another newcomer to keep an eye on. Jackson signed with Florida in January 2014 but left the program last year amid legal troubles, played JUCO ball in 2015, and recently transferred to Maryland. Jackson figures to compete for time at cornerback. Meanwhile, Friedman sees offensive linemen Terrance Davis, Richard Merritt and Brian Plummer as players from the 2016 recruiting class who can be potential contributors in future years.
Durkin's staff didn't have much time to make their mark on the Terps' 2016 recruiting class, securing the 39th-rated class in the nation, according to Rivals.com. Durkin's staff, though, quickly got to work on the 2017 class, making a big impact in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Friedman sees Durkin's hires of Mike London, Aazaar Abdul-Rahim and Chris Beatty, among others, as vital to the Terps' early success in their own backyard.
"That's a credit to not only Coach Durkin and his excitement level and his ability to relate to these guys, but also the staff that he's put together," Friedman said. "All of these guys, for the most part, have deep roots in the DMV, in the Virginia Beach area, where they're doing some of their best work right now. I think that's really part of something that was lacking on the part of the previous staff."
Friedman views quarterback Kasim Hill (St. John's College High), linebacker Ayinde Eley (Good Counsel), defensive back Deon Jones (Potomac High) as huge local commits secured for the 2017 class, but Friedman says the "crown jewel" of the recruiting class is Josh Kaindoh, the seventh-rated player nationally on Rivals.com. A defensive end out of IMG Academy in Florida, Kaindoh is from the Baltimore area and previously played at Mount Carmel.
And more top-end talent could be on the way.
"This season and the record, I don't necessarily think that a lot of recruits will be scared," Friedman said. "If they don't make a bowl game, I don't necessarily think that it'll stymie the recruiting momentum that they've built. It's more about what the players see on the field in terms of the new schemes and what kind of position it puts players in to succeed, because they're recruiting a lot of highly rated and super talented kids that, if given the opportunity once they get on campus, could see playing time very early."