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Maryland's DJ Durkin Transforming Football Culture In College Park

September 15, 2017
After DJ Durkin was hired as head football coach at the University of Maryland Dec. 2, 2015, he quickly got to work immersing himself in the local football community, which included a school just south of College Park, Md., that produces some of the best talent in the area year in and year out.

Three seniors from the DeMatha Catholic High School football team in Hyattsville, Md., were already committed to the Terps at the time of Durkin's hiring: running back Lorenzo Harrison, defensive back Tino Ellis and wide receiver D.J. Turner. All three ended up staying on board, but Durkin wanted another Stag for his 2016 class: 6-foot-3, 300-plus-pound offensive guard Terrance Davis, one of the best players in the state and exactly the type of talented lineman Maryland needed in order to compete at the line of scrimmage in the Big Ten.

But it wasn't just the offensive line where the Terps needed immediate help, it was everywhere, given Maryland went 3-9 under Randy Edsall and interim head coach Mike Locksley in 2015. The Terps were set to face another difficult schedule in 2016 and likely in the years to follow. Recruiting at a high level, particularly locally, would be the key to winning in the Big Ten East. As such, Davis' recruitment was a key starting point.

Davis knew of Durkin from when he was being recruited by Michigan, where Durkin was the defensive coordinator before coming to Maryland. Davis was also recruited by Maryland's previous coaching staff and had the Terps among his top five schools before Durkin arrived. Soon, however, Maryland would be Davis' only school. Davis and his mother met with Durkin in his College Park office not long after the coach was hired.

"That was my first time meeting him face-to-face with a sit-down meeting, so his energy was the first time I ever got to experience it," Davis said. "And his vision for the program was unmatched. It was really inspiring and something that really led to my decision."

Durkin, according to Davis, talked about "mainly just making this your home; being that I'm from Maryland, making this a staple in college football. Getting a great education and basically just making it a movement of all the great guys from this area to just stay home and produce and make Maryland the staple in the Big Ten and win national championships."

Durkin was the main recruiter on Davis, but offensive coordinator Walt Bell, who was hired in December 2015, also chipped in. Davis said the "genuine care" Durkin and Bell have for their players was something he sensed "right off the bat." 

Davis committed to Maryland during the Under Armour All-America Game Jan. 2, 2016 and signed with the Terps the following month. 

Davis said he and his DeMatha teammates had long discussed teaming up at Maryland once Harrison, Davis' cousin, committed to the Terps in September 2014, and it eventually became a reality. For Durkin, Davis was not only an important commitment -- Davis started nine games at right guard as a freshman in 2016 -- but a harbinger of things to come the following year, when Durkin signed a 28-player recruiting class, 17 of whom were from Washington, D.C., Maryland or Virginia, including two from DeMatha.

"My vision is the team out there on that field competing for championships with a stadium full of people that have a vested interest in what's going on because they're their brother, their cousin, their aunt, their uncle, their grandmother or high school coach or friend of the players out there because this is our stadium, our community," Durkin said. "It's building a community here at the stadium and putting our area on the map nationally the way it's supposed to be. When we win a championship here with a large majority of our guys from here, it will finally validate our area for the talent we have the way it should be."

Building Connections

Daniel John Durkin, a 39-year-old Youngstown, Ohio, native, was a productive edge player for Bowling Green's defense from 1997-2000 and was a team captain for two of those seasons. He was a graduate assistant under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green from 2001-2002, held the same role at Notre Dame from 2003-2004 and returned to Bowling Green as a coach from 2005-2006.

Durkin then coordinated special teams and coached defensive ends under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007-2009. He was hired by Meyer in 2010 to coordinate special teams and coach linebackers at Florida, and he remained at the school after Meyer left, eventually becoming the defensive coordinator. Durkin was hired by Harbaugh to be Michigan's defensive coordinator in 2015.

Durkin inherited the Terps with a reputation as an excellent defensive mind -- his Florida and Michigan defenses ranked among the best in the nation -- and as an energetic recruiter; he was named Recruiter of the Year by Rivals.com in 2012. He needed both skills in taking over Maryland, which went 67-81 from 2004-2015 after a 31-8 mark from 2001-2003.

One of Durkin's first priorities was building on Maryland's 2016 recruiting class. Five-star linebacker Keandre Jones (Good Counsel) and four-star quarterback Dwayne Haskins (Bullis) both flipped to Ohio State, but other key recruits such as Harrison, Turner, Ellis and running back Jake Funk (Damascus) signed with Maryland. 

With just two months until signing day in February 2016, Durkin and his newly hired staff used their connections -- especially at high schools in the southeastern U.S. -- to fill out their recruiting class and give the Terps a much-needed injection of talent for the 2016 season. The staff secured commitments from defensive backs Antwaine Richardson, Qwuantrezz Knight and twins Elijah and Elisha Daniels, all of whom are from Florida. Other commits from that part of the country included quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome (Alabama), tight end Noah Barnes (Alabama) and linebacker Brett Shepherd (Georgia).

"Not only myself, but other guys on the staff have a lot of ties with people down there," Durkin said. "So you as a high school coach, you have young men in your program that, obviously, you really care about and you want to make sure they're well taken care of … if there's somebody you have a relationship with and you trust as a person and as a coach, you're naturally going to -- not maybe steer them in that direction -- but just say, 'Hey, listen, this might be a good place for you to look at. I know this guy there. He'll treat you well. You can tell mom and dad I know this person, they'll be in good hands.'"

Forming Relationships 

Not only does Durkin's staff have connections in the southeast, but they are also highly connected in Washington, Maryland and Virginia. The Terps' 2017 class included a number of high-profile prospects from area schools, including running back Anthony McFarland and offensive lineman Marcus Minor (both out of DeMatha), quarterback Kasim Hill and defensive lineman Cam Spence (both from St. John's in D.C.), cornerback Deon Jones (Potomac) and offensive lineman Jordan McNair (McDonogh).

"These guys were national players," said Adam Friedman, Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "Teams from coast to coast wanted these guys."

Durkin's staff is filled with coaches with local ties. Defensive backs coach Aazar Abdul-Rahim, a D.C. native, was the head coach at Friendship Collegiate Academy starting in 2004 and won 62 games there. Assistant head coach and wide receivers coach Chris Beatty, a native of Centreville, Va., was an assistant at Virginia in 2015 and West Virginia from 2008-2010. Linebackers coach Matt Barnes is a Frederick, Md., native and played football at Salisbury. Offensive line coach Tyler Bowen played football at Maryland and was the tight ends coach at Towson in 2013. 

"They're looking across the East Coast and a little bit of the South, but their bread and butter is establishing those relationships in the DMV," said Ahmed Ghafir, football recruiting beat writer for Inside Maryland Sports. "It's a hotbed. It's one of the best areas in the country, if not the best, when it comes to producing talent."

Forming relationships with prospects, according to Durkin, is "really, at the end of the day, what it's all about," though the approach to doing so is different with each athlete. Durkin said some prospects "crave the attention" and "if you're not hitting them up daily, then you know you've got no chance," while college coaches can hurt their chances with other prospects "by every day texting them or hitting them up, because they don't want to hear it." (There are no NCAA restrictions on texting after Sept. 1 of a prospect's junior year of high school.)

Still, the Terps have a number of advantages with local prospects. Prospects can visit College Park frequently since they live close by, and Durkin says "the more guys are here, I think the better opportunity we have to have them join our program." 

Issue 237: Maryland Terps Football: DJ Durkin (with Josh Woods)
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

McDonogh head coach Dom Damico -- who's been the Eagles' coach for 24 years and has coached players who went on to Maryland such as McNair, Josh Woods, Roman Braglio and Darrius Heyward-Bey -- pointed out another advantage.

"A lot of kids today are really connected to their parents and want to stay close, want to stay in-state so that their parents can get to all the games, so that they can keep a relationship with their family," he said.

DeMatha head coach Elijah Brooks said many times families forget they need to find a school that would be a good fit if football doesn't work out long-term. Brooks listed a school's locale, social life, diversity and graduation rate as areas that may be overlooked. For Davis, a business marketing major, the education offered at Maryland was a key reason he decided to stay home.

"The possibilities are endless," Davis said. "The limit is up to your work ethic and how hard you're willing to work in whatever major you choose to do. But they support whatever major we have. We have countless guys who are in engineering, business/finance, stuff like that. They don't neglect any hard major. They support it and it's only up to you to work hard and balance both, be good at both, because you have to receive good grades here."

Working With High School Coaches 

Now that Durkin and his staff have been in place for more than a year, they're fully a part of the local football scene, which is important because college coaches can't initiate contact with prospects until Sept. 1 of their junior year of high school, per NCAA rules. Before then, high school coaches are key intermediaries for allowing their prospects to connect with college coaches and help set up unofficial visits to college campuses.

"It's everything. It's their lifeline," Brooks said. "If you don't have great relationships with the high school coaches in your backyard, it'll be tough for you to get recruits. At the end of the day, this is a people business. If you burn a bridge with a high school coach, you never know how it'll have a trickle-down effect.

"You have schools who really don't take the time to truly get to know a high school coach. They'll drop in and they're collecting information or they're recruiting a kid, and they don't realize that the head coaches and the coaching staffs, they play an integral part in the recruiting process."

Good Counsel head coach Andy Stefanelli said schools start evaluating his Division I prospects by the end of their freshman year of high school. Brooks quipped that "it sounds crazy that you have to begin recruiting a kid as a freshman," but "if you don't get in early, then you might not have a chance." Durkin noted Maryland hosts summer camps in part to get to know younger players. 

Durkin said he and his staff begin breaking down a particular recruiting class by evaluating "thousands" of prospects on film, which Durkin noted is particularly useful in helping coaches become better evaluators and helps with comparing prospects to one another. Durkin said the Terps use Hudl, a tool programs use to view prospects' game film.

Durkin said once Maryland's pool of prospects has dwindled down to "a list of guys you feel can do it on the field," he and his staff trim lists based on other important factors, such as what grades those prospects are earning in school, before extending scholarship offers.

Brooks, Stefanelli and Damico described the "evaluation period" from the middle of April to the end of May -- during which college coaches can visit a prospect's high school -- as particularly important in this process. Assistant coaches, but not the head coach, can meet with a prospect's high school coach, check out a prospect's spring workout and get a feel for their academic situation.

"Sometimes the kids are in the weight room and sometimes the kids are walking by in the hallway, so they get a chance to actually just lay their eyeballs on the kid," Damico said.

Stefanelli said he met with coaches from 120 schools during the period this year; Damico said he saw coaches from more than 100 schools; and Brooks said he sees up to 25 to 30 coaches per day during this period. 

For Maryland, the challenge is standing out from the pack.

"I think once [winning] occurs or if it continues to occur, I think [recruiting is] going to just continue to grow," said Stefanelli, whose son, Andrew, was a fullback for the Terps from 2013-2016. "I think kids will say, 'Hey, I can literally get everything I want in College Park. I can get the great facilities, great staff, big-time college football, and I'm a half an hour, 40 minutes from home. Why go anywhere else?' I think that's where it's headed."

Moving The Needle 

Maryland's 2017 class, its best since the mid-2000s, was rated 18th nationally by 24/7 Sports' composite rankings, and the Terps appear set for a similarly solid class in 2018. Maryland's 2017 class was a leap in the right direction -- the Terps ranked 47th in 2015 under Edsall -- but the Big Ten East remains one of the most unforgiving divisions in the country. 

Ohio State went 61-6 under Meyer from 2011-2016 and won the national championship to close out the 2014 season. Michigan went 20-6 under Harbaugh from 2015-2016. Meyer and Harbaugh are considered two of the best recruiters in the nation; Ohio State's 2017 recruiting class was rated second nationally, and Michigan was fifth. Penn State is coming on strong, too; the Nittany Lions won the conference in 2016 and are on track to sign one of the best recruiting classes in the nation in 2018.

But Durkin may just be the right leader for the arduous task the Terps face of competing at a high level in the Big Ten East.

"I keep telling people if this Maryland staff can't get it done, it's not going to get done at Maryland," Ghafir said. "[The Terps lost] 62-3 against Ohio State last year at home … afterwards, I spoke to a [recruit's] father who was at the game and he said as soon as the game was over, one of the [Terps'] coaches was talking to the [recruits], and [the recruits] said, even after a butt-kicking like that, they believed that this program was going to turn it around."

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Issue 237: September 2017