COLLEGE PARK, Md. – If we learned one thing about Maryland coach D.J. Durkin Feb. 3, it was that the man knows how to run a hurry-up offense.
As late as two weeks ago, Durkin’s Terps’ had nine recruits committed and things didn’t look particularly good with blue chip commits like quarterback Dwayne Haskins and linebacker Keandre Jones, among others, opting to matriculate elsewhere.
But Durkin and his staff pulled off some late miracles and the fresh-faced coach announced a class of 23 new players joining the Maryland program for 2016, including three new four-star recruits.
“I’ve been on several staffs where guys come in December, January, you’re kind of catching the tail end of a recruiting class and it’s always difficult,” said Durkin at the Gossett Team House podium, his voice hoarse from a morning workout with his returning players in the weight room. “I’m really proud of our staff to be able to build the class we did is really, I believe, tremendous. The guys we brought in are about great things, about what we’re building here, and they’re definitely going to help us win a lot of games and compete for championships.”
Offensive lineman Richard Merritt and DeMatha teammates, guard Terrance Davis, and wide receiver Tino Ellis are the four-star signees, all filling big needs in the program. Merritt, at 6-5, 320 pounds out of Silver Spring’s Archbiship Carroll, was an Under Armour All-American and ranked as the fourth best player in Maryland by several recruiting services.
Davis was also an Under Armour All-American and ranked as one of the top four linemen in the nation. He is 6-3, 320. Ellis, the skilled 6-1, 185-pound receiver also received Under Armour honors and was a key on three straight DeMatha WCAC title teams.
“(DeMatha coach) Elijah Brooks has a program there, it doesn’t get any better than that,” said Durkin. “Right down the road and it’s been some time since a DeMatha player was in (our) program. I can tell you one thing we’re going back there next year. We’re going to try to stake a claim in the area as much as we can.”
The Terrapins also plucked DJ Turner, a 5-9, 196-pound, a three-star receiver, and 5-8, 188-pound, three-star running back Lorenzo Harrison out of DeMatha, as well.
“Those are all guys that are top-notch football players and could have gone a lot of places, and we were able to keep them here,” said Durkin. “They’re going to contribute for us, probably early. They’re going to have that opportunity.”
Actually, Maryland has another four-star signee that can help early in already-enrolled defensive tackle Adam McLean of Gaithersburg. McLean signed last year, though, and didn’t enroll after what was called “an initial NCAA eligibility issue.” The 6-5, 305-pounder was rated a Top Five prospect in state at Quince Orchard in 2014, and counting him would certainly move Maryland up a bit from the Scout.com ranking of the 53rd best recruiting class in the country this year.
And Durkin did more than pay lip service to protecting the Terrapins’ home turf. He signed 10 players from Maryland/D.C., and already has a sleeper that could pay huge dividends in three-star linebacker Antoine Brooks from Lanham. The 5-11, 185-pound Brooks missed his whole senior season at DuVal, where he played quarterback and deep back, after a gruesome broken ankle injury.
Durkin said “a lot of people probably dropped off” recruiting Brooks because of the injury but Maryland coaches felt comfortable about his rehab and even better about the kind of individual they got. “You spend some time with that kid and you talk to people around the community, that’s a determined guy,” said the coach. “I can’t wait until he is here for us. That is going to be one of the greatest stories in college football.”
Durkin said because of his staff’s late start this year, they relied more on trusted resources in recruiting. Valued advice from high school coaches they trusted replaced the due diligence that usually begins early in a prospect’s career, the college recruiters seeing the players and getting to know them.
“You lean a lot on people you know and trust because you don’t have the time to do the background that you normally do,” said Durkin.
Perhaps a happy byproduct of that expedited process was Maryland coming up with seven players from football hotbed Florida, maybe the most ever and certainly the most in recent memory. Durkin cited he and his staff’s “great recruiting ties” in the Sunshine State and called it a “second home” for the Terrapins.
Durkin enjoyed telling the tale of the snow-interrupted recruiting weekend two weeks ago when 30 inches dropped on College Park the same time many top recruits were on campus.
“A lot of places cancelled their visits; we didn’t, we’re tough, a blue-collar program,” said Durkin. “We basically had the roads plowed from here (football facility) to the hotel right here on campus. Everything was snowed in but we spent a lot of quality time here on campus. We got to know each other better than ever before in recruiting.”
Among the great times that snowy weekend were a talent show highlighted by Elijah and Elisha Daniels’ rendition of “My Girl.” The Daniels brothers are both three-star defensive backs out of Cardinal Gibbons High in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Elijah (6-0, 186) projects at safety, and Elisha (6-0, 183) at corner.
The Daniels twins are among six defensive backs signed this year, by far the largest position grouping ahead of four offensive linemen.
The other deep back recruits Good Counsel cornerback Travon Stott, a 5-11 three-star prospect out of Olney; Tyrek Tisdale (6-1, 210), a three-star safety from Oak Ridge High in Orlando, Fla.; Qwantrezz Knight (6-0, 190), a two-star safety out of East Gadsden High in Quincy, Fla., and three-star corner Antwaine Richardson (6-0, 168) from Atlantic Community High in Delray Beach, Fla.
“We need as many guys as possible that can run and cover to play the style of defense we want to play,” said Durkin. “That was priority this year and a priority next year. That’s just where we’re at based on numbers right now.”
Richardson is another interesting case of a player coming off injury, in his case a knee injury suffered last June before he played a down. “He’s a guy that’s got tremendous coverage ability and I got to see him firsthand at a camp last summer,” said Durkin who recruited Richardson at Michigan. “He’s one of those guys that was fighting and cutting in line to take more reps.
Richardson’s high school teammate, 6-4, 200-pound defensive end Dion Goldbourne is a two-star prospect D-line coach Mike London said has “very good pass-rushing skills” and “a body and a frame that will develop” over time.
QB Or Not QB
And speaking of rushing paseers, the quarterback position always gets the most attention and it was a concern after Haskins decommitted and landed at Ohio State. Maryland wound up with diverse two three-star prospects in Max Bortenschlager from Indianapolis, Ind., and Tyrell Pigrome of Pinson, Ala.
“Max can spin it, throw it down the field, he’s a 6-3 guy that’s very productive, and does all the right things,” said Durkin. “Top-notch student, great kid, great family. “
Pro-style passer Bortenschlager (6-3, 185) was a late decommit from Buffalo. He led Indiana powerhouse Cathedral High to the 5-A Indiana State Championship when he passed for 2,270 yards and 21 touchdowns.
The 5-11, 205-pound Pigrome is a human dynamo. He was 2015 Gatorade Alabama Player of the Year at Clay-Chalkville High School. Pigrome accounted for 62 touchdowns as a senior, passing for 44 and running for 18. He went to two straight 6A title games, winning as a junior.
“Piggy, that guy is electric, I mean he’s unbelievable,” said Durkin. “I couldn’t be happier for how that worked out with him. That was in the works for a long, long time. That guy has great confidence and he’ll be a household name around here real soon.”
Durkin stressed that his offensive coordinator, Walt Bell, was a adept at building offenses around the skills of his players, whether that means a drop-back passer or a more mobile threat.
Another area that could use some help was in the punting game, and Durkin addressed that issue signing Melbourne, Australia footballer Wade Lees (6-2, 2004). Lees played Australian Rules Football in his homeland and Durkin thinks he can fill the need.
So does Assistant head coach Pete Lembo, who called Lees a talented punter and excellent athlete. “Wade’s background in Australian Rules Football brings tremendous versatility to the punter position,” he added.
Damascus running back Jake Funk and South Carroll offensive tackle Brian Plummer are more talented locals. Funk is a 5-11, 197-pounder named the Gatorade Player of the Year and Washington Post Offensive Player of the Year. The Gaithersburg product rushed for 2,866 yards and a state-record 52 touchdowns. Like McLean and Richardson, he is already enrolled.
Another three-star prospect like Funk, Plummer (6-6, 300) helped South Carroll to a 10-2 record and a berth in the 2A West Regional Finals. Offensive line coach Dave Borberly said, “Brian is a large man, but he also has very good feet. You can’t teach that kind of size.”
Two-star tackle Terek Zingale (6-5, 286) also has great size. He can play multiple positions and was among the top 35 players out of Ohio, where he played at Nordonia High in Macedonia.
Rounding out the running backs with local products Funk and Harrison, the Terps add three-star, Saint Cloud, Fla., native LaDerrien Wilson (5-11, 215) from Kissimme-Osceola High School. Wilson was rated the No. 2 player in Central Florida by the Orlando Sentinel after averaging 8.7 yards per rush (2,085 total yards) and scoring 28 times as a senior.
“LaDerrien is a smash-mouth running back who has the ability to both run players over and make them miss,” said running backs coach Anthony Tucker. “He is used to running between the tackles.”
Versatile Brett Shepherd (6-4, 215), a three-star linebacker from Buford, Ga., and two-star tight end Noah Barnes (6-4, 226) of Auburn, Ala., round out the recruiting class.
Durkin found players all over the southeastern seaboard, but emphasized Delaware/Maryland/Virginia was where it all begins for his program.
“That’s our No. 1 thing, we’re going to build this program around guys in our own backyard in The DMV. Everyone has such great pride in this area of the depth and level of talent, and it’s true. And I think people feel a little under-respected in national terms, and I agree. In the past our guys have spread out to other places. I think it’s our job to build a program that guys are proud of and want to come play for the hometown team. That’s what’s going to get us on the map.”
Durkin also broke down exactly what he looks for in recruiting: “Guys that play with great effort, that put effort and enthusiasm in the things they do. That’s first and foremost, a staple of our program. The second thing is toughness, both mentally and physically…The third thing and maybe the most important, is we’re looking for guys that are competitive, guys that love to compete and maybe play multiple sports and hate to lose in whatever they do…The last thing is guys that do things right, not only in football but off the field, academically, guys that understand and respect authority. That’s what we’re building our team around.