COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Perhaps the surest signs of the progress D.J. Durkin is making at Maryland are the way his seniors all wish they were freshmen again.
“You talk to the older guys on the team and we all wish we were coming in as freshmen now,” said senior defensive end Roman Braglio. “There’s a feeling that something special is going on with this coaching staff.”
“Honestly I wish I could go back and be a freshman again,” said quarterback Caleb Rowe. “I’ve always wanted to be a part of a big-time program, a program that’s run the way it’s supposed to be run. This has been so different than the last four years. Every thing is done for a reason. Every thing is so thought-out and has a purpose. Every coach speaks the same language and preaches the same thing.”
These comments came on Maryland’s media day on Tuesday, as the Terrapin football team took a break from the heat and heated competition of Durkin’s first camp as a head coach to pose for pictures and talk Terps football with a large media contingent.
Over 100 Terrapins have been at practice since camp opened a little over a week ago. Maryland returns 12 starters (seven on offense, five on defense) off last year’s 3-9 squad, but no one in red, black and gold is talking like a team coming off that kind of campaign.
“The energy and intensity is the big difference,” said senior offensive tackle Michael Dunn. “You walk in in the mornings at 6:30 a.m., music is blasting, everybody’s yelling, everybody’s screaming, and people are really upbeat here, ready to go. Everybody wants to go out and win.”
Durkin said his team just finished practices No. 9 and 10 yesterday, and was having just meetings and walk-thru today around media obligations. Wednesday, it’s back to two-a-day practices and the relentless surge to mold this group into a competitive Big Ten squad. Maryland has been picked ahead of only Rutgers in the rugged Big Ten East Division.
The Terrapins aren’t worried about any of that, yet. They’ve got a sharp focus on mastering schemes on both sides of the ball under the new coaching staff, and pointing toward that Sept. 3 noon home opener against Howard.
The coaches split the squad into two groups for early practices, and even now with the entire team together, Durkin has them going on two different fields. It’s an open casting call for football talent.
“We’re trying to get as many reps as we can with as many guys as we can to give everyone an opportunity to show what they can,” said the coach. “We’ll keep going with that schedule through Saturday and then back off and reevaluate.”
So what have we evaluated about the Terrapins so far, Coach?
Let’s run down a quick laundry list of what Durkin went through in a 29-minute press conference Tuesday in Glazer Auditorium in the Gossett Football Team House.
*He didn’t say it but senior Perry Hills is leading the quarterback battle over Caleb Rowe at this juncture, Rowe out with a lower body injury. Rowe is expected back “soon,” and here’s what Durkin and offensive coordinator Walt Bell are looking for as the duel continues: “The No. 1 thing really is the guy that can lead the team, lead the offense best,” said Durkin. “There’s a lot that goes into that, but it’s more than just throwing. Decision-making is really critical and we talk a bunch about protecting the football. Ball security is critical…It has been a really good competition.”
Hills has shortened up his stride to quicken his release. He was home (Pittsburgh) each weekend again working with his high school coaches to improve his mechanics. Last year it was his athleticism, this year it has been about improving his throwing motion.
“This offense definitely plays to my strengths,” said Hills. “They have a lot of quarterback run, quick passes, deep passes, just spreading the ball around and getting it in playmakers’ hands.”
Bottom line, Durkin said he would know more after another scrimmage and he feels the coaches can design a strong offense around the strengths of either veteran quarterback. They have a “clean slate,” the coach stressed. “All I care is what they’ve done since our staff has been here.”
*Not just at quarterback, but everywhere, Durkin wants competition, a point he reiterated several times. “A critical component of our team is we’re going to allow guys to show what they can do at practice. There’s nothing worse to me than being on a team and you feel like. ‘No matter what I do at practice, the coach already has the starter.’ To me you lose something on your team. That trickles down and affects (things). So we’re clearly the opposite of that. We’re going to compete at every spot, including quarterback, and give those guys opportunities to say, ‘Wow, this guy can do it,’ or ‘He’s not ready yet.’”
*On defense, perhaps the top battle is being waged at the “Buck” position where sophomore Jessie Aniebonam and redshirt sophomore transfer Melvin Keihn are competing for the defense’s hybrid end/linebacker big-play position. Defensive coordinator Andy Buh said, “The No. 1 thing we look for is guys that can get off the ball and create havoc for (an offensive) tackle. The next thing is to have versatility, dropping into our pass coverage. And third is size, being able to hold up against an offensive tackle or tight end.”
“Jesse and Melvin, that’s a fun one to watch,” said Durkin. “Jesse has played the best football he has played in his career, and I’m so excited about him, his motor every day. He’s just stacking good days back-to-back now.”
Buh said the 6-4, 248-pound Aniebonam has a little more size at the position, while Virginia Tech transfer Keihn (6-1, 225) has a little more “quick twitch” athleticism. “I think the tandem of the two is really going to help us.”
*The heat that’s driving everyone in the Metro area inside to the air-conditioning? Durkin loves it.
“The heat has been awesome. I’ve been trying to figure out the hottest time of day and we go out there at that time. That’s a mindset. Our first game is at noon and we got two games down south (at Florida International and Central Florida). We’re going to play in the heat....That heat makes you make a decision out there. You get out there and at some point you’re, ‘OK, how important is this to me? Do I really want to keep going? Am I going to let my teammate down?’ And that’s all the stuff we’re building. Just keep going and be accountable to the guy next to you.”
“It has been tough, but you have to work through it because we’ve got two games in Florida,” said middle linebacker Jermaine Carter, Jr. “It’s probably going to be hot and our first game against Howard may be hot.”
*The Terrapins want to hang their multiple Under Armour-supplied hats on their defense. One quick note is that the secondary, a question mark other than Will Likely, is now becoming a strength with the late addition of former Florida cornerback J.C. Jackson, and the influx of other freshman talent.
Said Durkin: “In the defensive backfield, it has been really good. You bring in a guy like J.C. Jackson, who is very talented, and Darnell Savage, all of the sudden, is playing corner and safety. We’re moving him around a little bit. Will Likely, obviously, is doing a great job. Alvin Hill is playing tremendous football right now. You bring a whole group of freshman in there and all of sudden Josh Woods and Denzel Conyers are lifting up their level of play because the room just got more competitive.
“I think we’ve got some hidden gems,” said defensive backs coach Aazar Abdul-Rahim. “Our two (freshmen) safeties, Quantrezz (Knight) and Elijah Daniels, they both were kind of thrown in the fire. Their heads are swimming a little bit, but they’ve both met expectations. They’re physical players, which is important, and they’re still a work in progress, but they’re willing and able to do what we need them to do.”
Durkin and Abdul-Rahim both gushed about the freshmen defensive backs and their potential impact. Right now. “We brought in a significant number of DBs this year, and those guys are going to help us,” said Durkin. “You’re going to see freshmen out there playing for us. If nothing else, special teams to start, but we’ll bring them along and help them learn the scheme. Those guys will be in the mix. They’re competitive.”
All over the defense, Buh plans on using multiple packages of players, something that will morph and evolve game to game. It’s a great way to keep the practices lively, players knowing they have a legitimate chance to see the field.
“Our defense is improving every day,” said Durkin. “I think we have a good group of guys that are talented and need a plan and some direction, and that’s what we’re providing for them.”
Durkin said he saw some hesitation in the spring as players struggled with the new hybrid 3-4 scheme, but now he sees them “comfortable. We expect to play great defense. That’s the expectation. That’s what we’re here for, and that’s the type of guys we’re recruiting.”
Bottom line: the addition of Jackson, another great cover corner, opens up a world of options for the defense, which wants to gamble and be aggressive. With Likely and Jackson, Maryland can lock down on the corners. Buh said Jermaine Carter was having a great camp, too, among the linebackers and David Shaw, among the defensive linemen. He also loves what he has seen from Keihn and Aniebonam, and keep an eye on freshman corner Antwaine Richardson.
The players are buying what Buh and Durkin are selling.
“The mindset this year is so aggressive – attack, attack, attack,” said Braglio of the biggest change on that side of the ball.
“The mentality that the coaches bring, the hardnosed (style) rubs off on the players,” said Carter. “They’re trying to get in our minds that we have to finish. We didn’t finish a lot of games last year, and coaches want us to finish every play and go hard. Give great effort all the time.”
*You want effort? Watch the wide receiver workouts where veterans like D.J. Moore, Levern Jacobs and Malcolm Culmer return and new faces are making a push, too.
Said Durkin: “D.J. Moore, I think, is having a great camp. He had a great spring, a great winter, a great everything. That guy works his tail off. He’s a model citizen for the team. Malcolm Culmer is having an unbelievable camp. Talk about a guy that is coachable and does whatever you ask of him, block, do whatever. Lavern Jacobs is a guy I’m proud of. We really had to sell him on being physical, blocking, things like that, but if you watch him on special teams now, he’s one of our best guys. It’s never been part of his game, but that tells you his buy-in as a senior to help the team. I really like that (WR meeting) room and where those guys are doing.
“I like the fact that it’s a fast-paced offense,” said Culmer. “Coach Bell has created a great atmosphere for us. We’re deeper and we’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays.”
“Tino Ellis and D.J. Turner are doing a tremendous job,” said Durkin. “Teldrick Morgan, an older guy transferred in, doesn’t say much, just goes to work. All those guys are high-quality players and have done good things throughout camp. There’s competition for those spots. In our offense, there’s not just three receivers, you’re going to play a good 6-or-7 guys, and there’s competition for those spots.”
Another candidate, junior Taivon Jacobs, is working his way back from a knee injury.
*Special teams could indeed be special.
“We want to make a major contribution every game,” said Assistant Head Coach/Special Teams Coordinator Pete Lembo. “And when you’re trying to turn a program around, which is something I’ve been part of several times already, special teams can make a huge difference. That’s something D.J. and I agree to our core. We spend a lot of practice time on it. We spend a lot of meeting time on it. We put our best people on those units. The goal is to make a difference.”
Lembo thinks there has been major improvement from the spring. The specialists aren’t adverse to hard work and they’re all making progress. Beyond that, though, Lembo loves that he has “80-90 percent” of the team on his units. Like offense and defense, the special teams compete hard for those spots and for better results.
Ask Lembo, the former Ball State head coach, to throw out some names of guys that have been excelling and get ready to get writer’s cramp in the rapid fire --Malcolm Culmer, Darnell Savage, Ty Johnson, Melvin Kiehn, Shane Cockerille, Derrick Hayward, DeAndre Lane, Jake Funk.
Of course Will Likely led the nation in combined return yards and earned All-America honors as a punt returner. He’ll get help from newcomer Jackson this year, too. And Likely is ticketed for more work on offense in addition to his regular cornerback job.
“I told Coach whatever he needs from me, I’m there,” said Likely. “I really do enjoy that. No mater where I’m at, I love the opportunity to make plays.”
*Somebody from DeMatha Catholic High will have a big impact.
“The DeMatha guys are all big-time, all four of those guys,” said Durkin, when asked about freshmen surprises. “We got what we thought we were getting. They will play and have bright futures here. They play hard. They’re coachable and they’re the kind of guys you want to have on the roster.
And they are the wide receivers Tino Ellis and D.KJ. Turner, running back Lorenzo Harrison and offensive lineman Terrance Davis.
*On the offensive line, walk-on-to-starting-tackle Michael Dunn has another fan in Durkin.
“(Dunn) plays until the end of the whistle, not the whistle,” said the coach. “He has had a tremendous training camp. We have challenged him to take on a leadership role, and he has embraced that. The guy just comes to work every day.”