COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Terps’ first-year strength and performance coach Rick Court didn't hesitate a nano-second when asked this winter who his biggest "project" was in the weight room after taking over the Terrapin football program in December.
"Jalen Brooks," the immediate response of Court of the one Terp that had come (and needed to come) the furthest under his watch these last several months of heavy transition in the program on and off the field.
You see, Court inherited a now-junior starting outside linebacker in Brooks who was long and gangly. And often times as unsure of himself in the weight room as he was on the field where last season he missed, or lost, a lot of tackles, as well as got beat in the passing game.
Fast-forward nine months, and now Brooks,a more strapping 238-pounds, is the poster-child the ever-demanding Court holds up as an exemplar down in the Terps iron room.
"I started pretty down low, bottom of the barrel," Brooks admitted this week as the Terps prepare for the 2016 and D.J. Durkin era opener Sept. 3 against Howard.
Brooks took to Court, and Durkin's hard coaching, and will help lead a newly-configured Terps' linebacking corps that features himself, converted quarterback Shane Cockerille, and national honors candidate Jermaine Carter Jr. in a new multiple, attacking scheme under DC Andy Buh. But first there was that off-season transformation, which began right when the new staff hit the ground in December and got a good look of Brooks.
Brooks said the old staff was "a lot more laid back, and I was thinking I was strong enough because I was doing the things they were telling me to do," he related. "But then the guys were calling me up in the winter and said 'you better be ready because this stuff is real.' So when we came in the winter they told me you are not up to what were expect a starting linebacker in the BIG Ten to be. So coach Court pulled me aside, he talked to my parents, and he said I am going to put a 'special focus' on him. So I worked extra every day spring, and by the beginning of the summer, well I had already passed the expectations and numbers of what they wanted me to be by the end of the summer. So coach Court was real excited about that."
Court isn't the only Terp noticing the change. Said junior defensive tackle Cavon Walker, a former Terps linebacker himself:
"Jalen has come a long, long way. His confidence is way up, and that is a big thing in football. This off-season he was, working so hard, and you could just see a complete change in his body, attitude, everything. On the field his aggressiveness went way up. I appreciate everything he has done because he has made the team better with his big jumps in weight room, his physicalness, what he does on the football field."
Also, Brooks is 'Mr. Versatile' as well, playing both the Sam and the Will spots, and even the ability to play Will in the new scheme. And it started with that new trust the staff has in him now.
"Coach Durkin is always talking about trust being one of our team's core values, and so when he first got here in the winter and the spring, and then this summer, all he was talking about was building trust," Brooks said. "And what they told me is they have enough trust in me now to play a few positions for them on defense, and be able to contribute at inside and outside backer. So I am getting reps at the Mike and Will and Sam.
"And it helps me understand the defense a lot more because when I am inside the box, well I am working more with the DL and understand their schemes playing off of them. And then when I am outside, the Sam is basically the same as our nickel package...22 personnel, big run formations. So then I can work more with the corners and safeties with our read coverages and anything like that. So i am just happy they trust me enough to play all those positions."
Brooks, as are his teammates, can't believe the new season and era is about to begin under Durkin and Co. It has been a long, hard off-season of heavy transition in the program, both mentally and physically, and most made it through the ringer.
"Honestly, I can't put it into words," Brooks said of his excitement. "Every day we are working harder, more intense, learning, I mean, they just hold us to a higher level of standard.
"Before he (Durkin) got here....I probably couldn't wrap my mind around it (all the change) back in the winter. But in the spring and summer we totally bought into it. So we're just so excited because the last couple years have been rough. I have been here the past couple years, and every year we said we were getting better, and I think in some ways we generally did. But sometimes our results didn't pan out the way we thought it would be, but with the way Coach Durkin is leading the team, there is no chances left on the table. I mean, we are going all out, and I am excited beyond words for the season."
Brooks will need to keep playing more physical and confident, as well as help bring along n, overall, young corps/depth at 'backer this season, where some rookies like Antoine Brooks and Bret Shepherd are starting to shine, among others. But he says that will be almost easy based on what they have recently been through under the new staff.
"Coach Durkin tells us all the time, we are going through the hardest stuff that any college team in the nation is going through," Brooks said. "And he's been on some of the best teams in the nation the past couple of years, and been coaching with arguably some of the best coaches of this era. So when he tells us that....we're putting in more work than anyone else....you can't really put a limit, so then our expectations should be higher than anyone else. And we believe we can go all the way, so why not just win the national championship. So we can do it."
Brooks like the multiplicity of the new defense under Buh, starting with the pressure coming from the new wave of athletic ends, guys like BUCK edge players Jesse Aniebonam and Melvin Keihn, who he said could make his job easier. The linebackers, all are cross-training "and we are all just nameless 'Xs' on the page and we have to know every fit.. They are cross-training all of us," Brooks said. And as for the secondary, Brooks said it's a lot more confident as far as communication now after integrating Florida transfer J.C. Jackson into the mix at corner, as well as two new safeties this month. "Their communication, they are moving around....we have all kinds of stuff for the defense at every level now," Brooks added.
At the SAM position, where he is listed as the starter, Brooks like the pressure element and his ability to make TFLs. And to play in the flat on screens and the like. He has played all three spots in the past as well, "and I feel good at them all," he said. As for the emergence of Cockerille, the former four-star Gilman quarterback, Brooks said:
"He is a natural athlete, and if he had been on the defense even earlier before he would have been making a contribution in the past," Brooks said. "He's a former quarterback, so he has a good understanding of the game all-around. And he is a very physical guy so he kinda upped up our physicality in the linebacking group overall."
Brooks said, like his many teammates, he had to prove himself all over again for the new staff on the field, where last year he started 11 of 12 games and ranked fifth on the team with 64 tackles. After some early season struggles he settled into becoming more physical at the point of attack, but still not nearly where the new staff envisioned him.
Now, Court picks Brooks out each time for an example guy, a drill demonstration guy down the basement of Gossett. For an example, Brooks went from a 270-pound bench last winter to 360 pounds now, while his squat is in the mid-400s after cleaning up his technique under Court as well.
"I think i was his special project, and probably turned out a lot better than what he was hoping for," Brooks quipped this week.