A Tale of Two Coaches on the Way Up

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maybe it’s the difference between day and Knights. The Sept. 17 Maryland matchup with Central Florida certainly offers the most interesting contest of the Terrapins’ early season so far.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maybe it’s the difference between day and Knights. The Sept. 17 Maryland matchup with Central Florida certainly offers the most interesting contest of the Terrapins’ early season so far.

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The Central Florida Knights (1-1) are coming off a 51-14 shellacking at the hands of No. 5 Michigan, but there’s a feeling UCF is starting to build something there in Orlando that isn’t Mickey Mouse at all. That’s because their enthusiastic, young coach Scott Frost seems like the real deal.

He has played or worked for the likes of Tom Osborne, Bill Walsh, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Monte Kiffin and Chip Kelly, and he may be to offensive college football what Maryland’s DJ Durkin is to defensive college football.

“Scott and I know each other through recruiting, we never worked together or anything like that,” said Durkin at his weekly Tuesday press conference. “Obviously I have great respect for him both as a player and a coach. He was a great football player (at Nebraska) and he has done a great job as a coach. He was at Oregon for a number of years and the offense he ran there is very similar to what is doing now.”

Durkin crossed paths with then Oregon assistant Frost when Durkin was at Stanford, and he knows enough to know that the Knights will be a challenge offensively Saturday at Bright House Networks Stadium when the game kicks off at 7 p.m., on CBS Sports Network.

“You can tell that Coach Frost has already put his imprint on the program,” added Durkin. “He has done a really good job. They’re an up-tempo team. They play fast. They do a lot of things offensively that can give us problems on defense.”

Central Florida rushed for 275 yards on Michigan’s defense (guided by former Ralph Friedgen defensive coordinator Don Brown) Saturday. Of course four blocked kicks (two punts, two field goals) helped the Knights dig a big early hole and then their starting quarterback, Justin Holman, got knocked out of the game. Holman suffered a hamstring injury on a 35-yard run and didn’t play in the second half. His status for Saturday is uncertain, though he is listed as the probable starter.

Holman threw for 198 yards and ran for 40 more in the season-opening 38-0 win over South Carolina State, and he’s the wheelman for Frost’s fast-paced, big-play attack. Dontravious Wilson is averaging 4.2 yards per carry and Jawon Hamilton, 3.5, as the main backs, but freshman Adrians Killins went 87 yards for a score at Michigan on his first college carry.

The Knights have six different runners who have gained 15-or-more yards on a single carry through the first two games. “They have several running backs with big play capability,” said Durkin. “They’re very talented and fast players. They had several big plays last week against Michigan. They do a great job of getting the ball to guys in space. They want a one-on-one-tackle situation where their guys is going to make you miss and make a big play.”

So how do you combat that tactic? Durkin said his defense will “condense and squeeze that space,” make sure to avoid the one-on-one situations. Maryland safety, Darnell Savage, who had a career-high six tackles last week at Florida International, boils it down further. “We just have to tackle well, focus on tackling and really wrapping those guys up.”

It should be a great chess match, Durkin and coordinator Andy Buh’s defense against Frost’s high-powered running attack. If Holman can’t go, the job may be a little easier. Playing catch up against the Wolverines last week, UCF completed just 6-of-22 passes for only 56 yards. You don’t really catch up with that kind of passing game.

Durkin summed up a big part of his philosophy that is all important Saturday: “Eliminating big plays is a big thing we talk about. It’s critical to winning the game. It’s much harder for a team to drive down the field than to make one big play. It shows up on the back end. If a guy misses a gap on the defensive line, you probably don’t even notice it. But if a guy on the back end misses a tackle, you see the big play. We always talk about eliminating big plays, and we’re definitely emphasizing it this week against Central Florida.

‘Roof of the Defense’

“Roof of the Defense” is what Savage said his coaches call the safeties – the last line of the defense that must “keep everything in front of us.” The 5-10, 187-pound sophomore, who made the transition from cornerback to safety, said the experience playing multiple positions has helped him.

“Wherever you play, you have to know what everybody else is doing,” he said. “You have to know the whole defense. Playing safety has helped me focus on that because you have to help make some of the calls, so it has been good.”

Savage, from Newark, Del., said the biggest change for the defense has been the level of enthusiasm the new coaching staff has brought, and what that has meant to the team.

“Our whole team’s enthusiasm is through the roof,” he said. “All the coaches are really excited about coming on the field with us and it helps us practice better. You’re excited to be out there.”

Besides “enthusiasm” and energy, things most fans have already noticed about this team, Savage said what we might not see is the “closeness,” particularly among the defensive backs. “I think our coaching staff has also done a good job of preaching that family-first mindset. If you love someone, you’re willing to do whatever for them. So when you’re tired you’re not going to take a play off. You’re not going to mess up because you’re not going to let the people around you down. And if you do, they’re there to pick you up.”

Savage is the youngest of the starters in the defensive backfield now that JC Jackson is back to anchor one corner. Senior Alvin Hill, who had the big deflection last week into Jermaine Carter’s touchdown interception return, is at the other corner. Senior Denzel Conyers is the other starting safety, and senior Will Likely is the nickel corner, often on the field from the first snap.

Savage said Likely has been a major influence on his career, particularly last year when Savage was starting to work into playing time in the secondary as a raw freshman. “He taught me to relax, not over-think things, just play. He made a lot of sense when he talked to me. He said, ‘You’ve been playing football for how long?’ He said, ‘It’s still football, just relax and play.’”

The secondary got a big boost last week with the return of Jackson, the ballyhooed transfer from Florida, after an undisclosed academic issue was resolved. “He was really excited and we were all really excited for him,” said Savage. “It was just a happy feel for all of us. JC is a very good athlete and in our (defensive backs’ meeting) room, we love to compete. All we do is compete, and the more guys that are added to the equation, it just raises everybody’s level of play. We try to compete every single day.”

Savage added the team is having fun and “just playing.” He admits he’s not a vocal type. He just tries to be a “sponge” and absorb from his older teammates, now particularly fellow safeties Conyers and Josh Woods. Savage, meanwhile, admits he has taken younger DBs like reserve freshmen safeties Qwantrezz Knight and Elijah Daniels under his wing.

He basically gives them the same advice Likely gave him about relaxing and just playing.

Durkin and his staff will absolutely love the quote from Savage about the competition among the defensive backs. The new coach has been preaching that attitude since his first press conference, long before anyone imagined three games into the 2016 season the Terrapins could match their 2015 win total for the entire year. How has Durkin done it?

“Since all the coaches got here we have trusted them since Day One,” said Savage. “All of our coaches are just good, genuine people. They’re not just football coaches. They talk to us. They’re involved with our life outside of football. They want us to be good people, not just good football players.” 

Offensively, the new-and-improved line will face its toughest test to date in trying to run the football. Despite the lopsided loss to Michigan, UCF never let the Wolverines get a running game going, holding Michigan to 119 yards and a 2.9-average per rush, though it was often with 8-9 defenders in the box. (That’s why Michigan had 328 yards passing.) South Carolina State mustered just 85 yards and a 2.7 average in UCF’s opener.

“They’re good run-defenders and we’re preparing for those three big guys (UCF has) up front,” said senior guard Maurice Shelton, a big part of Maryland’s 277 yards per game on the ground. “They fly to the ball and they’re big hitters. We just have to out-run them and out-work them.”

Shelton said the big challenge would be rooting those “stout” three down lineman off the ball. UCF nose guard Jamiyus Pittman (6-0, 195) is flanked by 6-1, 295-pound Trysten Hill and 6-3, 275-pound Tony Guerad in the 3-4 set. Inside linebacker Mark Rucker is not very big (5-9, 217), but he has a team-high 14 tackles in two games, and leads the team with three quarterback hurries.

Shelton mentioned that graduate safety T.J. Mutcherson is a “big hitter,” too. Mutcherson had a career-high three tackles for loss at Michigan, including a sack.

Maryland’s offense is averaging 498 yards and 46.5 points through two games, but Durkin’s favorite statistic is the zero turnovers the Turtles have made. Last year, Maryland was last in the Big Ten at a -18 turnover margin. This year, the Terrapins haven’t turned it over at all.

“The turnovers have definitely been a point of emphasis every day in our building,” said Durkin. “In order to win, you can’t beat yourself. In order to beat someone else, you have to not beat yourself first. In football, the stat that most directly correlates to wins and losses is the turnover margin.”

And the Terrapins have been “clean” despite playing at a faster pace under offensive coordinator Walt Bell. “Perry Hills has done a great job of not putting the ball in harm’s way,” said Durkin. “Walt has done a great job of helping Perry with knowing when to tuck the ball and run, or take a sack. So far, turnovers have been good, but we’ll continue to give constant reminders about taking care of the ball.”

Senior tight end Derrick Hayward, who had his first career touchdown in the 41-14 win at FIU, said the way the Terrapins practice helps the team come game day. “In practice, Coach Bell tries to get us go a lot faster so that when we go to the game it seems easy to us. Once we get in the game, it comes easy because in practice he has us going double the tempo.”

Hayward thinks Hills’ work to improve this summer has also made the offense click at a higher – and faster – rate. “He would go back home (to Pittsburgh) and work with his own (high school) coach and his preparation coming into this season was crazy off the charts. You can see it’s showing this season.”

Hayward caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Hills near the end of the second quarter, and the rangy, 6-5 tight end said his first instinct was to run and hug Hills, who has been through so much with him the last three years. “It has been great for the team to see all of Perry’s work pay off, and obviously it’s great for him.”

Hills is 27-of-37 passing for 336 yards and three touchdowns this season, and he could be a real key Saturday if UCF stays stout against the run. He may have to make plays up top like he did at FIU last Friday, including the 45-yard TD strike to D.J. Moore when the Panthers closed the lead to 17-7 in the second quarter.

It is all about the Terrapins’ execution, according the Hayward. “Every week Coach Bell tries to instill in us that it’s not so much the defense that can stop us, only we can stop us. We don’t get into the (strength) of the defense because our success depends on us.”

Last Word

The big key in Michigan’s rout of the Knights was three early blocked kicks, in fact, three in a 10-minute span. The Wolverines got four total, two field goals and two punts. Maryland already has one punt-block this season, and if the Knights feel predisposed to keep the Terrapins out of their punter’s facemask, maybe that opens up the field for Will Likely.

Either way, special teams could be big this weekend on the road.

Don’t underestimate Maryland already having a road win under its belt, too. Good for a young team’s confidence. The bad news is Maryland won’t have a home game until next month. There’s a bye week before Purdue rolls in for the Big Ten opener on Oct. 1.




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