COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Denzel Conyers’ time in College Park hasn’t exactly been easy. After arriving at Maryland from junior college after the 2014 season, the safety had academic issues that prevented him from seeing the field at all. Conyers did return to play nine games as a backup in 2015, but during the summer of his third year at UMD, in which he was slotted to start, he collapsed during an August 2016 practice. The former three-star recruit had to be taken to the emergency room, forcing Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin to promptly cancel the workout session.
Yes, the 23-year-old Conyers recovered quickly and ended up starting three games in 2016, recording 13 tackles in the process. But in Game 4 he suffered a much more debilitating setback. The St. Petersburg, Fla., native went down with a torn ACL during Maryland’s double-overtime victory against UCF Sept. 17, immediately ending his promising senior campaign before Big Ten play even began.
Most believed Conyers had played his final college snap. But in late March he was granted a medical redshirt, giving the 6-foot-3, 212-pounder one last shot at redemption.
“I was actually in my room, playing some Madden and talking to my cousin. It was crazy, because I was on the phone [with my cousin] talking about [getting the sixth year of eligibility], and he was like, ‘You’re going to get it, I can feel it in my chest,’“ said Conyers, who came to College Park from Butte College in California. “But myself, obviously I was nervous. It was a really big moment in my life. Then [the compliance director] called me, and at first I was real nervous because he was talking in a monotone. But then he said the NCAA ruled in my favor and approved me for my sixth year.
“And I just went crazy. It was every emotion imaginable. I was excited, I dropped my phone, and I started crying. It was a very big moment for me, and I just appreciate all the people that stood behind me. I believe sometimes God sets you back before he shoots you forward. It’s like catapult in a way. The injury set me back, but now I’m moving forward [with my sixth year].”
In reality, Conyers began moving forward as soon as he tore his ACL last Sept. 17. He recalled the injury vividly, noting how he kept his head up from the time his knee popped.
“I had felt my knee pop before, so I knew instantly what it was,” Conyers said. “But my family was there, and they hadn’t seen me play in a few years. And my nephew was at the game too, and he looks up to me like one of his favorite football players. So I told myself if I do anything, I’m going to walk off this field under my own power. I’m going to show [my nephew] how to be a man. So I walked off and rooted my boys on.”
In the months following the torn ACL, Conyers aggressively rehabbed the injury, even though he knew he might never play another snap in College Park. Conyers went to the training room two or three times each day, completing a series of flexibility stretches, squats and other typical ligament-strengthening exercises. He credits Maryland’s training staff for both taking their time with treatment and for pushing him when need be.
Conyers also had a rehab buddy of sorts that made the process somewhat easier to endure. Former UMD starting corner Will Likely was rehabbing a similar injury, so he and Conyers decided to work out together.
“Definitely that helped. Will is one of my better friends in live, and we pushed each other. If he was doing 10 reps, I was doing 11. If he was doing extra stretching, I was doing extra stretching. The competitiveness made the whole recovery process fun. Will definitely helped me along and get through it,” Conyers said. “But I just tried to keep as much faith as possible. I had my low moments, but I had great friends, teammates and a coaching staff keeping me positive.”
Eventually those positive vibes paid off. Conyers, who was due for a break after a rough few yeas in College Park, learned of his medical redshirt March 24. He has been practicing with the team ever since, although he has been limited to non-contact drills. Head coach D.J. Durkin said he wants to keep his defensive back healthy through the April sessions so he’s 100-percent ready for August practice.
Even so, Conyers, who estimates his knee is about 80-percent, has been perhaps the most consistent performer among UMD’s safeties. He’s running well, is moving fluidly and has done a good job tracking receivers deep.
Plus, he gives Maryland’s young secondary a much-needed veteran presence.
“It’s really big [that Conyers is back], especially at that position. I think we are, and will continue to be, very talented at that [safety] position, but we’re young. It’s young talent. It’s guys that came in a year ago or just this past February that make up the majority of that [meeting] room,” Durkin said. “But Denzel is a guy who provides great perspective. He has great leadership qualities about him, he’s levelheaded, and he goes about his business the right way. He’s a great guy to have in that room for [the young players] to look up to.”
Conyers has not only accepted that leadership role, but he’s embraced it. On the field, he’s been known to talk the youngsters through some of the more complicated schemes. And away from the gridiron, Conyers readily doles out advice, willing to answer any inquiries tossed in his direction.
“When I was injured, the young guys would come to me about certain plays or just about life. I feel like I’m definitely somebody they can speak to. They don’t feel as much pressure talking to me as they might a coach. So I’m definitely taking on that leadership role and feel my experience does help them,” Conyers said. “But me being one of the oldest guys in the room, I’m also learning from them -- just having fun with the game. Like the twins [Elijah and Elisha Daniels] and Qwuantrezz [Knight], they’re so high on life and have that energy. I’m gaining some of that energy from them. I feel like as much as I’m helping them, they’re helping me.”
At certain points the last few months, Conyers wasn’t always sure he’d be helping anyone in a Maryland uniform. So, in case the NCAA didn’t comply with his wishes, Conyers said his immediate endeavor would’ve been to prepare his body for a potential pro training-camp invite.
“But my main goal was always to get that sixth year of eligibility and help the University of Maryland,” Conyers said. “I want to help Maryland achieve greatness, and also build my own resume to help get to the National Football League. That’s my goal now in my final year here.”