The Big Ten East is brutal. At this point in the offseason, the division looks like the toughest in all of college football.
Ohio State, a perennial playoff contender and the defending conference champions, comes in at No. 3 in Athlon Sports' Way-Too-Early Top 25. Michigan, which consistently fields one of the most dominant defenses in the nation, ranks seventh. Often underrated Michigan State — the most experienced team in the country — comes in at No. 10. Penn State, which has renewed its college football blue-blood pedigree under James Franklin, sits at No. 11.
With an eye toward eventually competing with that elite quartet, Maryland hired DJ Durkin as its head coach prior to the 2016 season. Durkin, who worked for some of the brightest minds in football as an assistant, including Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and Will Muschamp, inherited a three-win team but guided the Terrapins to six victories and a surprising bowl bid in his first season at the helm. That on-field success helped in recruiting. The Terrapins hauled in the 18th-ranked class in the country in Durkin’s first full recruiting cycle, according to the 247Sports Composite Team Rankings. The 2017 class ranked fourth in the Big Ten behind only Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. It was the first top 25 class for Maryland since 2006.
Understandably, Maryland entered 2017 optimistic. The Terps upset a ranked Texas squad in a wild season opener in Austin. Maryland then won two of its next three games, with victories over FCS opponent Towson and Minnesota in its Big Ten opener, sandwiching the only blemish of the promising opening stretch, a 38-10 loss to UCF that looks much better now than it did in late September. However, the strong start quickly gave way to a discouraging finish.
A big reason for the collapse was injury, especially at quarterback. Durkin lost his top two signal-callers during the first three games, and was forced to use five different QBs throughout the season. No other FBS team had five different quarterbacks attempt a pass, and such instability at the most important position on the field is very difficult to overcome.
It didn’t help that the Terps were shorthanded while playing one of the most difficult schedules in college football. In fact, it was the toughest schedule in the nation according to the Sagarin Ratings. Brian Fremeau, creator of the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) and provider of other statistical analysis, ranked the slate the ninth-most difficult schedule in the country overall, but the second toughest when only accounting for regular season opponents. Six of the teams the Terrapins faced were ranked in either the AP Top 25 or College Football Playoff committee rankings when Maryland played them, and two others (UCF and Northwestern) finished the season in the top 25. As a result, Maryland was only favored in one Big Ten contest all season.
Despite finishing 4-8 overall and 2-7 in conference play, Maryland has continued to recruit like a top 25 team. The Terps check in at No. 28 in the 247Sports Composite Team Rankings for 2018, just behind TCU, NC State and Mississippi State, and ahead of the likes of Louisville, Michigan State and Oklahoma State. Durkin and his staff landed four players rated as four-star prospects, and signed 23 total. Maryland's class is fifth in the Big Ten.
Durkin loaded up on offensive and defensive talent in the 2018 class, and sprinkled in a few high-quality skill position players as well. The late addition of Florida cornerback Kenric Montgomery (the only additional signee after the early recruiting period in December) was big. Montgomery chose the Terps over UCLA, Nebraska and Louisville. His signing also helped overcome the loss of Noah Boykin, a former Maryland commit who flipped to Notre Dame after the early signing period.
In addition to the high school recruits, Maryland also added former Auburn defensive lineman Byron Cowart, who hopes to resurrect what was once a very bright career. Cowart was ranked No. 1 overall in the 2015 recruiting class, but failed to find his stride with the Tigers. Durkin, who recruited Cowart when he was an assistant at Florida, could be the one to unlock the former blue chipper’s elite potential. It worked for J.C. Jackson, who left the Gators and became Maryland’s best corner before jumping to the NFL draft after last season.
Maryland has a unique opportunity in the Big Ten because of its geography. Durkin puts a heavy emphasis on the “DMV” (D.C., Maryland, Virginia), and sets out to dominate the underrated area. The Terps signed 15 players from the DMV, but also have a strong pipeline to the talent-rich Southeast and signed four from Florida and two from Georgia. He’s also young, and relates well to high school athletes. His white hair might hide it, but Durkin was one of just a handful of FBS head coaches under the age of 40 last season.
Durkin’s success on the recruiting trail has helped close the talent gap between the Terps and the rest of the Big Ten East, and his coaching chops could help the Terps find even greater on-field success. He was a highly regarded defensive coordinator at Florida and Michigan, and Durkin has uniquely aggressive tendencies as a head coach. He has confidence in his system, trusts his players, and isn’t afraid to make tough in-game decisions.
Think back to Big Ten opener at Minnesota. Max Bortenschlager started at quarterback, becoming the third to do so in just the first four games. Most coaches would be cautious when starting a third-string quarterback and nearly all would opt to take whatever points were available on the opening drive of the game to help give his offense confidence. However, Durkin didn’t hesitate to call a fake field goal at the tail end of a 14-play opening drive.
The call didn’t work, and the Terrapins failed to capitalize on a great scoring opportunity, but it also didn’t backfire. Minnesota took over on its own one-yard line, and the Terps forced a three-and-out on the ensuing drive to set themselves up with great field position at the Minnesota 48. Eight players later (one of which was a successful fourth-and-10 pass play, another brave call with a backup QB), the Terrapins finally found the end zone. Bortenschlager powered his way over the goal line on a seven-yard run after then-offensive coordinator Walt Bell called for a gutsy QB draw.
Later in the first half, Durkin’s coaching prowess showed up again. Six seconds left before halftime, running back Ty Johnson broke off a 17-yard run, and instead of trying to make defenders miss or break tackles for extra yardage, Johnson slid at the Minnesota 33-yard line, which allowed the Terps to call a timeout with two seconds on the clock. Henry Darmstadter snuck a 51-yard field goal over the cross bar to increase Maryland’s lead to 17-10.
Durkin’s aggressiveness calling for the fake, and then going for it on fourth down the very next drive, helped the Terrapins grab momentum. Assuming Durkin or someone on his staff coached Johnson to give himself up to save time and give Maryland a field goal opportunity, the team was able to carry that momentum into the locker room, and into the second half of an eventual 31-24 victory to improve to 3-1 overall and 1-0 in conference play. Things went downhill from there, but in addition to the victory over Texas, the Minnesota win was a good sign of what the Terrapins can become.
He’s also willing to take chances with his coaching staff. Matt Canada is highly regarded as an offensive mind and play-caller. Durkin hired Canada to replace Bell after he left for Florida State. Canada has proven capable of developing a successful system around the talent that exists on a roster instead of attempting to fit square pegs into round holes for his preferred style.
Regardless, Canada also wore out his welcome quickly at LSU and has now held positions on five different staffs over the last seven years, including three jobs in three seasons dating back to 2016, when he excelled at Pitt. He reportedly has an abrasive personality and a tendency to burn bridges within a coaching staff, which makes him a somewhat risky addition to the staff. Canada also reportedly hopes to become a head coach soon, so his stay isn’t likely to be long either way.
But the risk is worth the possible reward. Canada can turn an offense around quickly, and he has lots to work with in College Park. Looking ahead, the entire offensive line returns for 2018, as does leading rusher and home-run hitter Johnson, who gained 875 yards and scored five touchdowns while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Backup Lorenzo Harrison III gives Maryland one of the top running back duos in the Big Ten. Bortenschlager gained valuable experience, and Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome both have upside at quarterback. The receiver corps must be rebuilt, and replacing electric playmaker D.J. Moore is a particularly difficult task, but options exist on the roster and more talent is on the way.
More questions exist on defense. The front seven took a major hit due to graduation, and the loss of tackling machine Jermaine Carter Jr. is a big one. Developing a pass rush will be a top priority in the spring and fall camp. But, the secondary is experienced, and defensive backs Antoine Brooks Jr., Darnell Savage Jr. and linebacker Isaiah Davis gives the unit a strong core to build upon.
Maryland faces a very tough road back to bowl eligibility. In addition to the usual brutal Big Ten East heavyweights, the Terps host what will likely be an improved Texas squad (the Longhorns come in at No. 18 in the Way-Too-Early Top 25) in the season opener. But there’s good news; Wisconsin and Northwestern rotate off the Big Ten cross-division slate, and a trip to Iowa and a home game against Illinois, paired with a return visit from Minnesota in the conference opener, make for a more manageable league schedule overall. And, because of the foundation Durkin and his staff have built in College Park, the Terrapins could be a dangerous matchup in 2018 and beyond.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.