Terps rely on freshmen during Durkin’s first year
Young players contribute to team nearing bowl eligibility
COLLEGE PARK — As new Maryland football coach DJ Durkin and his staff were trying to add players to their first recruiting class last winter, they knew there was a strong possibility many of the prospects would need to play as true freshmen in 2016.
When the players began practicing, it became apparent to Durkin and his coordinators that the number was growing by the day. And that group of true freshmen playing for the Terps has increased even more since the season began.
“We knew coming in, especially after spring football and you saw your limitations from a depth standpoint, we knew there’d be a large majority of those kids even if they weren’t ready, especially by this time of year, [who] would have to be ready,” offensive coordinator Walt Bell said this week.
Going into today’s game at Indiana (3-4, 1-3), the Terps list 11 true freshmen, as well as four redshirt freshmen, on their two-deep roster. Wade Lees, a 28-year-old Australian punter, is the only true freshman to start every game. Guard Terrance Davis has started the past three.
In contrast, the Hoosiers have 11 true and
redshirt freshmen on their two-deep roster, three of them starters.
Though Lees, Davis and running back Lorenzo Harrison started in the 28-17 win over Michigan State last Saturday at Maryland Stadium, Durkin estimated afterward that “12 to 15 [true freshmen] played significant snaps.”
“I don’t think I’ve been anywhere where there’s that many true freshmen playing … but they’re playing well, they’re playing at a high level,” he said this week.
Durkin said it began after he was hired in December.
Though he wound up losing a few big-name prospects who had committed to or were seriously considering Maryland, Durkin signed 23 players in February in a class ranked 43rd nationally by ESPN.
“I’m really pleased with the recruiting class our staff was able to put together, whatever it was, a month or a month and a half of recruiting when we all got here,” Durkin said this week. “It’s remarkable, and it says a lot about the local talent we have here. Our formula is to continue to build with the guys we have in this area.”
While the number of true freshmen who’ll start against the Hoosiers is unknown because of injuries, there’s a good chance the same number, or possibly more, will play.
“You see them out there competing in the Big Ten; they don’t look out of place. If you didn’t know [they were freshmen], you wouldn’t know,” Durkin said. “It’s critical for the long term. We’re building this thing
By the numbers
Freshmen who’ve played: 15 Starts by freshmen: 7 Total plays: 1,578 Offensive yards: 1,073 Touchdowns by freshmen: 12 for the long term.
“At the same time, we have some veteran, older, experienced guys that are playing very well for us right now, too. I think that’s how you build a program the right way. We’re playing a lot of guys, playing a lot of guys at all positions, and that’s to build the depth on our roster and continue to make us better for the long haul.”
The combination has put the Terps on the brink of becoming bowl-eligible with their sixth win, something most didn’t think Durkin’s team would do in his first season.
Durkin said getting to a bowl this year “is not something we ever talked about or spoke about. It’s to be the best team we can be week to week. When you take care of stuff that way, at the end of the season you find yourself where you want to be.”
Harrison, this week’s Big Ten Freshman of the Week after rushing for 105 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State, has received most of the spotlight as the team’s leading rusher.
“Even the guys that don’t play a lot, like [offensive lineman Brian] Plummer, I think he’s going to be a great player,” junior defensive tackle Kingsley Opara said. “Tino [Ellis, who has started one game at cornerback,] is a great player. This is a great recruiting class. It’s going to be one that’s going to start the trend of something special at Maryland.”
Opara said it will help in a recruiting process that has already ramped up for the Terps, who have oral commitments from 19 players in the 2017 class ESPN ranked 17th nationally this week.
“I think it’s big, it’s really big. You can see with the class we have coming together now, people are starting to pay attention to Maryland,” Opara said. “I think that if I was in the recruiting game, I would look at Maryland because of what you see Coach Durkin doing, and he is playing a lot of young guys and those guys are producing.”
Bell and defensive coordinator Andy Buh said the jump-start to the maturation process began in preseason camp, when Durkin had the team practice in smaller groups for the players, especially the freshmen, to get more repetitions.
“Even from a volume standpoint, it may have been a little much for the older guys, but it’s what those younger guys needed,” Bell said.
Said Buh, who often pairs older players and younger players, particularly in the secondary, during games: “We’re extremely excited about the guys that are playing. We’re rooting for them. We coach them hard. They take coaching really well. Their youth is going to show in places, but as long as they’re playing hard for us, we’ve got a chance.”
While injuries haven’t wrecked Maryland’s defense, the Terps have been hardest hit in the most vulnerable area — the secondary. After losing senior safety Denzel Conyers with a torn ACL at Central Florida on Sept. 17, Maryland stayed relatively healthy until the past two weeks.
In a 31-10 loss at home to Minnesota, the Terps saw senior All-Big Ten cornerback Will Likely go down after muffing a punt in the second quarter. The day before last week’s game against Michigan State, it was announced that Likely would be out for the season, also with a torn ACL. Freshman Elijah Daniels and sophomore RaVon Davis, a junior college transfer, stepped in for Likely.
Then sophomore safety Darnell Savage Jr. hurt his knee against the Spartans.
In came true freshman Qwuantrezz Knight, who could make his first start against Indiana if Savage is not ready to go.
“I don’t think we missed a beat with him in there,” Buh said of Knight.
Buh said Knight’s preparation and confidence have helped him prepare for a bigger role.
“It’s not odd to see him in there at 5:30 in the morning watching film,” Buh said. “He really cares about his game, and he sees himself as a starter. That’s the biggest thing with these young guys. When you take a guy that sees himself as a starter, it’s easier for him to go play like one.”
Punter Wade Lees is one of 11 true freshmen on the Terps’ two-deep roster and the only one to start every game this season.