Maryland Terrapins seek local football talent
When college football’s early-signing period closed Friday, perennial title contender Alabama had raked in what many considered to be the best recruiting class in the country, with top high school players from hotbeds such as Florida, California, Texas and the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
That’s not a misprint.
High school football in Washington and its suburbs doesn’t get the attention the sport does in places like Texas, where title games are played in pro stadiums in front of crowds of 50,000 or more. But for college powerhouses such as Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State, the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area has become an essential part of the national football pipeline, with schools including DeMatha Catholic High School, just outside the District in Hyattsville, Maryland, and St. Frances Academy in Baltimore sending blue-chip talent every year to elite programs.
Keeping athletes like St. Frances’ Shane Lee and DeMatha’s DeMarco Hellams both ranked among the top players in the country and signed by Alabama this year closer to home is one reason the University of Maryland hired Mike Locksley this month.
The Alabama offensive coordinator, who made his reputation as a recruiter, is taking over a troubled but ambitious football program where he will be expected to persuade local talent leaving for Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Columbus, Ohio; and other football-crazed campuses to stay home and play in College Park.
A D.C. native who has recruited in the region since 1997, Locksley feels the local talent has always been high-end but overlooked. That has changed, he said.
In recent years, top District-Maryland-Virginia prospects have caught on at college football’s goliaths across the country. The region isn’t Florida or Texas, but the gap isn’t as wide as it might seem.
“They’re known as a basketball area,” Locksley said, “but I think our high school football coaches in the DMV have really done a good job of educating themselves as coaches and being able to develop their players to where they become the type of players that everybody wants to recruit.”
But as Locksley gears up for his first season at the reins of Maryland, the 48-year-old coach will be tasked with taking on those Goliaths with a David of a program.
Every year, Maryland watches as talented in-state prospects leave for Southeastern Conference schools or for Big Ten rivals such as Penn State and Ohio State or even the school’s former Atlantic Coast Conference rivals. Maryland left the ACC in 2014, but the remaining ACC schools’ recruiters didn’t pack up and go home.
“I think what you’re seeing now is with the influx of schools that now come into the DMV, I think with us having switched from the ACC to the Big Ten, you still have schools from the ACC recruiting this area, the Big Ten schools,” Locksley said. “And then with the success that the players who are from this area have had whether they’ve come to Maryland or they’ve come to a place like Alabama I think it speaks volumes to the type of players and the type of football that we play up in that area.”
Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national recruiting director for college football, has worked in scouting for 13 years after a career as a player and coach. Since he’s been working as a scout, he said, the region has “ranked right up there” in terms of talent.
Luginbill said the difference between the region’s pool of prospects and a place such as Florida or Texas is that the Baltimore-Washington corridor is more compact geographically. He likened it to a story that Tom Herman told him about his tenure coaching at the University of Houston. The school conducted a study that found its signees lived 32 miles away from campus on average.
“If you’re looking at the University of Maryland, you’re probably having the same type of mindset, the same line of thinking in relationship to all of the talent that’s within a car ride away from campus,” Luginbill said. “The problem is, you’re having to ward off all these other suitors that are trying to infiltrate your area.”
The Terrapins need the top recruits in their own backyard more than those recruits need the Terrapins.
Capital News Service found that from 2012 to 2016, Division I programs in the state of Maryland were among the worst at keeping its football recruits in-state all while Maryland’s high schools produced the sixth-highest rate of “blue chip” recruits per capita of any state in that span. (Maryland and Navy are the only two Division I-FBS football programs in Maryland.)
The District takes a back seat to no one in the football universe when it comes to talent. According to a 2017 analysis by the sports website SBNation, the District produces more elite recruits per capita than any of the 50 states.
The Terrapins have been chasing, with mixed results, that local talent in earnest since joining the Big Ten. When the school managed to sign blue chips from close to home, it made a point of celebrating and marketing it. After the athletic department dubbed some signees “DMV Grown” on social media in 2015, it evolved into the #DMVtoUMD movement.
That movement picked up momentum once Maryland hired coach DJ Durkin. The Terrapins signed players including DeMatha’s four-star running back Anthony McFarland, who declined offers from Alabama, Miami and Penn State and opted to stay home.
But Durkin was fired Oct. 31 after the workout-related death of lineman Jordan McNair and investigations into the culture Durkin fostered in his program.
Despite the shadow hanging over the program over the past year, Maryland locked in six recruits from the class of 2019 last week five of them hailing from Maryland or the District.
Four-star wide receiver Isaiah Hazel, the top-rated offensive player in Maryland, signed with the Terrapins. Tight end Malik Jackson flipped his verbal commitment from Connecticut in favor of the shorter drive to College Park.
Locksley will have to convince parents and recruits that he can repair the damage the program has suffered over the past year. If he can, he has a wealth of talent to dip into nearby, especially Catholic high schools.
The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) includes schools in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia, and some of its members DeMatha, St. John’s, Gonzaga, Good Counsel are perennial national powerhouses. The recruiting site MaxPreps ranked WCAC as the sixth best high school football league in the country in 2013.
Locksley reportedly hired DeMatha’s Elijah Brooks to coach the Terrapins’ running backs, though Brooks’ impact may be felt more in recruiting the WCAC. But Locksley said he does not view the league as a particular priority.
“To me, it’s not even just the WCAC. It’s wherever players are. If they’re in our footprint of our university, we’re going to go find them,” Locksley said. “As I’ve said before, I’ve taken players from Crossland High School, Friendly High School. We’ve had them from all over the place and throughout the DMV.”
Location is not everything
Sometimes, “staying close to home” is not an effective pitch unto itself.
Arie Kouandjio, a four-star offensive guard who went to DeMatha and now plays for the Washington Redskins, was recruited by Maryland but chose Alabama. Kouandjio said he didn’t feel any pressure to stay in-state.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things about Maryland: I don’t think too many people are like ‘Stay home’ and stuff like that,” Kouandjio said. “Some other states like Alabama and Florida and Louisiana, other places in the country, I feel like they feel more pressure to stay. But I think that’s different here. Hopefully, it changes.”
What would it take to change? Kouandjio said he thinks if Locksley could build a “pretty good” program, then people will want to stay. Luginbill pointed out that when Maryland’s football operations building project inside Cole Field House reaches completion, it will provide a level playing field with Big Ten competitors in the facilities arms race.
Locksley is a natural recruiter, Kouandjio said. Before landing at Alabama, Kouandjio visited the University of New Mexico, where Locksley was previously the coach. It helped, Kouandjio said, that the program already had other recruits from Maryland.
Redskins tight end Vernon Davis, who attended Maryland from 2003 to 2005, called Locksley a “straight-shooter.” Locksley, then Maryland’s running backs coach, helped recruit Davis to the school before leaving in 2003 for another job.
“I believe that when it comes to recruiting that guys have to feel that you’re honest, you’re loyal and you mean what you say,” Davis said. “If you go in and you recruit a guy and you tell him he’s going to start from the time he walks in, then you have to be right on your word. And he’s always been that kind of a guy.”
But there is more to the job than recruiting.
How Locksley coaches the Terrapins will be under immense scrutiny both for his checkered history while coaching New Mexico 10 years ago and for the fact that he is succeeding Durkin and certain wounds are still open.
“Getting the players is going to be one part of the battle, which I think he was probably the ideal fit to do,” Luginbill said. “And then how you develop them, how you coach them up and how you run the program is something that will have to remain to be seen.”