ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Less than a year removed from the Michigan football program, Maryland coach D.J. Durkin is already making changes to the Terrapins.
He’s taken his own intense, vibrant personality and infused it into a program that struggled last season, but he’s also taken some of the elements from Jim Harbaugh’s program at Michigan and implemented it into the culture at Maryland, from living in dorms with players during the preseason to giving younger players reps as a means to build depth within the program.
Durkin faces Harbaugh for the first time as a college coach this Saturday. He was Michigan’s defensive coordinator in 2015, and also was a special teams coordinator and defensive ends coach on Harbaugh’s Stanford staff from 2007 to 2009.
And while Michigan is a 31-point favorite as of Thursday morning, Maryland has become one of the Big Ten’s surprise programs this season, and the Terrapins are one win away from earning bowl eligibility.
Roman Stubbs, who covers Maryland for the Washington Post, offers some insight on the Terrapins. Follow Roman and his coverage on Twitter: @romanstubbs.
Q: How has D.J. Durkin changed the culture at Maryland, and what did he take from working at places like Michigan, Florida, Stanford, Notre Dame, etc., with people like Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer and apply to Maryland?
Stubbs: Durkin touted his energy when he first took the job last December, promising to change the culture with a sheer blue-collar, around-the-clock work ethic. He has certainly backed it up, especially over the past four months. He lived in the dorms with the players during camp. He blasts music on cue throughout the team facility at 5:50 am every morning. He has given every player a clean slate and holds job competitions at each position each week. He starts his best players on special teams. He has three players who play in all three phases.
All of these little wrinkles have created urgency and roles for each player on the roster. So far, 15 true freshmen have played significant snaps, and while this is has been out of necessity at times, it’s also a direct attempt by Durkin to infuse youthful energy into the roster and build for the future.
On that end, he relates to Harbaugh and Meyer in his competitiveness and his ability to coach with a long-term vision in mind. Even at Maryland, which lags far behind Michigan and Ohio State, this has been a refreshing approach and should bode well down the road for a program that has been mired in mediocrity for a long time.
Q. What is Maryland’s approach to playing Michigan — in particular, what is Durkin’s approach to facing someone who was a mentor to him?
Stubbs: As expected, Durkin has promised that nothing significant will change this week. But he has been able to duck into the offensive and defensive meeting rooms to give tips about personnel, sharing knowledge on players he coached and observed a year ago in Ann Arbor. While this doesn’t necessarily help schematically, it gave the staff a head start in preparing for this game.
Q: Who are two players to watch from Maryland, one on offense and one on defense?
Stubbs: Watch for freshman running back Lorenzo Harrison, who has been one of the country’s most surprising rookies in 2016. While sophomore Ty Johnson is by all accounts the feature back — he’s averaging 10.4 yards per carry — Harrison has the most carries (he’s averaging 7.3 yards on 79 carries) and gives this offense a versatile change-of-pace back who can break tackles and make special plays in the open field. Against this defense, his playmaking ability could be crucial.
Defensively, watch for junior linebacker Shane Cockerille. He’s a former four-star quarterback now starting under Durkin, leading the team in tackles with 73. He’s had his struggles adjusting to the position, but he’s a gifted athlete who will be counted on to fill the gaps and make plays against this balanced Michigan running attack.
Q: How much has the loss of Will Likely to a season-ending ACL tear affected the Terps?
Stubbs: This was a stunning blow for Maryland, for so many reasons. Likely was thriving at his new slot corner position, and his absence has forced several inexperienced players to try to fill the void. His presence in the return game had scared teams and dictated field position. And he had been a useful weapon on offense at times, even if he was a decoy in the slot, his speed helped the team considerably on the perimeter.
Moreover, he’s the face of the program and is the foremost leader. He’s still vocal and helping in meetings, but obviously Maryland has lost a dynamic presence on the field.
Q: Quarterback Perry Hills has undergone a renaissance — he leads the Big Ten in pass efficiency, and has become more productive, after working with former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte in the offseason. Why was this important, both for Hills and for Maryland?
Stubbs: Hills has been one of the most intriguing players on the roster over the past two years. His continued improvement as a passer — his stride has shortened, and although he’s struggled with the deep ball, he’s overall more accurate and has cut down on turnovers — has been crucial to the first five wins and has brought a certain level of stability to the program. For Hills himself, it’s a promising conclusion to what has been at times a difficult career.
His evolution has also been important for Maryland’s future. He has rare tenacity for a quarterback and that has become a symbol that Durkin has been able to use as he lays the foundation in his first season. Maryland’s roster is stocked full of young quarterbacks, none of whom are fully ready to be full-time starters, and Hills’ reliability gives that group time to develop over the course of the year.