DJ Durkin still hasn’t erased the disappointment of a 4-8 record in his second season as football coach at Maryland, and still hasn’t forgotten the feeling he took with him from the team’s final game, an embarrassing 66-3 defeat at home to then-No. 12 Penn State on Nov. 25.
It will take months for Durkin to put that behind him — perhaps it’ll take until the Terps start spring practice in March or open the 2018 season against Texas at FedEx Field on Sept. 1. Not that Durkin won’t have some pleasant distractions along the way.
One of them is expected to come Wednesday, when national signing day, like Christmas, arrives early. Moved up by more than a month, it will give Durkin and his staff a chance to focus on what has become the foundation of Maryland’s rebuilding program — recruiting.
For the second straight year, Maryland is expected to sign a class that is ranked in the top 20 nationally and in the top tier of the Big Ten, albeit still behind fellow East Division members Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and, depending on who’s predicting, Michigan State.
A year after signing a class that was ranked as high as 18th nationally, the Terps come into the first of two signing periods in a similar position. As of Monday, Maryland was ranked 19th by Scout.com, 18th by Rivals.com and 21st by ESPN.
Asked whether the earlier date puts more pressure on coaches to turn the oral commitments into signed national letters of intent, Durkin said recently: “You’re always racing to that finish line. It just changes where the finish line is.”
Sitting his office at the Gossett Team House earlier this month, Durkin said he doesn’t expect any major surprises despite the relative uncertainty surrounding the new signing date. Players who don’t commit by Friday will have another three-day period beginning Feb. 7.
“Since this is the first year doing it, to say you have a total grasp on what it means is probably untrue,” Durkin said. “Right now, all of our class that has committed is planning on signing on the 20th, which makes it a great thing.
“Then it will be interesting [to see] after the 20th, how many spots do we have left? There is some flux there with guys that are potentially leaving early. We have several that may do that. It will be a handful of spots at most. … I like this early signing date as of right now.”
Mike Farrell, the longtime national recruiting director for Rivals.com, said Monday that this year’s class could wind up being just as strong for Maryland as last year, though four-star safety Markquese Bell wound up leaving the program after being suspended before the season.
“There really hasn’t been a big drop-off based on a 4-8 season,” Farrell said. “They’ve got a few kids they’re trying to close on to keep it up there. I think they’ll finish closer to the 25 or 30 range this season, but that doesn’t mean they’re not buying in.”
Durkin and his team hosted several prospects last weekend, players who had previously committed and those reportedly leaning toward the Terps as well as one highly rated player who had decommitted from another school and a local five-star recruit expected to sign elsewhere.
Among those who attended were cornerback Noah Boykin of Washington and offensive tackle T.J. Bradley of Scranton, Pa. The four-star prospects had committed to Maryland but were reported to be waffling until spending time with the Terps over the weekend.
Bradley, 6 feet 8, 290 pounds, who played last season at Lackawanna Community College, is expected to sign this week, while Boykin has said he might wait until February. Boykin is reportedly being wooed heavily by Notre Dame, which recently signed two other four-star defensive backs.
Farrell said Boykin's indecision could prove problematic for the Terps if he doesn’t sign this week.
“It’s never a great sign when you have a kid committed, and obviously Boykin’s been committed for a bit,” Farrell said. “If he wants to take other visits, it means he wants to look at other schools. If he doesn’t sign, the chances are that he’s thinking about flipping.”
Mychale Salahuddin, a four-star running back who played with Boykin at H.D. Woodson, is in the process of flipping. Salahuddin is reportedly leaning toward Maryland after decommitting from Southern California.
“I think he’s got a good chance to go there [to Maryland],” Farrell said. “This is the problem with the decommitments. You don’t know if USC dropped him to get someone else or that he did actually back off of it. It bodes well for Maryland.”
The most intriguing case could be five-star defensive end Eyabi Anoma (St. Frances), who tweeted during his visit to Maryland over the weekend that he was still “wide open” about his commitment despite many believing he will sign with Alabama on Friday.
“He’s going to go to Alabama,” Farrell said. “I’d be stunned if he didn’t end up there. I’d say it’s 95 percent that goes to Alabama.”
According to Durkin, the biggest upgrade has to be made on the defensive front seven, which had just 16 sacks after losing senior linebacker Jesse Aniebonam in the season-opening win at Texas with a broken ankle.
Despite Aniebonam’s expected return next season — he is likely to receive a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA — Durkin said it is vital for the Terps to get help up front from this recruiting class, which currently includes four-star defensive tackle Austin Fontaine as its highest-rated prospect.
Defensive tackle Byron Cowart, who was among the top three players overall out of high school two years ago when he signed with Auburn, is reportedly leaning toward Maryland after leaving the Southeastern Conference school in September. He would be eligible to play this coming season.
“The key to me is the line of scrimmage,” Durkin said. “If you can put pressure on the quarterback with four guys rushing, then you have a chance. If you can’t, you’d better be darn good out there covering. You can do a lot of things with your defense if you have that.”
Durkin is heartened that recruiting appears to be on course despite the Terps taking a step back from a 6-7 record his first season, largely the result of devastating injuries to quarterbacks Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill, as well as Aniebonam, along with playing the toughest schedule in the Big Ten and one of the hardest in the country.
“It makes you feel good about our program and the people believe in what’s going on overall,” Durkin said. “It makes you feel good about the people you’re bringing into your program, too. That takes some substance to your character to weather the storm together even if you’re not here yet.”
Farrell said next season could be a crossroads for the Terps when it comes to recruiting.
“If they have another season like this, that’s when you’re going to see some trouble, that’s when you’re going to see kids in state flocking out of state,” Farrell said. “You can sell a vision for so long, but you have to sell it on the field as well.”