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A look at DJ Durkin's uneventful signing day at Maryland

Maryland first-year football coach DJ Durkin on signing day and what it means for the program. (Baltimore Sun video)

No surprises.

That's DJ Durkin's sincerest hope as he emerges from his dark gray Ford F-150 pickup for his first national signing day as Maryland's head football coach.

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"My theory has always been that if you don't already know, you're not getting them, " he says.

It's 5:15 a.m. Wednesday and he shows the energy that has already become legend among Maryland staff members. This is Durkin's most important day, at least symbolically, since he was announced as Maryland's new coach on Dec. 3.

Almost seven months before he'll send a team onto the field, it's a chance for him to put his stamp on the program.

The first-time head coach was regarded as one of the top recruiters in the nation when he worked as an assistant for powerhouses Florida and Michigan. But he's taken his share of lumps over the last two months, the biggest inflicted by his former boss, Urban Meyer, who flipped quarterback Dwayne Haskins and linebacker Keandre Jones to Ohio State.

Haskins and Jones were two key faces of "The Movement," a wave of Maryland and Washington players who had verbally committed to play for Durkin's predecessor, Randy Edsall.

But any hint of those disappointments — largely expected for a new coach — is absent as Durkin's first signing day begins in the damp pre-dawn.

Returning Maryland players have been streaming in the door for several minutes, readying for a 5:30 a.m. lifting session — their routine since they came back from winter break.

"Guys," Durkin says, nodding at them as he strides briskly to his office, which overlooks the field at Maryland (formerly Byrd) Stadium.

Players greet him with quiet good mornings. "It's a great day," Durkin replies in a more assertive tone.

As he flicks on the lights, it's apparent he has not spent many hours in his office. Aside from photos of his children — Abigail and Luke — there aren't a lot of personal touches.

"Lots of bare walls," he says.

He has spent much of January on the road, recruiting. Custom décor can wait.

Durkin has also not had time to change his license plates from Michigan, where he worked until December, to Maryland.

He's doing his best to treat this as a normal morning. Returning players will run and lift. Coaches will watch film of 2017 recruiting targets. Durkin is no fan of the mania that has grown around signing day.

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As long as he's the head coach, Maryland probably won't have a female student pull letters of intent from the fax machine, as Alabama did in 2011. You probably won't see a multimedia party starring Derek Jeter, Tom Brady and wrestling legend Ric Flair, like the one Durkin's former boss, Jim Harbaugh, staged at Michigan Wednesday.

"I absolutely enjoy it, because there are a new group of guys we're excited about, who are joining our family," Durkin says. "That's really exciting. But all the hoopla that's gone into it now? I think that's a lot of BS. When a guy signs, however he sends his letter, we're going to get on the phone and say we're so excited you're here. We talked to all those guys last night, too. … But we've got a lot of other things to do today."

'It never stops'

Durkin unabashedly loves recruiting. He's not one to bemoan a football coach's inherent dependency on the whims of 18-year-old prospects.

"I know some people frame it that way, but you can't think about it like that or it really might drive you crazy," he says.

Especially in a year like this, when Durkin had just two months to lock down his first Maryland class. Even on the day he was introduced in College Park, he tried to steal five minutes whenever he could to call potential recruits.

"The hardest part is you just don't have time to build up a relationship with the athlete," he says. "Every year when you get to signing day, everybody starts scrambling and pulling guys in different directions. If you've done a good job for that full year recruiting them and the family and all the people around them, you can usually withstand that."

He didn't have that luxury with top in-state recruits Haskins and Jones, who had built relationships with Edsall and his staff.

Asked if losing a key recruit is akin to being dumped by a girl you love in high school, Durkin says: "Yes! You're heartbroken. … My wife says it to me every year, because someone breaks my heart every year. You spend a lot of time with a guy, you really think he's a good fit for your program — if you didn't feel that way, then you weren't fully invested."

To give a sense of how relentless the recruiting game is, one of Durkin's plans for signing day is to call as many of next year's targets, about 75, as humanly possible.

"It never stops," he says. "We're carrying on to the next class, because we're behind on that class too. If you're not doing it, someone is. So you better be doing it."

At 5:48 a.m., his current players jog out of the football house in white T-shirts with their uniform numbers on the back, headed for a team run across campus.

Later at breakfast, Durkin says the workout was his favorite part of the day. He's been away recruiting so much that he hasn't had much time to acquaint himself with the players he inherited. 'I've been starving for that," he says.

The nuts and bolts of signing day are fairly simple. The player's high school coach or parent calls to say the letter of intent is coming, usually by e-mail though a few still roll out of the fax machine. The document goes to Maryland's director of compliance, Cody Gambler, who makes sure it's filled out correctly, with signatures from the player and a guardian. Then Gambler sends an e-mail to the entire coaching staff saying the player is formally part of Maryland's program.

Gambler and staff recruiting analyst Dave Wilczewski are parked in front of flat-screen monitors, on which the letters pop up as scanned documents or cell-phone photos, which they then print out.

A black Epson fax machine sits on a nearby counter, spitting out a few letters of its own."Communication error," a staffer says, staring at the machine's control panel. "That ain't good."

This gray-carpeted space, with a coffee machine in the corner, is the closest thing Maryland has to a "war room" on signing day.

Gambler says recruits do race to get their letters in first. South Carroll offensive lineman Brian Plummer takes the prize, e-mailing his letter at 7:01 a.m., one minute after the official kickoff of signing day. Durkin's highest rated recruit, DeMatha offensive lineman Terrance Davis, joins a few minutes later.

Durkin bops into the team cafeteria just before 8:30, wearing a gray sweatshirt with a big red M on the chest. About a dozen recruits have already committed, and it's hard to get a word in with the head coach because an assistant keeps handing him a cell phone for congratulatory calls.

"What are you two idiots doing?" he says merrily as he greets Elijah and Elisha Daniels, twin defensive backs from Florida.

Durkin urges each recruit to cherish the day and celebrate with loved ones. It all goes too fast, he tells them. But he also keeps an eye on the future.

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"This is just the start," a hoarse Durkin tells the Daniels twins. "Remember what got you to this point."

No surprises

When he finds a free moment, he notes the day has harbored no surprises — just what he wanted.

"If one doesn't show up, that's when you start to wonder what's going on," he says of the letters.

The only pleasant shock he can recall from all his years recruiting came from Florida defensive end Jonathan Bullard. Durkin couldn't reach Bullard in the days leading to the player's announcement at a high school all-star game, usually a bad sign. He was prepared to be crestfallen. He still beams at the memory of Bullard pulling on a Gators cap.

A recruiting triumph is nothing compared to winning a game, he says, but pretty sweet nonetheless.

Durkin maintains no signing day superstitions.

He says the thing that would surprise fans most is how unsurprising it all is. Coaches come to work on the big day knowing what they're likely to get. It's more a time for players and fans to enjoy.

Four members of Durkin's first class — running back Jake Funk, defensive lineman Adam McLean, defensive back Antwaine Richardson and Australian punter Wade Lees — have already enrolled. They've worked out with older teammates for weeks, but Durkin holds a ceremony for them, complete with 20-minute highlight video, after the morning workout. He doesn't want any recruit to miss the fun of signing day.

As the morning rolls on, the atmosphere among Maryland staffers is a combination of giddy and punchy, with several competing to find the best play on quarterback signee Tyrrell Pigrome's last name. There's spirited debate about how their Tykes social media graphics compare with the signing day displays of other schools.

A little after 1 p.m., Durkin has traded his sweatshirt for a charcoal blazer, better suited for television interviews. All of his verbal commitments have turned into actual commitments, with only highly regarded defensive end Terrell Hall looming as an unanswered question (Hall will end up at Alabama).

Durkin's strongest impression from a morning spent talking to his first batch of recruits is "they're about what we're about."

He says he cares far more about that than about the national recruiting rankings, which have the Terps about 40th nationally and seventh in the Big Ten. He envisions a day when the region around Maryland — known as the DMV in recruiting circles — garners respect on par with Florida and Texas. And he wants the Terps to rule that turf unchallenged.

For now, he'll celebrate at an evening party on campus for fans and donors and then work in his office "until the phone stops ringing."

His first signing day as head coach met the expectations he laid out when he walked in the door.

"It was," he says, "delightfully uneventful."

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