Maryland first-year football coach DJ Durkin on signing day and what it means for the program. (Baltimore Sun video)
When Richard Merritt, the burly offensive guard from Archbishop Carroll, was getting ready to announcement his commitment to Maryland back in December, he steeled himself for the reaction from this close to him.
"What are you doing?" the four-star and Under Armour All-American expected friends, family and strangers to ask. "You can go anywhere in the nation."
Indeed, Merritt held scholarship offers from Alabama and Clemson, the two teams that played for the national championship last month. He held an offer from Ohio State, which won the first College Football Playoff championship a year ago. Both programs that played for the final Bowl Championship Series title in 2014, Florida State and Auburn, offered him a spot in prestigious programs.
But on Dec. 18, Merritt tweeted he was becoming a Terp. He braced for the befuddlement, the confusion that he expected to surround the announcement.
On a rainy Wednesday morning in northeast Washington, D.C., Merritt put pen to paper to make his commitment to the place that showed him that affection official. As he sat in Archbishop Carroll's auditorium in front of his teammates and family, the future started to open for him: He'll suit up for Maryland, play close to home and help to continue the trend of the area's top talent staying in College Park to play football.
"Everybody was saying, 'That's a good move. Put on for your team. Blah blah blah. Put on for your home town,'" Merritt said, remembering the positive feedback. "It feels great to be a part of it."
For the longest time, though, Maryland wasn't really under consideration for Merritt. His first high school coach at Friendship Collegiate Academy, where he played the first two years of his career, was Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, a defensive analyst, then an assistant director of player personnel on Nick Saban's staff at Alabama.
Abdul-Rahim had helped develop Merritt in the early stages of his career before leaving for Tuscaloosa, and he was someone that Merritt felt close to.
So when Maryland coach DJ Durkin hired Abdul-Rahim to become the Terps defensive backs coach in December, it piqued Merritt's interest.
"When he got there, I just felt trust because he was my coach for two years," Merritt said. "He always made sure I was good. He actually helped me to get where I'm at before he left for Alabama. It's really when Coach Rahim came that I can trust somebody there, always have my back, help me get through stuff and that's basically it."
"I knew he wanted to be close to home," Archbishop Carroll coach Robert Harris said. "I didn't know he wanted to be that close to home, but I'm sure that Coach Aazaar being there was a great help to it all, so it just became a great fit."
Before he enrolls at Maryland, Merritt said he wants to lose weight — Maryland listed him at 305 pounds when it announced his signing — and get fit enough to possibly contribute as a freshman in the Big Ten Conference. He'll join former Friendship Collegiate teammates Derwin Gray and Quarvez Boulware, and former Little League teammate and high school opponent Terrance Davis, on Maryland's promising young offensive line that also features former five-star recruit Damian Prince.
Merritt said he can bring an "anger" to the trenches for Maryland, and when asked what Merritt brings to Maryland, Harris kept his simple.
"Hey, you can't find that size every day, all the time, and that's a great thing," Harris said, gesturing to where Merritt towered over his classmates as they organized for a group photo.
After he was introduced by Archbishop Carroll principal Katy Dunn, a Maryland graduate herself, Merritt walked over to a podium at the front of the auditorium. He looked down and thanked God, his family and his teammates before he reached into a Lids bag and pulled out a gray Maryland hat with a red bill and pulled it low over his face.
Then he paused and looked out at his classmates, knowing he was home.
"It feels great," Merritt said. "It feels great to know I'm actually part of the team and stuff. … I'm real excited to play some Big Ten football, put on for my hometown."