University of Maryland football coach DJ Durkin talks about the importance of spring practices. (Don Markus, Baltimore Sun video)
After finishing his first season as Maryland football coach, DJ Durkin is preparing to spend much of the last three weeks of January on the road in preparation of national signing day on Feb. 1.
Durkin sat down to answer some questions about the season that just ended and what lies ahead in trying to rebuild the Terps.
BS: A little more than a week removed from the bowl game and the season being over, can you take a lot more positives out of the season or are you like any other coach who thinks about the last performance and that's sort of how you judge going forward?
DURKIN: Realistically, there are a lot of positives to take out of the season. On an individual basis, as you're evaluating certain guys as well as a whole, there were obviously ups and downs throughout it. But when you look back where I believe we started in the spring and what we got to and what we were able to accomplish and get to a bowl game and all those things, I think there's a tremendous amount of positives. One of the hardest things, for a fan base but probably more for a coaching staff and a program, is the patience of taking the steps necessary to keep progressing. I think it was a great first step for us to get to a bowl game and do that experience with a young team and get a lot of guys playing, and now we're in the middle of recruiting and that's going really well. I think we're taking the necessary steps to keep this thing going where we want it to go.
BS: Given what Ty Johnson did during the season and in the bowl game, and now that you have Lorenzo Harrison back next year, do you start with the offense building around them or do you still look at the offensive line and having a new quarterback as sort of that's where you have to start and go from there?
DURKIN: Realistically, I think everything starts up front, on both sides of the ball. You've got to be good at the line of scrimmage. Your run won't be what it can, your passing game won't be what it can be if you're not able to protect the quarterback and open up holes for the running backs. Ty Johnson played phenomenal for us this year. I think his big-play capability was shown over and over again. Obviously, Lorenzo did such an outstanding job as a freshman. That position of running back is a strength for us and it will continue to be a strength as we move forward. But we've got to be good at the line of scrimmage, that's where it starts.
BS: Given your background on defense, how difficult was it for you to see what happened the second half of the year, and do you just chalk it up to a lot of inexperienced players having to play so much or schematically do you think there have to be some differences for next year?
DURKIN: I don't think it's a matter of scheme. Obviously we're always working, I'm always working to tweak and make things better. A lot of things go into that, but that would be one of the lesser components down the line of a lot of things. It's hard to be a part of that. It's not anything that I'm used to nor anything I'm going to get used to. It's going to get better. It's going to improve. The one thing is having the right talent, the right matchups and guys going out and make plays. We struggled a little bit there in the middle, and our confidence got shook and it hurts itself. You've got guys playing who get their confidence shook, they've got to keep playing out there. Whatever level they were, they're not playing the way they were before that, they don't feel as capable as they did before. That's our job as coaches to continue recruit the right guys and develop our guys and put them in position to have success and be able to feel confident.
BS: I know you can't speak in specifics about recruiting, but in terms of the number of players that have committed and the quality of those players and that can even change going toward signing day, are you ahead of where you thought you'd be in recruiting, and did you think it would be this good this early?
DURKIN: Being in this area, this is one the reasons I believe that this place will be great and we will be competing for championships, because of the level of talent in this area. My expectation was to come in here and battle tooth and nail for every single guy we feel can help us win a championship. We'll fight with whatever team comes in. Obviously we're not going to win every one of those battles, but we are going to fight to the death. That's what we're doing. Every guy in this area we feel can help us win a championship, we're going to go all out for to try to make him part of this program. And the good thing is that a lot of guys are making the decision to be a part of this program.
BS:Looking ahead to winter workouts, when you came in here last year you had to establish a culture and a work ethic different from what was here before. Now, going into Year 2, do you feel that the guys can even make more progress because they don't have to learn what's expected -- they know what's expected -- and does that make a difference having seen it at other schools?
DURKIN: One hundred percent. It's like baby steps; you're literally teaching the guys the right approach and mindset to what you're trying to do. The right way to begin a workout, all those little details are critically important. Now we've been through that. More than anything, I think for our players there's a relief in knowing what they're getting into. Yes, it's demanding, it's hard, it's challenging. We're going to make it even more challenging this year. A lot of energy was spent mentally on, 'Oh, what's next? What are we going to do?' Now they have a better idea of it and they understand why. In a program, you've got to teach your players why you're doing what you're doing, not just do it. Whether that's a scheme on offense or defense, or a type of workout you're doing. 'This is what we're preparing ourselves for, this is why we're doing it.' I think our players now have a much better grasp of that.
BS:At least two of the recruits, Deon Jones and Markquese Bell, have said that that they're going to enroll early. Do you feel as if that gives a guy a jump in terms of being able to able to get on the field quickly?
DURKIN: In speaking in general terms, when a guy comes in mid-year, he's just gained the whole month or so of winter workouts, he gained 15 spring practices, he gained a semester of school, really a semester and a half because in the summer the rest of the freshmen are not here. Obviously it's a great advantage. If it's something someone wants to do and they feel strongly about it, we're all for it, we're all behind it because there's so many benefits. You never try to push a guy to do who's not sold on it. There's something about leaving half of your senior year of high school behind. It's the preference of the player, but there's extreme advantages to it.
BS:Shane Cockerillle was one of the big surprises this season in terms of his production at linebacker. How disappointing was it at the end of the year with his eligibility, and if he were to miss spring practice, is that something that could stunt his growth?
DURKIN: Anytime a player misses time or falls behind, whether it's a self-inflicted wound in something they've done off the field, in the classroom or if it's an injury, if you miss time, that sets you back. When you talk about a person that's at a position new to them and their development, that's even more critical time. The cool part about things, when a guy misses time like that, it presents an opportunity for someone else like Isaiah Davis, who did an unbelievable job. Now all pf a sudden he's a guy with good playing experience at that position and he'll have something to say about who plays.
BS:Considering what you did this year at quarterback with Perry Hills and now you have new guys stepping in for next year, how much competition is there going to be in spring with Caleb Henderson, Tyrrell Pigrome and even Max Bortenschlager, and do you want to come out of the spring with a solid No. 1 guy going into fall camp?
DURKIN: We have a tremendous competition, just as we would at all spots on our team. That's one of the best things we do in practice. We make things competitive, we make it as close to game speed and game environment as we can. Our players know that the results of how they practice matter, and it will have a say in where they are on the depth chart. I'm not dead-set on having 'This is the guy' coming out of the spring. There's also some freshmen coming in that will have a say at a lot of spots, including the position you're asking about. We'll most likely carry that position into the fall camp. It's the right way to do it. I think when there's importance, real-life tangible importance placed on practice, you get better practice. You get better practice, you get better development.
BS:In terms of Lorenzo, obviously you're happy that he's back and that's he's gotten clearance to play. Was there a point where as things went you wondered whether it was going to have that quick resolution and were concerned whether or not he would stay around to hear the end of it?
DURKIN: Lorenzo and D.J. [Turner], their commitment to the University of Maryland and to a part of this never wavered one inch. Those guys are as entrenched in this program and seeing it through and helping us win a championship as anyone could be. That was never a concern or something to talk
BS: If there's one takeaway for you with this job that surprised you -- or was this as good a decision as you could have made -- what would be it
DURKIN: That's a hard one. I've been asked that before. For whatever reason I've had good experiences coming through it, and at some point...I've learned that there are no surprises. Every day in this job, it's hard to get surprised. Every day is different. You need to anticipate things and to expect, just when you think that can't happen, that's when it's going to happen. I've always tried to keep that mentality as a coach. Stepping into this job, I think it's most critical -- even more than being a coordinator. There's been some new things and some first-time things because you're sitting in a different seat. But as far as a surprise or a wow, I haven't had that type of moment. As I'm going through it, I'm sitting here more convinced than I was a year ago at this time. Obviously there were times during the season…I'm convinced that we have what we need here in terms of resources and players in the area and what's going on with recruiting that we have what it takes to get to where we want to be, which is the top of the conference. You've got to keep staying the course and you've got to keep swinging.