Maryland football coach DJ Durkin shouldn’t be surprised to see the progress many of the newcomers to his team have made since preseason practice opened nearly three weeks ago.
After all, they were part of the best recruiting class the Terps have had in more than a decade, ranked as high as 18th nationally and, perhaps equally impressive, fourth in the Big Ten.
Yet as the Terps prepare for their 2017 season opener at Texas on Sept. 2, even the second-year head coach seems taken aback by what this year’s recruiting class has already done in trying to find its way onto the field, as 15 freshmen did a year ago.
“Our freshman class, I can go through man-for-man, they have a good way about them,” Durkin said. “Sometimes you bring in a highly touted recruiting class and they come in and they don’t really live up to that on the field.
“It’s not the case. They’re ready to work. They’re helping on special teams. They’re helping wherever they can, trying to get out there. It’s been very good. I’m very pleased with them.”
At least two of them, quarterback Kasim Hill and safety Markquese Bell, are
making a strong case to start the opener.
While running backs Tayon Fleet-Davis, Jayvon Leake and Anthony McFarland are unlikely to supplant either junior Ty Johnson or sophomore Lorenzo Harrison III at the top of the depth chart, all seem ready to contribute.
“When you look at Ty and LoLo [Harrison] and Jake [Funk], you have three proven players that are good as anyone in the conference I think,” Durkin said. “It’s a good mix. Those guys do a good job of being leaders and bringing the other guys along and we’re going to have roles for all those guys and utilize as many as we can out there. They’re all really good football players.”
Offensive tackles Marcus Minor and Jordan McNair (McDonogh), as well as guard-center Johnny Jordan, have a chance to make the two-deep roster. Cam Spence and Breyon Gaddy have given much needed depth and, more importantly, added girth to the defensive line.
“I really like our depth on the defensive like, I think we’re one more than two-deep over there, with guys that we feel can play and really help us win,” Durkin said. “On the offensive line, there’s good competition.
“There are some freshmen that are creeping up there. For freshmen to be in the mix at the line of scrimmage, they’ve got to be pretty darn good. That’s probably the hardest position to come in and play right away.”
Freshman Bryce Brand and junior college transfer Nick Underwood should be in the rotation at linebacker, while wide receiver Tahj Capehart has continually opened eyes at practice — including last Saturday’s open scrimmage — with his downfield speed.
The play of the freshmen has certainly raised the competition from Durkin’s first year, when the Terps wound up starting Terrance Davis on the offensive line for the last nine games, Harrison for two games at running back and others, including Tyrrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager at quarterback, made a spot start.
“This freshman group has really shown to be really talented, and a couple of guys here and there have proven themselves to be really mature all across the board in all aspects of the game,” senior linebacker Jesse Aniebonam said last week. “They’ve shown they are going to be able to help us a lot this season.”
If Hill’s preternatural sense of calmness under pressure could help him win the job at quarterback, Bell’s physicality will get him onto the field in Austin, potentially starting opposite junior Darnell Savage Jr. at safety.
Durkin said half-jokingly on National Signing Day that the 6-2, 208-pound Bell “already looks like an NFL safety.”
Aniebonam doesn't think about Bell being a freshman.
“Markquese has come a long way, further, to separate himself from a lot of the freshmen,” Aniebonam said. “At the freshman level, it’s hard to teach a guy to be locked in, focused in, learning things quickly at such a fast pace. He has the size for it, too.
“The fact that he was able to bring everything to fruition that quickly is great for him. He’s a lot more developed than anyone thought. He came in with a lot of expectations, and he’s proven himself to be someone that can really help this team.”
It doesn’t really come as a surprise to Bell. Though neither he nor any of the freshmen have been made available to the media since preseason practice began, Bell said on National Signing Day that he took notice of how many freshmen played in Durkin’s first season.
Bell was one of eight players in the 2017 to enroll at Maryland in January.
“There’s a lot of opportunity. That’s why I think a lot of guys came in [early],” Bell said. “I wasn’t really worried about playing time. If you can compete, you can fit in anywhere.”
With less than two weeks to go before the opener, the next step for many of the freshmen is making the first two-deep roster that will be revealed next week.
“If you're in the two-deep, you’re a play away from playing,” Durkin said.