The baby steps began last spring, when Denzel Conyers was able to get back onto the football field for light individual workouts six months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL.
Buoyed by the news that the NCAA had granted the fifth-year Maryland senior a sixth year of eligibility, Conyers turned his focus toward getting cleared for full contact once the Terps started preseason practice earlier this month.
When that happened, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound safety wanted to show second-year head coach DJ Durkin he was ready to regain the starting role he had won before getting injured at Central Florida in the third game last season.
A big step in that process took place last week.
During a scrimmage open to the media, Conyers came flying in from behind on wide receiver Michael Cornwell, who seemed on the verge of making a tough catch in traffic.
The violent collision caused the ball to pop free into the hands of fellow safety Darnell Savage Jr. for an interception.
“I just made a play on the ball,” Conyers recalled after practice Tuesday. “That was just a natural instinctive move I made. … That could have been a big-time play for the offense. I was just happy I could knock the ball out.”
Durkin took notice.
“Anytime you see a guy making full speed reactions, that’s a good thing to see,” Durkin said Tuesday.
Still, Durkin isn’t quite ready to give the green light for the most experienced member of the secondary to be back on the field full time. It isn’t certain if that will happen by the time the Terps open the season Sept. 2 at Texas.
The normal time for a full recovery is about a year. Conyers was injured in the double-overtime win at UCF on Sept. 17.
Asked what percentage he believes he is at, Conyers said: “I wouldn’t give a percentage, but every day we come out I’m honestly feeling better. I’m running around more, and making more of an improvement with me personally. I’m trying to get all the young guys going with my help being on the field being able to communicate.”
Using a system recommended by the Maryland training staff, Conyers alternates between practicing one day “full go” and one when he watches from the sideline “so we’re not overworking his knee,” Durkin said.
Durkin said Conyers “is right in that area now of almost being 100 percent. He’s not yet. … We’re all looking forward to when he’s back full speed, able to help us. When that will be, Week 1, I don’t know yet. We’re taking that day to day. The biggest thing for us is keeping him not frustrated about it.”
If Conyers is frustrated, he didn’t show it when talking to the media after practice Tuesday, when he mostly watched others — Savage, fellow senior Josh Woods (McDonogh), sophomores Qwuantrezz Knight, Antoine Brooks and Elijah Daniels, as well as freshman Markquese Bell — get much of the work.
“The depth, with our talent, drives me more,” Conyers said. “When you see, for example, Darnell — Darnell’s a great player — making plays, Qwuantrezz, Elijah, Joshua, A.B., it just makes want to go out and go harder. It definitely driving me to be stronger in my recovery.”
Conyers is using the team’s new-found depth at safety to motivate himself.
“The more depth, the better we are as a team, especially in the back end where we have to hold the defense down,” Conyers said. ‘We have more guys being able to have the confidence to know the plays and know the system, it just makes everybody play harder.
“If I come here today and I’m slacking, I know the next guy behind me is balling.It just makes me want to play that much harder. You can’t get complacent. Complacency is the enemy. Being able to have a lot of depth and a lot of young talent just keeps everyone on their toes.”
Making the kind of play he did last week — and the reaction to it — was one of the highlights in the recovery process for Conyers.
“Just watching it on film and being pointed out by my teammates and coaches, it was definitely a confidence booster letting me know that I’m where I need to be in this process,” he said. :The season’s coming up and I’m moving faster. Being able to make these plays on these balls, being able to help my teammates out.”
Durkin doesn’t want any setbacks in what has been a remarkably smooth process for Conyers since he underwent surgery.
“He wants to be out there. He’s a very willing guy,” Durkin said. “We want to make sure his body is right to put him in position like that.”