Going into Maryland’s first bye week of the college football season, coach Mike Locksley had to help his Terps recover from their first loss, a surprising 20-17 defeat to Temple in Philadelphia that took some of the excitement out of a 2-0 start and the program’s first national ranking — No. 21 — in six years.
In Maryland’s next game, the Terps were embarrassed at home, 59-0, by then-No. 12 Penn State.
It set the tone for what has become a long first season back at Maryland for Locksley. Heading into another bye week after Saturday’s equally unsettling 73-14 defeat to No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus, there have been questions about Locksley’s ability to turn around a program headed for its fifth straight losing record.
What started with on-air comments during a 52-10 loss at then-No. 17 Minnesota two weeks ago by ESPN analyst Rod Gilmore, who questioned whether the former Alabama offensive coordinator and longtime Maryland assistant was the “right fit” for the job, continued during the game against the Buckeyes.
As the now 3-7 Terps were midway through surrendering the most points by a Maryland team since 1913 during their fifth consecutive loss and seventh in the past eight games, three-star offensive lineman Jordan White of DeMatha Catholic High announced on social media that he was decommitting from Maryland and reopening his search.
White, who played for current Maryland running backs coach Elijah Brooks his first three years in high school, was the second player to decommit from the Terps last week. Cornerback Rashad Battle, a three-star commit from Fairburn, Georgia, had done the same three days earlier.
Though White wasn’t as highly rated as some who remain in the Terps’ 2020 class — Ruben Hypolite II, an outside linebacker from Hollywood, Florida, is the only four-star prospect in a group of 14 commits — he was the first to commit after Locksley was hired last winter.
Adam Friedman, the Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said in a telephone interview Monday that much of the momentum Locksley seemed to have gained in the two months after he was hired last December — when he helped raise the 2019 recruiting class from being ranked No. 87 in the country to the top 65 (No. 47 by the 24/7 Sports Composite and No. 62 by Rivals) among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs — appears to be lost.
But Friedman believes the stagnation could be temporary.
“The way Maryland has lost some of these games has slowed any traction the Locksley message has gained on the recruiting trail,” said Friedman, whose website currently has the 2020 class ranked 56th nationally and 12th in the Big Ten, ahead of only Illinois (No. 76) and Rutgers (No. 77). (According to 24/7 Sports, the Terps are ranked 49th nationally, 11th in the Big Ten.)
“That’s not to say it’s not going to bounce back," Friedman added. "Once Locksley goes in-home with his priority recruits, I think sitting there, talking with him, the confidence level again will emerge and we’ll see another spike in Maryland recruiting. Just because he’s such a personal guy and his message absolutely resonates with local recruits.”
Locksley, who is considered one of the top recruiters in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, said last week that the message he would tell prospects, as well as their families and coaches, hasn’t changed since he was hired.
“I think we’ve been real consistent in the messaging,” Locksley said. “We’re a program that’s in the developmental stages. As much as I’d like to come in here and win the Big Ten East and win the Big Ten in Year One, we’re setting roots for a long stay here.”
It was the message that helped convince four-star safety Nick Cross, a former teammate of White’s at DeMatha, and four-star quarterback Lance LeGendre of New Orleans, to flip their commitments and choose the Terps on last February’s second signing day.
Cross, who is now starting, reportedly chose Maryland over Penn State, while LeGendre, who has played sparingly but could see more time during the final two games, reportedly picked the Terps over Florida State.
“The messaging is, ‘We’re building this program for the future,' “ Locksley said after a recent practice. “We want to win now and we’re going to do everything we can to bring in the right kind of guys that can help us expedite it or grow it as fast as it can grow.’ "
The relationship between the McNairs and the Maryland football team has been eased by the hiring of Locksley last December as coach. Locksley’s friendship with Martin McNair dates to when Locksley’s daughter was a high school classmate of Jordan McNair.
Their relationship grew even closer when the elder McNair provided emotional support for Locksley when his son, Meiko, was shot and killed in Howard County in September 2017. The two also spent time together after Locksley’s mother died.
“Jordan in spirit is still a member of our football family," Locksley said in June at The Jordan McNair Health and Wellness Sports Clinic at McDonogh that some members of the Maryland football team attended. "There’s some things that’ll be done [to honor McNair]. He’ll always remain an important member of our family. I’ve said before, it’s almost as if he’s a martyr because of his death, it’s brought so much attention to [heatstroke]. We’ve kind of had to put our best foot forward as far as the protocols to make sure sure that doesn’t happen to another family.”
“He’s focusing on what he can control,” Friedman said of Locksley, adding that it typically takes a couple of years to build relationships with recruits. “That is, cleaning up the program, making sure it is as solid as program foundationally as it can possibly be. He can’t control who gets injured and to an extent who’s available on the field necessarily."
Friedman believes that there could be changes within the team — from coaches to players — after the season but that many still believe the 49-year-old Locksley might be the only one who “can get Maryland back to a respectable level because of the relationships he has.”
Good Counsel High coach Andy Stefanelli, whose son Drew played at Maryland under both Randy Edsall and Durkin, agrees. What he has heard from four former players currently on the roster, including senior linebacker Keandre Jones and redshirt sophomore linebacker Ayinde Eley, has only been positive.
Stefanelli believes that most programs that didn’t even go through what the Terps endured that led to Durkin’s firing still need “three or four years” to turn around after changing coaches.
“Mike needs time to bring recruits in that are going to fit his system,” Stefanelli said in a telephone interview Monday. “While it might not look [good] right now, time will help to get what he needs to get in there and improve, and I think it will. Where the program is and what it’s coming from needs to be kept in mind here.
“That to me is a key element. Everybody wants them to win and win right away. A couple of breaks and a few less injuries and this season may not have been as bad as it looks right now. One upset [win] and everybody is happy. It may not be as far away from turning around as it appears.”
As Locksley and his staff go out on the road to recruit this week, with hopes of convincing other players to commit in the aftermath of the two recent defections, he hasn’t wavered in what told Cross and LeGendre, as well as the other 16 players Maryland signed last winter.
It goes back to when Locksley was a young assistant, first working for Ron Vanderlinden beginning in 1996 and then staying on when Ralph Friedgen was hired after Vanderlinden went 15-29 in four years. The Terps won 31 games in the first three seasons under Friedgen.
“If you look at when Maryland’s had success, it’s had success with the culture being cemented in the program," Locksley said. "We’re in Year One of it and we haven’t backed away from it. We have a vision that’s real clear and concise of what this place can be. Again, I’ve been here to see what it’s looked like when it had great success. But we want to lay the foundation and pour it really solid and make sure it’s really set in to have a successful program.”