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As his Maryland football team struggles, DJ Durkin weighs whether to play freshmen

Maryland coach DJ Durkin looks on during the Terps' home opener against Towson.
Maryland coach DJ Durkin looks on during the Terps' home opener against Towson. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

During his first year at Maryland, football coach DJ Durkin made things clear to his Terps and the media: the best players would get on the field, regardless of their class. It led to 17 true freshmen playing for Maryland during a 6-7 season in 2016.

Offensive lineman Terrance Davis started the last nine games. Running back Lorenzo Harrison III was one of the team's two primary ballcarriers before a late-season suspension left him 57 yards shy of a freshman school record. Several defensive players made spot starts.

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Midway through the 2017 season, the number of true freshmen playing for the Terps has dropped dramatically, especially those being used in prominent roles. Of the 34 freshmen, including four walk-ons, 25 have not played a down.

The only freshman to start a game has been quarterback Kasim Hill, whose second start and third appearance ended with a season-ending torn ACL. Whether that changes over the last six games is up for debate.

One thing that hasn't changed is the philosophy Durkin brought with him to Maryland.

After giving up over 1,100 yards and 99 points in the last two games, Maryland defense at the bottom of the Big Ten

"We're still always trying to play the best [players], if we feel a guy can help us win and put us in the best position to do that, we're going to play him, no matter what position he plays and what age, that has not changed," Durkin said during his weekly news conference Tuesday.

"If you start looking, someone on the borderline, [we ask] 'Could he benefit from a couple of snaps a game? Sure. But is that worth where we're going to need him to be a year from now?' There's a lot of those conversations."

Durkin said it usually depends on the player in question, and the position he plays.

Since Maryland's starting defensive line is composed entirely of seniors, and the backups are mostly juniors, it's likely that two of the top prospects in the 2017 recruiting class, Breyon Gaddy and Cam Spence, won't get on the field as freshmen.

It's a little different on the offensive line, where three juniors start with Davis. Freshman Marcus Minor has played in three games behind Damian Prince at right tackle, while freshman center Johnny Jordan and freshman tackle Jordan McNair (McDonogh) have each played in one.

The NCAA will vote in January on legislation that will change the current rule that states a player who is in for one snap has technically lost any chance at gaining a fifth, or redshirt, year. Even though he has played in three games, Hill is still eligible for a medical hardship waiver.

Former Division I coach Glen Mason believes that it's easier for skill players to contribute right away than linemen.

"Typically, the farther you get away from the football, the easier it is to play early," said Mason. "If a guy is a good running back, or a good wide receiver, he can be that coming out of high school. A kid might become a good offensive lineman, but he's been blocking a lot of little kids that played their last game in high school. He ain't doing it in the Big Ten."

Durkin has a similar philosophy about life in the trenches.

"For guys to play at the line of scrimmage, [being] young is probably the most difficult," he said. "That's grown men up there. So we do have a lot of young guys. There's guys that we have really tried to redshirt. There's guys we feel that need the benefit of redshirting that we've put in a developmental program that I'd rather not take out of that."

Mason, who inherited rebuilding situations similar to Maryland throughout his 22-year head coaching career, including stops at Minnesota and Kansas, said Monday that while his philosophy was more like Durkin's, there are other approaches to take.

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"One is that you play the best player regardless of what class he is. You're thinking in the moment," Mason said. "The other end of that is that, you say, 'We're not going to be very good in terms of wins and losses, so let's redshirt everybody, all the good players, with the idea that they're going to be a lot better when they're 21 or 22 years old.

"To me, you've got to be all in either way. When you're vacillating back and forth, I think you've lost the idea of the plan and what's best for the program. I thought for the best interest in the program it was better to gain as much credibility as we possibly could right then and there, at least show you're going in the right direction and build on hope."

That's what the Terps appeared to be doing earlier this season when, despite losing their two top quarterbacks with torn ACLs, Hill and sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome, as well as senior linebacker Jesse Aniebonam with a broken ankle, in the first three games, Maryland started 3-1.

But after two straight losses in which his team was overmatched on the defensive end — surrendering more than 1,100 yards and a combined 99 points in losses to then-No. 10 Ohio State and Northwestern — as well as being inconsistent offensively, Durkin is trying to find a balance.

Considering the difficulty of the schedule with No. 5 Wisconsin on Saturday in Madison and a three-week stretch to close the season that has home games with No. 19 Michigan and No. 2 Penn State sandwiched around a road trip to No. 18 Michigan State, Durkin knows that gaining experience is also important.

"Any experience obviously is something that helps for young guys," Durkin said. "There are some young guys that are playing for the first time, and some young guys that aren't playing yet that are seeing and experiencing things for the first time. It'll certainly help. It's always [an] ongoing development.

Maryland coach DJ Durkin said Tuesday that Big Ten told him officials blew call against Northwestern

"There's older guys in the program that need to continue to develop. I talked to the team about it the other day. We got to keep getting better and better each week. Sometimes it's a mental mindset. It's not just kind of making it through and trying to get to Saturday. If you do that, you'll be decimated by the end of the season."

Sophomore nickel back Antoine Brooks can see the benefit of playing or redshirting. Still recuperating from injuries suffered as a senior at DuVal High in Prince George's County, Brooks started his career as a linebacker and wound up playing in six games as a freshman, mostly on special teams.

"I was watching for a little bit, watching how physical you've got to be in the Big Ten, in college period," said Brooks, who in the past two weeks backed up a career-high 13 tackles at Ohio State with a team-high nine against Northwestern.

"Watching and seeing what's going on, and watching what a person does before you really helps, but also playing. As a freshman, it's good to know the speed, or what somebody else is thinking...It's actually good for both of them."

Mason said that it's actually a fairly straightforward decision to make.

"If you get to a place and a guy's not ready to play, and he might be your best guy, then don't play him," Mason said. "He might be better than that fifth-year senior, but he's not ready. It will be detrimental to his career and it's best to play the fifth-year senior."

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How Maryland freshmen have fared so far in 2017

QB Kasim Hill: Replaced an injured Tyrrell Pigrome and helped preserve a 51-41 win at then-No. 23 Texas by completing all three pass attempts and running for a 3-yard touchdown. Won his first start against Towson by completing 13 of 16 passes for 167 yards and two TDs. Tore ACL in first quarter against Central Florida.

RB Javon Leake: Scored a 61-yard touchdown against Towson and a 20-yard touchdown against Ohio State. Has six carries for 98 yards.

LB Bryce Brand: Played in all six games on defense and special teams. Made first career sack in season opener. Has seven tackles.

WR Tahj Capehart: Played in four games, mostly on special teams.

OL Marcus Minor: Played in three games.

CB Kenny Bennett and C Johnny Jordan: Played in two games each.

OL Jordan McNair and WR Sean Nelson: Played in one game each.

Note: Among the freshmen who have yet to play this year, running back Anthony McFarland will likely redshirt while recovering from a leg injury as a senior at DeMatha, while safety Markquese Bell was suspended before the season for unspecified reasons.

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