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‘Who’s going to get the big one?’: Behind the scenes for Maryland football’s stunning signing day

COLLEGE PARK — National signing day started slowly Wednesday morning inside the Gossett Team House meeting room, where Mike Locksley, who recently celebrated his first anniversary as Maryland football coach, began waiting anxiously with his staff.

Though three-star offensive tackle Ja’Khi Green of St. Frances officially became the first future Terp to sign a minute past the event’s 7 a.m. start time, it took several more minutes for Locksley to get official word. The delay was caused in part by the technology Maryland and other college teams now use.

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“I never waited this long when there were faxes,” Locksley said, half-jokingly.

The wait for the day’s biggest news — that five-star wide receiver Rakim Jarrett of St. John’s High in Washington, who previously committed to LSU but had visited with Locksley as recently as last week, would sign with the Terps — was still nearly five hours away.

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In between, the mood in the room seemed to fluctuate depending on the announcements. Most came on social media, from players who had followed through on their pledges to Maryland the past few months, as well those — including Jarrett and four-star quarterback Jeff Sims of Jacksonville, Florida — that Locksley was trying to flip.

When Green briefly interrupted his night’s sleep to sign, Locksley FaceTimed with the 6-foot-6, 317-pound lineman. While laughing, he told Green that his lead recruiter, wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, had won a $100 “Christmas present” for having the first recruit to make it official.

“I wanted to get up early and get it done with. All the coaches wanted me to get it done early, so I got it done,” Green said in a telephone interview after the signing ceremony at St. Frances later in the morning. “It really did feel special to me being the closest to home and me being the first one [to sign]. It was fun.”

After a flurry of early signings of four players from Florida — linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II, who had been the only four-star player to commit before signing day, along with wide receiver Deajuan McDougle and safeties Riyad Wilmot and Glen Miller, all three-star prospects — Lockley had a question for his assistants.

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“Who’s going to get the big one?” he asked, directing the friendly challenge to running backs coach Elijah Brooks and tight ends coach Mike Miller before leaving it for the rest of the staff to consider.

After Sims was apparently not going to be the answer by announcing during a news conference at his high school that he was going to play at Georgia Tech, the mood changed. The feed of the news conference the Maryland coaches were watching on a big screen in the “war room” disappeared and the room quickly grew silent.

Locksley, who was visibly disappointed by the news, left the room. He disappeared for a few minutes to talk with another recruit on the cell phone. He then returned, clapping his hands and raising his voice.

“Let’s get THE ENERGY GOING!” he said.

Again, he wondered aloud.

“Who’s got the big one?”

A five-star surprise

A few minutes before noon, word trickled into the room that Jarrett, the 20th-ranked player in the country and the No. 2 wide receiver, had tweeted out his intentions to sign with the Terps.

The announcement, perhaps the most stunning flip in all of college football Wednesday, even seemed to take Locksley even by surprise.

Though Locksley had known Jarrett since he was in the eighth grade — when he chose to play at St. John’s before the Washington school had become a powerhouse — the coach thought Jarrett was something of a longshot given the competition. LSU went 13-0, won the SEC and reached the College Football Playoff for the first time. Maryland wasn’t even on Jarrett’s original list of 10 schools.

“His process was all over the place from our standpoint because you didn’t have any information,” Locksley said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “We had no idea he was signing today, we had no idea he was coming to us. All of sudden, he puts out a tweet that says, “COMMITTED”.

“And we’re like, ‘What is this?’ Really unique. But nothing happens by accident. I think our staff as a whole collectively did a really good job of being consistent with him, giving him space, showing him the things that Maryland could do for his [progress]."

Locksley wasn’t the only key participant caught a bit off-guard by Jarrett’s signing. It took nearly two hours for Jarrett’s mother, who was driving “somewhere on [Interstate] 270,” to get off the road, out of her car and find a place where she could locate the email from Teamworks, the website Maryland uses on signing day, to officially give written approval of her son’s decision.

When that happened, Locksley got on his cell to Jarrett’s mother, Ann.

“We’re about to have an eruption here,” Locksley told her.

“Here we go,” she said.

“Could I get a countdown, like a 5-4-3-2-1?,” Locksley asked his coaches.

“We got a whole room of grown people about to go crazy in here,” he told Jarrett’s mother. “I’m telling you it’s these people, but it’s really me.”

“You got yourselves a football player,” Jarrett’s mother told Locksley.

The signature popped up on the computer in the meeting room.

“We are OFFICIAL!” Locksley shouted, as cheers broke out. “Wooo!”

And with that, Maryland had its first five-star recruit since offensive tackle Damian Prince signed in 2014 and the fourth-highest rated player the Terps had ever signed since the ratings began.

Jarrett became most celebrated prospect to sign with Maryland since wide receiver Stefon Diggs in 2012. It was Locksley, at the time just taking over for James Franklin as the offensive coordinator under Randy Edsall, who also flipped Diggs from Ohio State.

It was time for Locksley to walk down the hall and over to the auditorium for his news conference.

A late push

While the signing of Diggs eight years ago had only moved the Terps up to No. 37 nationally and fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the signing of Jarrett pushed Maryland up eight spots to No. 27 overall and four places in the Big Ten, from 10th to sixth, in the 247 Sports Composite rankings.

Last month, Locksley seemed on the verge of a lackluster recruiting class after a 3-9 season that ended with eight losses in the team’s last nine games. By Wednesday afternoon, that all seemed to change, not only with the signing of Jarrett, but with nearly two dozen others and the prospect of a couple of more.

“He’s a kid who grew up watching and rooting for Stefon Diggs, and I think the effect of what Stefon was able to do here played heavily in it,” Locksley told reporters. “We’ve got really good players in this area ... and if a guy like Rakim Jarrett thinks Maryland is good enough to help him develop him on and off the field, the challenge is for others to believe the same.”

Asked if signing a five-star player could help in future recruiting success, Locksley said: “The stars for us don’t matter, but it goes along the line that peer pressure still runs recruiting. And when players that respect Rakim Jarrett as a football player see him sign and come to a place like Maryland, I think it opens up eyes and doors that Maryland could be the type of program that has the ability to develop you.”

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Reminded that this is the first time in recent memory — since 2011 — that the Terps didn’t sign a quarterback, Locksley had a quick response.

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“Yet,” he said.

He then elaborated.

“We’re going to try to find the best players we can possibly find, whether it’s quarterback, D-line, O-line,” he said. “We’re still have some work to do in recruiting. Again, the [NCAA] transfer portal, the grad transfers, opportunities are there. We’ve got another month after this signing date to kind of go out and see what’s out there. We’re not going to be afraid to recruit every position we possibly can to make us a better team overall."

The long day was nearly over.

And after a “big one” had been hauled in, Maryland’s master flipper was very happy.

Maryland’s 2020 signing class

Five stars

WR Rakim Jarrett, St. John’s College, Washington

Four stars

LB Ruben Hyppolite II, McArthur High, Hollywood, Florida

Three stars

RB Peny Boone, Martin Luther King, Detroit

RB Isaiah Jacobs, Owasso High, Owasso, Oklahoma

WR Deajaun McDougle, Deerfield Beach High, Deerfield Beach, Florida

CB Tarheeb Still, Timber Creek, Sicklerville, New Jersey

S Beau Brade, River Hill, Clarksville

DE Riyad Wilmot, St. Thomas Aquinas, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

CB Jakorian Bennett, Hutchinson Community College, Hutchinson, Kansas

DT Ami Finau, Independence C.C., Independence, Kansas

DE Mosiah Nasili-Kite, Independence C.C., Independence, Kansas

OG Khristopher Love, American Heritage, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

CB Devyn King, Junipero Serra, Gardena, California

WR Nick DeGennaro, Hun School, Princeton, New Jersey

CB Shane Mosley, Haverford, Havertown, Pennsylvania

S Glen Miller, Ridgeview, Orange Park, Florida

OT Delmar Glaze, West Mecklenburg, Charlotte, North Carolina

OT Ja’Khi Green, St. Frances, Baltimore

DT Tre Smith, Mountain Ridge, Frostburg

OT Zach Perkins, Berkeley Prep, Tampa, Florida

LB TJ Kautai, Independence C.C., Independence, Kansas

OG Johari Branch, Independence C.C., Independence, Kansas

LB Frankie Burgess, Pahokee High, Pahokee, Florida

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