Maryland coach Mike Locksley talks about preparing for Saturday’s game at Rutgers in the aftermath of Scarlet Knights coach Chris Ash being fired Sunday.
COLLEGE PARK — First-year Maryland football coach Mike Locksley has enough familiarity with Nunzio Campanile’s nearly two decades coaching high school in New Jersey to know the new Rutgers interim coach likes to run a spread offense.
But Locksley has a greater sense of what Campanile and the Scarlet Knights are going through as they prepare for Saturday’s game against the Terps because he experienced it himself four years ago after he was named Maryland’s interim coach.
“I equate this game a lot to playing an opening game. You don’t know what you’re going to get,” Locksley said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “You anticipate some things. Obviously there’s very few things you can just wholesale change and just go from a pro-style system to running wishbone. At least I don’t think you can in a three-day period.”
Like Campanile, who was named to the position after Chris Ash was fired Sunday following a 1-3 start that included a 52-0 loss at then-No. 20 Michigan the previous day, Locksley took over in the middle of the 2015 season after Randy Edsall was fired six games into his fifth season.
Locksley had the benefit of a bye week to prepare for his debut, which came against Penn State at M&T Bank Stadium. The Terps, who had lost three straight games after a 2-1 start, nearly beat the Nittany Lions in Baltimore before losing a heartbreaker, 31-30.
“You don’t change the structure of how you do things, but I definitely flipped the practice schedules because my big goal when I took over was to make sure those seniors had the best experience they could possibly have their senior year,” Locksley said this week.
“Those are the kids that get kind of screwed when you fire coaches in the middle of the year. Those guys that have spent four years there and then they’re in the middle of their senior year and in the middle of it, you’ve got to make adjustments.”
Maryland wound up being much more competitive under Locksley than the Terps had been under Edsall that season.
After the narrow loss to Penn State, the Terps hung in late with No. 10 Iowa, losing 31-15 on the road, and lost in their first home game under Locksley, 31-24, to Wisconsin. After losing 24-7 at No. 14 Michigan State and 47-28 at home to Indiana, Maryland won its last game.
Coincidentally, it came at Rutgers, when Maryland won a shootout, 46-41. Despite that victory, Locksley failed to retain the job when then-athletic director Kevin Anderson hired relative unknown Michigan defensive coordinator DJ Durkin.
“Obviously it’s disappointing whenever you see a coach get let go in the middle of the year. I’ve experienced both sides of it. I’ve been let go as a head coach but also as an interim,” said Locksley, who was fired four games into his third season at New Mexico in 2011, his only head coaching job before Maryland. “Yeah, it’s a challenge.”
Not only has Locksley gone through it, but so have his players. After Durkin was placed on administrative leave a few weeks before the start of the 2018 season after the heatstroke death of offensive tackle Jordan McNair, offensive coordinator Matt Canada was elevated to interim coach by athletic director Damon Evans.
“You saw the rally that they put together when they played Texas this last year with the interim situation,” Locksley said, alluding to the Terps’ 34-29 win over the then-No. 23 Longhorns at FedEx Field. "There’s nothing worse than playing a team that doesn’t have much to lose.”
Asked how much the emotions played into last year’s win over Texas, senior safety Antoine Brooks Jr. said Tuesday: “It was a big factor. ... You’ve got a bunch of guys that want to just come together, say, ‘This is it. It happens, life goes on, we’ve got to keep moving.’ Just fight together every day and get good habits and behaviors every day so we can just move on and get better as a football player and as a person.”
Locksley said he expects the Scarlet Knights, who also lost their Big Ten opener at Iowa, 30-0, to rally behind the 42-year-old Campanile, who was hired to the team’s staff less than two years ago after turning Bergen Catholic High into a national power. Campanile will also call plays since offensive coordinator John McNulty was fired. He’ll also have a new quarterback, as Art Sitkowski, who started the past two games for the Scarlet Knights, has asked to redshirt this season. Johnny Langan, a redshirt transfer from Boston College who played for Campanile at Bergen Catholic, will start Saturday.
Despite the fact that Ash’s teams were a collective 8-32 in a little over three seasons, including 3-26 in the Big Ten (with a win over Maryland in Piscataway, New Jersey, two years ago), some of that feeling has to do with the coach who won’t be on the sideline.
“I imagine knowing Coach Ash and the type of team he developed, these guys will rally together to form a bond and play for each other,” Locksley said. ”We expect them to have all types of effort. You can expect anything. When I was the interim coach, one of the things I know I used to say was, ‘Hey, you can do anything you want. We can fake punts.’
“Our guys have to be prepared for any and everything. They have nothing to lose. The type of team when you watch the way they’ve played, they’ll bond together and they’ll give us a good fight.”
Maryland (2-2) comes in to SHI Stadium in Piscataway trying to break a two-game losing streak after an embarrassing 59-0 home defeat to then-No. 12 Penn State last Friday. Locksley said the preparation for Saturday’s game was spent cleaning up the sloppy tackling (17 missed tackles against the Nittany Lions) and self-destructive penalties (nine in each of the past two games) that led to the defeats.
“It starts with what Maryland does,” Locksley said. “We need to be really clean in terms of our execution, in terms of our assignments, making sure that we know and we can execute our stuff first. What we’re going to have to do is be really clean on our alignments and our assignments and once we get into the game, the adjustment piece becomes huge for us.”