“I’m the offensive coordinator. I’m still an assistant coach. We’re working through this process,” said Terps' Interim football coach Matt Canada about the transition in the absence of DJ Durkin. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
COLLEGE PARK — Maryland interim football coach Matt Canada said Wednesday that the Terps are practicing with a dual focus — playing with the memory of Jordan McNair’s death still fresh and raw, as well as preparing for the Sept. 1 season opener against Texas at FedExField.
“Our practices have been extremely crisp,” Canada said, estimating that Tuesday’s practice lasted 1 hour, 46 minutes. “The focus of our players’ health and safety is No. 1 and our players are feeling that and understanding that, and that has been our primary focus.”
Despite being named to take charge of the team after Terps head coach DJ Durkin, 40, was placed on administrative leave Saturday, Canada said his new title has not distracted him from his main duties nor his place in the coaching hierarchy in Durkin’s absence.
Maryland redshirt senior linebacker Jesse Aniebonam and Wade Lees, the team's 30-year-old Australian punter, are among what they see as a majority of players who are upset about DJ Durkin being put on administrative leave.
“I’m the offensive coordinator," said Canada, who was hired by Durkin for that job in January after Walt Bell left for Florida State. “I’m still an assistant coach. We’re working through this process. There’s a review and all those things going on. I think it’s a different situation. Every season is different.
“This is certainly a challenging situation. And the focus of that is we’re all still grieving for Jordan. That’s what we’re focusing on as an entire program. We have 110 players, we’ve got 60, 70, 80 more people who work with our players, for our players, and we’re all doing that, so that’s where we are.”
Canada, 46, wants the focus to be on McNair, who died June 13 of heatstroke, 15 days after the 19-year-old struggled to finish a conditioning test. After that, Canada said he believes the attention should be on the players remaining in a program that suddenly finds itself in an unwanted national spotlight.
On Tuesday afternoon, athletic director Damon Evans and university president Wallace D. Loh said at a news conference that they apologized to McNair’s grieving parents in Baltimore earlier that day and announced the hiring of a four-person commission to look into the “culture” of the football program
“Obviously we’ve had a lot going on here,” Canada said. “I want to talk about our players. I want to emphasize what a great job they’ve done, how proud we are of them. They’ve been through a lot. They’re working extremely hard. They are unbelievable kids.
“I think that is something that no matter what comes out of this conversation, I want that to be echoed, that our players are special. They’ve done a great job sticking together. They’re excited to play football on Sept. 1, and we as a staff are really excited to watch them play.”
The Terps, coming off a 4-8 season that included losing their top two quarterbacks in the first three games, will play the Longhorns in a rematch of last year’s season-opening 51-41 victory for Maryland over then-No. 23 Texas.
Canada, who previously spent one season as offensive coordinator at LSU and is now in his seventh coaching stop in the past nine years, has more to do now than just getting quarterbacks Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome ready. Both Hill, a redshirt freshman, and Pigrome, a redshirt sophomore, are coming back from torn ACLs.
After Maryland strength and conditioning coach Rick Court resigned from his post Monday — Court was one of four staff members initially placed on administrative leave — Canada said assistant strength and conditioning coach Mason Baggett has assumed the lead role.
“This is a transitional period as you guys know,” Canada said. “Things are happening day by day by day. Our strength staff has done a great job. Mason has taken over right now. I’m an interim coach. We are just moving forward. Our entire staff has done a tremendous job of coming together, of bonding together, of making it about our players. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when nobody gets the credit. We’re seeing that right now in our building.”
With trainer Wes Robinson and director of athletic training Steve Nordwall also on administrative leave, Canada said the football team has pulled trainers from “all parts of our department, outside of our department.”
“We’re making sure that everything is taken care of,” Canada said. “We’ve got a great staff. Our players feel good about it. My job is not necessarily to do that prior to this; now it is. I’m checking on the reports and we’re all doing well.”
Maryland had two cooling tents set up at Wednesday’s practice, which had fans that sprayed water on players. There were also cold tubs placed near the practice field. Medical experts told The Baltimore Sun on Monday that McNair’s health could have hinged on Maryland’s adherence to medical guidelines for treating heatstroke, including cold-water immersion — a practice which doctors said likely saved Gavin Class’ life after he was stricken during a Towson University football practice in 2013.
University of Maryland president Wallace D. Loh and athletic director Damon Evans met Tuesday in Baltimore with the family of Jordan McNair, who died from heatstroke June 13. They also announced the formation of a national commission to look into the Terps' football culture.
Canada said he has spoken to Durkin “to support him in a situation that’s really challenging and that’s as far as I’m going to go with that.” In his brief meeting with the team Saturday, Canada said he told the players, “We’re all in it together, we’re going to work through it together. Talk to each other, lean on each other, be with each other, talk to their families.”
Canada said he has met with “about 40” of the defensive players since being named interim coach “to make sure they understand they can come to me for whatever they need. We have a great defensive staff, we have a great defensive plan.”
Asked if he has talked with any parents of players, Canada said, “I’ve talked to a couple of parents. I’ve been very open and honest, which I think is the only way to be. Everyone’s concerns right now are very wide-ranging. Our parents and our players want to have a good football season. That’s what they’re focused on."
Canada said Evans has set up a meeting with the parents Saturday morning before the team’s scrimmage.
Asked how to describe the culture of Maryland football, Canada said, “Our culture right now is great. Our culture right now is awesome. Our kids are excited to practice, excited to play. They’re loving each other. At times are we grieving for Jordan? We are. Our culture right now is really, really good. Our staff is working to continue to make it better.”