Damian Prince and Derwin Gray have seemingly been lurking near the spotlight at Maryland forever, not simply the two years they have spent together playing college football.
Once stars on their high school teams in Washington that scrimmaged each other, the junior offensive linemen finally seem ready to assume a similar role for the Terps.
Prince, who was one of the top offensive tackles in the country at Bishop McNamara in Forestville, doesn’t feel consumed by the outsized expectations that followed him to Maryland.
“I don’t really feel I didn’t live up to expectations. I have my own expectations and goals,” said Prince, who started all 13 games last season after starting six as a freshman.
During spring practice, Gray summed up their journey.
"We always talk about how we came in as highly recruited," said Gray, who graduated high school a year earlier than Prince "and now we finally have an opportunity to be both [starting] tackles."
While Prince has taken the typical path for an offensive lineman, Gray had a much more difficult journey. After committing to Maryland while at Friendship Collegiate, he failed to qualify academically and spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy.
“It was an interesting experience,” Gray said last week. “A lot of my teammates now watch the Netflix show ‘Last Chance U’ and it basically reminds me of being back at Fork Union. You started from the dirt, basically.”
It has made Gray appreciate what he has now.
“At Fork Union, it was pretty strict. You played football after your military and academic stuff was done,” Gray said. “You studied, you marched, you saluted the flag, then you played football. It gave me a lot of discipline.”
Gray struggled his first two years at Maryland, redshirting as a freshman and playing in only two games in 2015. Gray spent most of last season backing up Michael Dunn at left tackle, getting three starts late in the year when Dunn was injured.
With the departure of Dunn and guard Mike Minter, who both went from walk-ons to stalwarts the past three seasons, Maryland will be relying on Prince and Gray — as well as junior center Brendan Moore and sophomore guard Terrance Davis — to show the Terps are ready to compete in the Big Ten trenches this year.
It means continuing to open holes for running backs Ty Johnson, Lorenzo Harrison Jr. and others, something the line did quite well last season. More importantly, it means protecting whoever starts at quarterback, something that has been problematic.
While the Terps finished a respectable fourth in the Big Ten in rushing — despite Harrison being suspended for the past four games — the pocket constantly collapsed around senior quarterback Perry Hills and his backups. Maryland gave up 49 sacks, second-worst among Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
“You really don’t want to harp on negative things, but as a group or a unit we kind of take a mental note of it and let that be a motivating factor as we’re working out, as we’re meeting and we’re saying, ‘We definitely got a lot of room for improvement, we’ve got a long way to go,’ ” Prince said. “We don’t want that number of sacks to be indicative of who we are as a unit.”
Said Gray: “Obviously our strong suit last year was running the ball... Passing attack, sometimes it’s on the offensive line, sometimes it’s another player. We take pride in not allowing sacks. At the end of the day, nobody wants the sacks to be on the offensive line.”
Gray said that much of the offseason was spent working with new offensive line coach Tyler Bowen on improving their pass-blocking techniques. Bowen, a former Maryland tight end under Ralph Friedgen, is the team’s third offensive line coach in as many years.
“We’ve got to turn all of that potential into pure production,” Bowen said during spring practice, “and pick up where they stopped last year and keep improving throughout the summer and fall camp.”
Both players said that the change from veteran Dave Borbely (now special assistant to DJ Durkin) to Bowen has been relatively seamless.
“The transition hasn’t been hard for me...as the years go on you kinda learn how to interact with different types of people, not necessarily different types of coaches,” Prince said. “But I feel comfortable with the system. I thought I felt comfortable in the system last year.”
Said Gray: “Coach Bowen is very patient. He’s not just going to throw you out there. He does a great job teaching fundamentals. His thing is coaching from the ground up, starting with your footwork through your arms and your mind.”
Asked whether the constant turnover in coaches has stunted his growth and consistency, Prince said, “For me being a younger player at that time [when Durkin came in], it was harder then than it is now. As you get older, you start to mature and learn yourself more, you try to implement your game.”
Prince and Gray — physically imposing bookends at 6 feet 3, 315-pounds and 6-5, 330 pounds, respectively — believe there should be more cohesion on the offensive line because of the chemistry in a starting lineup that includes Moore and Davis, both of whom started every game last season, and whoever takes over for Minter at guard.
“I would say this group here, we have the most chemistry right now,” Gray said. “Last season we had older guys that had been here for five years, we had some younger guys, it was all sprinkled in. The chemistry probably wasn’t there sometimes."
Said Prince, who likely will be a fixture at tackle after also playing guard last season: “We came in together. I would definitely go as far as to say we know each other better than some of the different mixes of some of the offensive lines in the past.”
Developing depth on the offensive line before the Sept. 2 season opener at Texas in crucial to the unit’s development.
While Prince isn’t sure who will be added to the mix, he said, “I believe the goal of each and every team is to get as many guys in the mix as possible. That’s kind of what we want to see, who’s going to get in the mix and who’s not.”