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Terps' football games in Florida could help broaden their recruiting footprint

Maryland coach DJ Durkin gestures during the second half of an NCAA football game against Howard, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in College Park.
Maryland coach DJ Durkin gestures during the second half of an NCAA football game against Howard, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in College Park. (Nick Wass / AP)

COLLEGE PARK — Given that college football games are typically scheduled years — and sometimes decades — in advance, new Maryland coach DJ Durkin had nothing to do with the back-to-back trips the Terps will make to Florida this month.

While Durkin might not have subjected his young team to two straight road games, he understands the long-term benefits of playing Florida International on Friday in Miami and Central Florida a week from Saturday in Orlando. It's a chance to build a program with a recruiting footprint stretching south.

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"Florida is definitely an important area for us," Durkin said Tuesday. "We have a good presence in Florida. Our staff has good connections down there. There are good players down there, so we'll always continue to recruit down there."

Two commits for the Class of 2017 currently play high school football in Florida, including five-star defensive end Joshua Kaindoh, who grew up in Middle River and is playing his senior year at the IMG Academy in Bradenton.

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Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, thinks the Terps are positioned well to acquire talent from the Sunshine State.

"You're not going to win the big battles [in Florida] too often, with the big three [Florida, Florida State and Miami] or the SEC unless you're Ohio State or Michigan, but you can find a lot of talent down there," Farrell said. "If you do well playing those Florida teams, and show kids you're a good option for them if they don't have Big Three offers, I think it's important."

But right now, recruiting can take a back seat. Durkin is focused on the Panthers (0-1), first and foremost.

Florida International, which plays in Conference-USA, lost 34-13 in its opener at home against Indiana.

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"I don't really know how you can measure the importance of a game played in Florida when it comes to recruiting down there," Durkin said. "For us, no matter where we're playing or who we're playing, it is game No. 2, and we have to find a way to win the game."

Said offensive coordinator Walt Bell, "Is Florida a huge piece for us? Yes. Is us playing a game there the end-all-be-all and will it somehow manage to help recruiting opportunities or will it somehow put us in a position to recruit some of the blue-bloods? Maybe, maybe not. I think for us, we need to go down, do well and be successful. I think if we do that, that will help us."

Needless to say, the 13 current Terps on the roster who grew up in the talent-rich state are excited about their respective homecomings. (One of them, sophomore cornerback JC Jackson, who grew up in Immokalee, might not be active because of an "academic matter" that kept the junior college transfer off the field for the season opener against Howard. He had not been cleared to play as of Thursday.)

"It's going to be a nice feeling to play back in Florida and play in front of my family," said senior safety Denzel Conyers, who grew up in St. Petersburg. "This is going to be their first game seeing me live since I was in high school. I'm just honored and blessed to be in this program and to be around everything that is going on. It's going to be a thrill."

Only senior cornerback and return specialist Will Likely, who grew up less than an hour away in Belle Glade, has played a college game in his home state. That was a painful 63-0 demolition at No. 8 Florida State when Maryland was 4-0 and ranked 25th in 2013.

Not only did those who'll make homecomings have to prepare for the first of two straight potential "trap" games against non-Power 5 conference opponents, but Likely and others expecting a large group of family members and friends at the game had to figure out how to handle their ticket allotment.

Each player receives four complementary tickets to disperse.

"We ask guys around, 'Can I get some of your tickets for this weekend?' Everybody is understanding," Conyers said. "We don't get to Florida like – ever. It's just like a code, it's understood. Anybody from the state got first dibs on tickets. Everybody has been very genuine in helping us out."

While it appears as if Durkin and his staff have focused their aim for 2017 and beyond on trying to keep the best local talent from leaving the state of Maryland and Washington, D.C., the importance of keeping ties to Florida are obvious. Along with California and Texas, it produces the most talent of any state in terms of college football.

Conyers knows that winning the next two road games could be "a statement to the young prospects coming up in the state of Florida that Maryland is potentially, if not already, a pipeline and they should seriously consider coming.

"This will put a stamp on a process already that our coaching staff is recruiting the state of Florida," he said. "I believe that our showcasing the dudes on the team, showing our talent, the young kids will see that Maryland is for real."

Bell is hoping to show a state filled with skill position players how much fun it might be to play in Maryland's spread offense someday.

"A big part of us recruiting down below is us being able to run successful plays," Bell said Wednesday. If we can do that, then a lot of those things will handle themselves. Obviously, we have to do a good job, and we have to do a great job as an organization in recruiting the right people."

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