The bar has been set, and that worries coach Mike Locksley.
For the second year in a row Wednesday, a highly touted football recruit veered from his projected choice and chose National Signing Day to flip to Maryland. Locksley did not disagree with the notion that fans might begin to assume that he can pull off more rabbit-from-a-hat magic in the future.
“It’s a lot of pressure to keep doing this,” he said Wednesday with a smile after the team announced its class of 21 new players. “I’d like to get to the point where it’s not a big deal to get a five-star player, a four-star player to flip because we’ve created through that growth phase of our program to where it’s expected where they’re not necessarily flips anymore. It’s fun.”
A year ago, five-star wide receiver Rakim Jarrett changed his mind, switching from LSU to sign his national letter of intent with the Terps. On Wednesday, it was four-star outside linebacker Branden Jennings’ turn to follow suit, agreeing to join Maryland during a ceremony at Sandalwood High School in Jacksonville, Florida.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Jennings added to a group that included three other four-star players in defensive end Demeioun Robinson and defensive tackles Tommy Akingbesote and Taizse Johnson. Jennings’ presence lifted the Terps from No. 25 to No. 19 nationally in 247Sports Composite rankings. That’s fourth in the Big Ten behind Ohio State (No. 2), Michigan (No. 10) and Wisconsin (No. 16).
Robinson, a 6-3, 220-pound prospect from Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, is considered the third-best player in the state and the fourth-best nationally at the defensive end position. Johnson, a 6-1, 290-pound senior from St. John’s College in Washington, D.C., is ranked the 17th-best defensive tackle nationally. Akingbesote, a 6-4, 270-pound senior from C.H. Flowers High School in Upper Marlboro, is rated the 14th-best player in Maryland and the 19th-best nationally at the defensive tackle spot.
Jennings’ decision occurred about two months after he made a verbal commitment to Big Ten rival Michigan. He had originally agreed to play at Florida State, where his father Bradley Jennings was a three-year starter at linebacker and won a national championship against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4, 2000.
Successfully recruiting Jennings has enhanced the Terps’ luster, according to Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports.
“Maryland adding to the No. 25 recruiting class in the country in landing Jennings, who is one of the more physically impressive looking prospects on the hook at the position in this class,” he said. “They have a little buzz with the program with some of the games they’ve played this year, and now they’re coming in with a Top 25 recruiting class with Branden Jennings. A lot for Mike Locksley and Co. to be excited about up there in College Park.”
In the same video, Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports, pointed out that Jennings joins freshman middle linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II, who hails from Hollywood, Florida.
“Branden Jennings comes in, another state of Florida linebacker, who’s massive, who’s more of like a thumper, in-the-box type of player, and even maybe long term can move down on the line of scrimmage,” Simmons said.
Locksley pointed out that defensive line coach Brian Williams grew up with Bradley Jennings and had maintained close ties with the family. Locksley said another factor was that Jennings made it to campus before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered traditional recruiting visits.
“I think what we were able to do was show — as I’ve told each recruit — that we’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re not even close to scratching the surface of where we want to be. So I did tell every recruit that we recruited that they would see us take the next step as a program in Year 2, and I think they saw that. I know one of the things he liked was the way we play defense. If you looked at us early in the year against Northwestern to where we are now, our players have developed a mentality of how we want to play defense around here.”
The Terps’ class also includes several three-star recruits from the Baltimore metro area. Three are from St. Frances: defensive ends ZionAngelo Shockley and Terrance Butler and fullback/tight end Joe Bearns III.
McDonogh cornerback Dante Trader Jr., Archbishop Spalding defensive back Jayon Venerable and Bel Air running back Roman Hemby round out the group from the Baltimore area. In all, 13 of the 21 players hail from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, which has been a target goal for Locksley since he became the head coach prior to the 2019 season.
“We’ve taken a step in the right direction,” he said. “We feel pretty good about the ones we were able to keep. The old adage is, it’s not the ones that you lose that beat you, it’s the ones you take that can’t play. We feel good that the ones we’ve taken from this area are all very capable players to help us take the next step as a program. We can always do better here locally, and we will continue to always fight to keep the top talent right here at home. I think as we continue to grow through the growth phase of building this thing, you’ll see us continue to improve in our abilities in keeping some of the top players here in the DMV right here at the crib.”
Four players, including Jennings, played high school football in Florida, and Locksley credited Williams (who grew up in Miami), specials teams coordinator/linebackers coach George Helow (Jacksonville), tight ends coach Mike Miller (West Palm Beach) and co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach Joker Phillips (who was the wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator at Florida in 2013) with helping the school mine that state.
Twelve of the recruits play defense, including six along the defensive line, which Locksley called part of “The Holy Trinity” along with the offensive line and quarterback positions.
“I think you can tell by the names we announced our focus for this season was on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the front seven,” he said. “I firmly believe you need to build your program from the trenches. Last year, we signed six offensive linemen and felt like we took care of getting started with building that side of the ball, and adding quality depth this year, we took care of the defensive side of the ball and defensive line.”
The team said seven of the signees — Jennings, Bearns, safety Corey Coley Jr., tight end CJ Dippre, wide receiver Tai Felton, offensive tackle Kyle Long, and tight end Weston Wolff — plan to enroll early and take part in spring practices.
Locksley said the program isn’t entirely finished recruiting and has established what he labeled “a little rainy day fund” to woo graduate and community college transfers.
“We will continue to actively recruit the best players to come in here and help us build this program,” he said.
Locksley, who turns 51 on Christmas Day, joked this is his favorite time of the year.
“I asked Santa for some defensive help, and I guess I was a good boy for most of COVID,” he said. “He delivered early.”
Maryland football Class of 2021
Defensive tackle Tommy Akingbesote (Bowie/C.H. Flowers)
Fullback/tight end Joe Bearns III (Huntingtown/St. Frances)
Defensive back Corey Boley Jr. (Jacksonville, Fla./Trinity Christian Academy)
Defensive end Terrance Butler Jr. (Essex/St. Frances)
Tight end CJ Dippre (Scott Township, Pa./Lakeland HS)
Wide receiver Tai Felton (Ashburn, Va./Stone Bridge HS)
Running back Roman Hemby (Edgewood/John Carroll)
Tight end Leron Husbands (Seat Pleasant/C.H. Flowers)
Defensive tackle Darrell Jackson (Havana, Fla./Gadsden County HS)
Linebacker Branden Jennings (Jacksonville, Fla./Sandalwood HS)
Defensive tackle Taizse Johnson (District Heights/St. John’s College HS)
Running back Antwaine Littleton Jr. (Washington D.C./St. John’s College HS)
Offensive tackle Kyle Long (St. Louis, Mo./Hazelwood Central HS)
Running back Colby McDonald (Accokeek/St. John’s College HS)
Defensive lineman Andre Porter (Washington, D.C./Washington HS)
Linebacker Demeioun Robinson (Gaithersburg/Quince Orchard HS)
Defensive end Zion Shockley (Baltimore/St. Frances)
Linebacker Gereme Spraggins (Odenton/Arundel HS)
Defensive back Dante Trade Jr. (Delmar, Del./McDonogh HS)
Defensive back Jayon Venerable (Glen Burnie/Archbishop Spalding)
Tight end Weston Wolff (Englewood, Fla./Venice HS)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM
Line: Maryland by 2½