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As signing day nears, the mantra for Maryland football coaches is ‘finish strong’

Maryland football coach DJ Durkin talks about the team's recruiting class. (Don Markus/Baltimore Sun video)

As an up-and-coming assistant coach at West Virginia nearly a decade ago, Chris Beatty thought he had a five-star prospect locked up heading into National Signing Day.

When the fax machines started humming that morning in Morgantown, and the signed national letters of intent for the Mountaineers began to roll in, Beatty waited anxiously as the one he had anticipated most didn't appear.

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"I said at the end, 'We got him, it's all good,'" Beatty, now going into his second season as the wide receivers coach at Maryland, said recently.

Turns out, they didn't have him. Clearly, it still stings.

"The guy turned out to be what I thought he was," Beatty said. "He's still playing in the NFL."

Beatty equates the last few days, or even hours, of the recruiting process to a fumble in football.

"Some people will let up because they think they've got it, and somebody else is going to dive under and get it," he said. "I don't want somebody diving to knock that ball out of my hands. We're going to go to the finish line."

With the Wednesday finish line in sight, Maryland coach DJ Durkin and his staff are trying to complete what has the potential to be the highest-rated recruiting class in Maryland history.

Ranked as high as 11th by Scout.com last week — though still behind Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten's East Division — Durkin is trying to do what his predecessors haven't done in a while, if ever.

The Terps want to keep the best local talent at home, and build from there. Of the 28 players that remain verbally committed, including eight four-star prospects, half of them are from Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.

That is one of the reasons Durkin's original staff included three assistants and support staff members involved in recruiting who had ties to what everyone calls the "DMV".

Beatty, who grew up in Centreville, Va., was a successful high school coach at Lansdowne High (40-2 from 2003-05). During his three seasons at West Virginia, Beatty helped recruit former Dunbar star Tavon Austin, now with the Los Angeles Rams.

Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, who coaches the defensive backs, was raised in Northeast D.C., and returned home after playing at San Diego State to coach Friendship Academy, a charter school that sent more than 40 players to Division I schools, including eight to Maryland, since 2009.

Former defensive line coach and associate head coach Mike London, who left in January to become the head coach at Howard, won a Football Championship Subdivision national title at Richmond in 2008 and then spent six seasons (2010-15) as the coach at Virginia.

"I think a lot of it is relationships, when you have past relationships and people trust the people that are telling them," Beatty said. "Aazaar's known people here forever. And I've always recruited here. When it's people that they know and feel comfortable with and when they get here, they like what they see, they like what they hear."

Said Abdul-Rahim, who came to Maryland after spending two seasons on Nick Saban's staff at Alabama, "I feel like I can recruit anywhere. It's a relationship business. I've been around kids for the last 20 years. Just mentoring and trying to be as impactful as possible in their lives. That's probably one of my biggest attributes is connecting with young men."

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Even before this year's class was fully developed, both Beatty and Abdul-Rahim earned recognition from recruiting analysts as being among the best in the country, with both listed on websites as among the top 10 recruiters nationally.

"It's a huge difference since the [Randy] Edsall years when [Mike] Locksley was doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to the local guys," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.

Farrell said that because of their backgrounds as local high school coaches, Beatty and Abdul-Rahim, "have core relationships going back sometimes a decade. They know not only the guys that are coaching these guys in high school, but also the guys that coached these guys at a grassroots level in eighth grade and are still in their lives helping them make decisions."

After recruiting five-star prospects from the Baltimore-Washington corridor to Tuscaloosa for a couple of years, Abdul-Rahim is using almost a reverse pitch to get them to College Park.

"You see the upper-echelon talent in the DMV area can play anywhere in the country. It's now a matter of convincing them, 'Yeah, you can go to all these places, but why not stay home and have allegiance?'" Abdul-Rahim said. "In the same way schools down south do. They can say it isn't true, but you have to have allegiance to your backyard. You do. And sometimes you may get the benefit of the doubt."

Then there's Durkin, who gained national recognition as Rivals.com's recruiter of the year in 2012 as an assistant at Florida.

"DJ takes recruiting very seriously," Beatty said. "A lot of younger [head] coaches are more adept at how important recruiting has become. Not to say older coaches aren't. But they [younger coaches] are more active on social media and all the things that go into recruiting that didn't used to.

"DJ takes pride in being a recruiter and being able to do a little bit extra. In the end, good players make all those plays a lot better, no matter what you draw up. He's extremely active in it. He does a great job in facilitating what we're trying to get done on the recruiting trail, probably a lot more than most."

Durkin has said since being hired that the deep pool of Division I talent within a three-hour drive of the Maryland campus was one of the biggest attractions to the job.

"Being in this area, this is one of the reasons I believe that this place will be great and we will be competing for championships — because of the level of talent in this area," Durkin said in January. "My expectation was to come in here and battle tooth and nail for every single guy we feel can help us win a championship.

"We'll fight whatever team comes in. Obviously we're not going to win every one of those battles, but we are going to fight to the death."

While the Terps lost out Monday on four-star linebacker Ellis Brooks of Richmond, Va., who picked Penn State, many expect that a late home visit from Durkin, Abdul-Rahim and defensive coordinator Andy Buh helped four-star cornerback Tariq Castro Fields of Upper Marlboro hold off his decision until Wednesday.

Farrell said that what Durkin is doing as a head coach in terms of recruiting has become the norm, and in Maryland's case, a necessity.

"DJ was always a good recruiter, but now it's a requirement," Farrell said. "A decade ago, head coaches started getting much more involved in the process. You had guys like Joe Pa [Paterno] and Bobby Bowden and everything seemed to pass them by. …When you don't have a head coach to close, when you don't have a head coach involved with it, you're in trouble."

There are still some stumbles. After getting a verbal commitment last summer from Joshua Kaindoh, the five-star defensive end from Essex who played his senior year at the IMG Academy in Florida changed his mind and committed to Florida State. The departure of London has reportedly made twin defensive tackles Breyon and Brandon Gaddy of Virginia Beach rethink their decision.

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Last Friday's commitment from four-star DeMatha running Anthony McFarland, who picked the Terps over Miami and Alabama, is an indication that Maryland could finish strong.

McFarland's commitment might have secured a Top 25 finish in recruiting for the Terps. The potential addition of Castro-Fields could keep Maryland in the top 15.

Farrell believes that given the size of this year's Maryland class, it could be a "make or break" situation, depending on how many of the commitments the Terps hold onto and whether they add to the quality of the class with a few strong late additions.

Both Abdul-Rahim and Beatty know that the Maryland staff has plenty of competition.

"If you get too far ahead of yourself and think you're already in, that the kid is signed, that's when someone else comes in," Abdul-Rahim said. "It's a helluva courtship. The minute they don't feel the attention — some of them — someone else can give them that attention."

Said Beatty, "Everyone's trying to finish strong. Whether they finish with their players or your players, they're going to try to finish strong."

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