COLLEGE PARK — — In a perfect world, Randy Edsall can envision the day when the Maryland football team plays before packed crowds at Byrd Stadium, when the Terps challenge perennial powers in their league, when he and his staff attract most of the top high school talent in the state as well as from other parts of the country.
Then Edsall quickly snaps out of that world and gets back to reality. And back to work.
This is Edsall's reality right now: the Terps have won just six games in his first two seasons since he replaced Ralph Friedgen, four of the victories coming in the first six games of last season before injuries decimated his team, particularly at quarterback. With converted freshman linebacker Shawn Petty at the most key position on the field, Maryland finished its 4-8 season on a six-game losing streak.
This is also Edsall's reality as Maryland finished spring practice last month: despite the fact that the Terps have had their worst back-to-back seasons since the late 1960s, the past two recruiting classes have given he and Maryland fans hope as the program begins its transition from playing the school's final year in the Atlantic Coast Conference before joining the Big Ten in 2014.
For the second straight year, Maryland's recruiting class was ranked among the top 35 in the country by some analysts. A 22-player class led by four-star recruit linebacker Yannick Ngakoue and junior college All-American receiver Deon Long — rated by some as the top junior college prospect in the country — has given Edsall and his assistants reason to believe that the Terps can be a bowl team in 2013.
"You hope that because of depth and what we recruited, if we do end up with a situation — hopefully we won't — like we did a year ago, we have better prepared ourselves to overcome those things because of what we've been able to do from a recruiting standpoint," Edsall said. "In terms of elevating our recruiting, we've got to keep pushing and climbing the stairs in terms of going up the mountain in a gradual process and not have any setbacks."
Asked to compare this year's recruiting class to last year, when the late addition of electrifying wide receiver and return specialist Stefon Diggs helped a class ranked in the 50s move up some 20 places in the eyes of some recruiting analysts, Edsall said, "You never know for three to four years down the road. I think the one thing is, when you look at it, we were able to help ourselves in the areas that we have need."
Analysts are cautious
Adam Friedman, the Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, which ranked Maryland's latest class 31st in the country and fifth in the ACC (fourth among current and future Big Ten teams), said Edsall has the program moving in the right direction in terms of most skill position players. But Maryland still needs to upgrade at quarterback as well as on the offensive and defensive lines.
"If you look at what happened last year, everyone was pretty surprised with how good a record they had taking into consideration losing four quarterbacks to injuries for the year," Friedman said. "It's very surprising that they did this well [recruiting] at home. I attribute a lot of that to [offensive coordinator] Mike Locksley coming back. He had been gone from the Maryland program for about 10 years, but he still shows he has the connections to recruit the Maryland-D.C.-Virginia area. He did a tremendous job keeping a lot of local guys home."
Friedman said Maryland has the potential to do what Miami did in the 1980s, and respected recruiting analyst Tom Lemming of CBS Sports called Maryland "the biggest sleeping giant in the country" because of the school's proximity to several talent-rich recruiting areas and the addition of Locksley to Edsall's staff.
But Lemming, who has analyzed college football recruiting classes nationally for more than three decades, is not overly excited about the past two Maryland classes, labelling this year's "a good solid class, but nothing special" because Edsall lost "all of the top 10 players" in the state. (Ngakoue is considered a Washington prospect.)
"If they ever start keeping the top players at home, they'd be doing fantastic," said Lemming, who rated Maryland's class 51st in the country. "There's not a lot of excitement with the program. The key word always in recruiting is momentum. They don't have it yet, but if they do get it, there will be no stopping them because they have one of the top 10 recruiters in the country."
Edsall sees progress in that after having only 20 of the 32 players who took official visits last year ultimately sign with Maryland, 20 of the 25 who made visits signed this year. Recruiting coordinator John Dunn points to the fact that Maryland has made tremendous strides locally at powerhouse programs in Baltimore and Washington.
Though Gilman coach Biff Poggi sent his own son, Henry, one of the country's top defensive linemen, to Michigan, the Terps signed Gilman quarterback Shane Cockerillle. Maryland also signed four players, including Ngakoue and four-star offensive lineman Derwin Gray, out of Friendship Collegiate Academy in Washington. Ngakoue reportedly chose Maryland over Florida State. Long, who played for Locksley when he was the coach at New Mexico, said he had late offers from Alabama and Oregon.
"The thing that [Edsall] has done here, especially locally, he has gained the trust of all the high school coaches, which is huge," Dunn said. "The parents have to give over their sons to come here; it's really no different with the high school coaches. Those guys coming over and seeing what we're doing, they believe in the product and in the future, too."
Asked how difficult it was to recruit out of a school such as Gilman, which had not sent a player to Maryland since the early 1980s before fullback Kenneth Goins signed in 2012, Dunn said, "I think everyone was very receptive and very open. It was a clean slate and that was obvious at Gilman. … I don't know if there's been huge barriers to break down with any particular [school]. I think it was, 'Let's hear what you have to say.'"
Edsall credits a lot of this year's recruiting success to Diggs, who considered offers from Ohio State and Florida, among many others, before deciding to stay home. Despite not having an experienced quarterback to get him the ball, Diggs finished with 54 catches for 848 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman. He also had two returns for touchdowns — including a 100-yarder against Virginia — and threw a touchdown pass in the season finale at North Carolina.
"By coming here, Stefon made the exclamation point to say, 'Hey, I've got all these other top 10, top five schools that are interested in me, but I can accomplish what I want here and do it in front of my friends and family,'" Edsall said. "I think that helped us this year with our local guys. It's amazing. There are kids we bring in for a visit and they say, 'Hey, I want to meet Stefon.' He's kind of been the Pied Piper, so to speak."
The Locksley factor
If getting Diggs to stay home helped make Edsall's first recruiting class respectable, getting Locksley to return to Maryland might eventually make Terps a factor in the Big Ten. Locksley, who, as the recruiting coordinator for Friedgen and Ron Vanderlinden brought many of the key players onto three straight Maryland bowl teams with 10 wins or more, came back last winter after being fired at New Mexico.
Though many want to point to Locksley as the sole reason for Maryland's improved recruiting classes the past two years, Edsall said singling his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach out might not be a true reflection of the way he and his staff do that part of the job.
"Mike is a very good recruiter. He's very strong, powerful and he relates well," Edsall said. "But it ends up being a team effort. There's a guy that's recruiting a player, the position coach has to be involved and the kid has to like his position coach. From the head coach's perspective, can he have a relationship with the head coach? It's the same thing we talk about with our players and being a team. It's a team effort in recruiting."
Friendship Collegiate Academy coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim agrees. "I would say it's about equal [between Edsall and Locksley]," he said. "It's interchangeable parts. Without one, I don't think the other would be as successful. If Locksley was there and the right head coach isn't in place, it might not have worked and vice versa. It's a happy marriage between everyone."
But Abdul-Rahim concedes that unlike last year, when Locksley was hired late in the recruiting process, "I think he had a big imprint on this year's class."
Abdul-Rahim said Edsall is making the local players more of a priority and that he and his assistants have worked harder at developing relationships with the local coaches than Friedgen and his staff did.
"It's not just putting a kid on the radar. Sometimes in the past Maryland would offer a kid just because everyone was offering him, but they wouldn't go hard after him," Abdul-Rahim said. "I think people have a higher level of respect for what Randy Edsall is doing off the field, making it more than just football."
Abdul-Rahim said Maryland's relationship with Under Armour is also a factor.
"The rise and the success and the popularity of Under Armour is huge. Certain kids want that gear as well," Abdul-Rahim said. "They do look at that, the individuality. The D.C. area is big on wanting to stand out and be different than other areas. It's different than New York; it's different than the South. Just having that Under Armour appeal is a big deal as well."
Said Lemming: "They've got Under Armour supporting them. They should be like Oregon [with Nike's backing]. Kids love multi-colored uniforms. That's one of the ways kids make decisions."
Edsall knows that it's going to take more time — and fewer injuries — for the Terps to make the kind of progress and have the success that will quiet his detractors and reinvigorate a fan base that has not returned to Byrd Stadium on a regular basis since Friedgen's early years. The past two recruiting classes are the start of that process.
"You might look at Virginia Tech, and Frank [Beamer] can select who he wants because of the success that they've had," Edsall said. "You've got to have success more than just one or two years. Then you have that continuity where you become one of those schools, and it might be only in your own state or your region that you're a selector, but to get to get that status nationally, that takes a lot of winning and history and tradition to do that."
Edsall knows that's a long way off. The 2013 season is still more than four months away. Recruiting continues with the 2014 class. Maryland already has commitments from two local prospects in St. John's (D.C.) four-star quarterback Will Ulmer and McDonogh three-star offensive lineman Jared Cohen.
For now, that's the reality for Edsall and Maryland.
It might not be a perfect world, but it is certainly more promising than it has been for awhile.
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