If it takes “three or four” recruiting classes in succession to turn the Maryland football team from rebuilding to respectable in the Big Ten East Division, as second-year coach DJ Durkin suggests, then the Terps are at least halfway there.
With a 22-player class signed Wednesday, a group that could increase during the second signing period in early February, Maryland added much-needed depth, especially on its offensive and defensive lines, as well as its first scholarship kicker under Durkin.
The biggest name in the class will not be among the 11 freshmen who are expected to enroll next month — with the possibility of a 12th player added — but a former five-star prospect hoping to live up to the hype he had coming out of high school more than two years ago.
Byron Cowart, who was ESPN’s top overall player in the Class of 2015, signed with Maryland after barely playing during two unproductive years at Auburn before leaving the Southeastern Conference school for a junior college in Florida two games into the 2017 season.
“Byron’s a tremendous player, a tremendous talent. I think everyone can see that and knows that,” Durkin said. “His maturity level and what he’s all about is really a thing that would impress anyone.”
Durkin, who as an assistant at Florida unsuccessfully tried to recruit the 6-foot-3, 277-pound defensive end, believes a change of scenery and scheme could help Cowart, who played in just 11 games and made just 16 tackles, never making a sack for the Tigers.
“A lot of times, when you click on the TV or watch on tape a guy perform a certain way — maybe it’s a guy you’ve known or followed — it’s not what you expect. … Usually it’s things that are outside of football," Durkin said. “I know Byron, I know he’s going to be comfortable here. I think he’s going to excel and be great.”
Durkin was excited about the entire class, which is currently ranked 19th by Rivals.com, tied for 19th by USA Today and 21st by ESPN. If the Terps can remain in the top 25 after the second signing period, it would mark the first time in school history that Maryland did that two straight years. The Terps were ranked 18th nationally a year ago.
Asked how much further along the program is now than it was a year ago, Durkin said another highly ranked recruiting class will mean competition for playing time.
“The most important thing in the game of football is competition,” Durkin said. “Creating depth is how you build your program. … We’ve been recruiting at the high school level for the most part. We’re going to take two junior college players in a class, but we’re going to build it with the right guys, they’re going to be here, they’re going to sustain and build that competition the right way. This goes a long way to doing that.”
Along with Cowart, the Terps will add two other transfers. Cornerback Marcus Lewis played two seasons at Florida State. Wide receiver Rayshad Lewis, the son of Ravens’ legend Ray Lewis, broke Utah State freshman records for receptions and receiving yards in his only season. Both transferred to Maryland before last season.
If there’s a position that Durkin feels has come the furthest through recruiting, it’s the offensive line. After adding four offensive linemen last season — three of whom played as freshmen and one, tackle Marcus Minor, started against Michigan — Maryland added four more this year.
Jaelyn Duncan, a four-star 6-6, 300-pound tackle from St. Frances ranked behind only defensive tackle Austin Fontaine in Maryland’s 2018 class, will be joined by three other offensive linemen, including 6-8, 290-pound T.J. Bradley, who played last season at Lackawanna Community College.
“There’s not a better class in the country of offensive linemen,” Durkin said. “I’ve seen those guys play personally, I spent time with them, just the size, how they move, what they do, what they’re all about, they’re the right guys. If you stack them on the four we got a year ago, you’ve got something pretty special.”
Defensively, Maryland signed nine players who Durkin expects to eventually be part of the rotation of seven players the Terps have up front. Along with Fontaine and Cowart, Maryland signed five outside linebackers, including three-star prospect Chance Campbell (Calvert Hall).
“Those guys are really going to help us,” Durkin said. “We really tried to address it at the line of scrimmage.”
Perhaps the most interesting prospect the Terps signed was Joseph Petrino, a 5-11, 165-pound kicker from Richmond Hill, Ga. Not only has Petrino kicked 60-yard field goals in practice and field goals in excess of 50 yards in games with his right foot, he has also kicked 45-yard field goals in games with his left.
Given the problems Maryland has had with accuracy and distance at that position in Durkin’s first two seasons, Petrino might wind up being Maryland's most productive freshman next year.
“I’m just really excited we have a kicker,” Durkin said with a wry smile. “That’s one of the things I said at the staff meeting this morning, ‘We got one.’ ”
Durkin recalled Petrino’s performance at a Maryland football camp last summer.
Several coaches, as well as one of Durkin’s former players who’s in the NFL, watched the kicking competition play out and came to the same conclusion.
“All the guys were wearing different numbers and to a man, every guy, told me the same number,” Durkin said. “Everyone said Joseph. That’s how good he is. We’re counting on him to come in and do it.”
As Durkin goes back on the road to finish recruiting for 2018 and continuing to recruit for 2019, he is also counting on #TheMovement to build. What appeared to derail when Dwayne Haskins Jr. flipped to Ohio State after initially committing to Maryland has picked up steam.
Of the players that signed Wednesday, 15 are from Washington, D.C, Maryland and Virginia. After years of not getting any players from nearby DeMatha Catholic High, the Terps have signed nine since Durkin arrived, including two this year.
“There’s tremendous benefit of being centrally located in the DMV where we are with a whole number of [high] schools,” Durkin said. “We actually track these things — the number of times a guy visits your campus correlates to you actually signing him. When you look at this class, some of these guys have been here 30-something times.
“That’s the best part of recruiting. They know us. ...They can see me in a team meeting, on the field coaching, in the weight room, nothing more than hanging around the office. We have guys here all the time. That’s our formula. Don’t put on a show as recruiters, just be us. Let them see how we are.”