When D.J. Durkin was hired in December of 2015 to lead this program, it was clear that there would need to be a cultural shift in the Maryland Terrapins program.
As 2018 approaches, we are also entering a pivotal season — season No. 3 — of the Durkin era.
Two seasons in and we’ve seen the potential and the need for continued roster building in big ways. Year one ended with a Bowl berth and three Big Ten wins. Year two ended with just two wins in conference and a 4-8 overall record.
It means this season will tell us which direction was real. So, given that 4-8 season in 2017, why should anyone be optimistic about the 2018 Terps season?
Let’s take a look at some of those reasons.
Durkin Has an Eye for Talent
For some schools, recruiting rankings really matter. For others, recruiting rankings don’t tell the full story. For Maryland, the truth lies somewhere in the middle and that’s not a bad thing.
In the first two complete recruiting cycles for head coach D.J. Durkin, the Terps have shown an ability to be a school that can compete for Top 25 positions. More importantly though, Durkin and his staff have shown that the hype can be backed up by play on the field.
While we only saw one full game and parts of two others from Kasim Hill, it was abundantly clear that the rankings and hype surrounding him was warranted. Same from Tyrrell Pigrorme, who was bombing Texas’ defense in Austin prior to a season-ending injury in the third quarter.
There’s also the fact that players who weren’t highly regarded when Durkin came in and are becoming stars. Seniors like Ty Johnson, Jesse Aniebonam and Darnell Savage weren’t that known coming in to their recruiting class, but have become very productive players.
With a two-deep that is full of seniors, it is clear that Durkin understands the talents he has and knows how to maximize what is in front of him. Three years of work behind the scenes could well pay off for those seniors.
Defensive Line Talent
One of the most puzzling stories of the Durkin era has been the inability of the defense to become a quality unit. That could be on the way to changing in a big way in 2018, and it couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
We’re optimistic about the defense this season for one reason — the defensive line. Durkin has made it a great priority to get bigger, faster and meaner up front in his first three recruiting classes. This season he has three really talented players in the front four.
Adam McClean will take his freshman experience and be a good player up the middle, while 2016 star Jesse Aniebonam is back after missing almost the entire 2017 season and they add in 2015’s No. 1 overall recruit (according to ESPN) as a transfer — Byron Cowart.
Having three players that opposing teams need to pay attention to, not just keying on one is going to be huge. It also should be a huge help to an intriguing linebacker group that includes productive Illinois transfer Tre Watson and hybrid nickleback Antoine Brooks.
Running Game Depth
When the Terps were at their best in 2016, they were burning teams on the ground offensively. Look for a return to that formula in 2018 in part due to D.J. Moore’s graduation at wide receiver and in part because running back may be the deepest and most dangerous position on Maryland’s roster.
First, former 1,000-yard rusher Ty Johnson returns for his senior season after rushing for 875 yards last season despite teams keying on him after both quality quarterbacks went down. Then there’s a bit of thunder with Lorenzo Harrison in the mix, as he rushed for 622 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season.
Now, add in one of the top 2017 recruits, Anthony McFarland, and you have a three-headed monster that East division teams are going to have to worry about. Both Johnson and McFarland are capable of busting the big run, but do so in different ways. Johnson is more of the every-down type of back, while McFarland is an absolute speed nightmare for opposing defenses.
That three-headed monster is one way for the Terps to keep pressure on opposing defenses.
With Matt Canada at offensive coordinator, a good run game is Maryland’s best friend. The odds of it happening seem really good on paper.
Overall Reason to be Optimistic
As we described above, the formula to win more than you lose in the Big Ten seems to be in place for the Terps on paper. You know, play strong defense up front and be able to run the ball on offense.
If the talent can equal production on both fronts, Maryland may be in business in a way that will surprise some. You have to love the combination of skill sets at running back and you have to love the fact that Durkin hasn’t been afraid to go after talent on the defensive line.