- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2017

COLLEGE PARK — Maryland coach D.J. Durkin recalled his team going out to practice during the spring and naturally, he started to compare. Entering his second year with the Terrapins, Durkin remembered how practice went the previous year.

Players and his staff were still new then. Most of Durkin’s time centered on communicating expectations: the preciseness of following a schedule, the attention to detail, the new schemes and football basics he wanted to instill.

This spring, Durkin looked around and felt confident. There was consistency happening.

“It’s like, ‘Man, we have a really good chance now,’” Durkin said. “We can coach the XYZs better because we weren’t stuck on the ABCs.”

This is Durkin’s approach in Year 2 at College Park. Maryland went 6-7 last year, a three-game improvement from 2015. They are hours away from opening the season at noon Saturday in a televised Fox Sports 1 tilt against No. 23 Texas in Austin.

“Culture” is often used as a buzzword to comment on a program’s progress, or lack thereof. When Maryland hired Randy Edsall in 2011, Edsall cracked down on not allowing facial hair, stripping names off the backs of jerseys and banning baseball hats — all disciplinary measures touted as a positive.

But by the end, the lack of progress was cited as justification for Edsall’s firing.

Durkin, the former Michigan defensive coordinator who is a Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer disciple, came on board with his own ideas about what constitutes progress.

Durkin emphasizes the present over the past, and he made it clear to the team he inherited that the program was going a different direction.

“It was more like, ‘This is what we’re doing,’” Durkin said.

Durkin’s process, players say, is about coaches honing in and drilling precision and detail into units.

For senior defensive lineman Cavon Walker, that meant learning which angles to take to beat an offensive lineman, how to read splits and other positional techniques.

All football coaches stress technique, but Durkin, Walker says, takes it up a notch.

“With coach Durkin, it’s more amplified,” Walker said. “Because he preaches it. We have our core values in our program — and honesty is No. 1 in our program.”

“You can appreciate honesty,” he said. “Whether you need to run to the ball faster or you have a bad practice, he’s going to tell you the truth about everything. We appreciate that and buy into everything he says.”

Junior center Brendan Moore calls the coach’s frank approach motivating.

“He instills a mindset in us and I think it’s helped a lot,” Moore said. “As far as how we play, the aggressiveness in which we play, just how we attack everything when it comes to practice, games or what we need to do.”

For Durkin to be successful, he needs players to meet his expectations.

Maryland was tested last year. From late October to mid-November, the Terrapins suffered a four-game losing streak in which they were outscored 191-49, including beatdowns against Michigan and Ohio State.

“Obviously there are some games where we got hit on the chin, those are hard things to come back from as a competitor, that happens publicly and nationally,” Durkin said. “To bounce back from that, I think it makes you stronger when you do. “

Durkin is also keen on testing players’ resolve. In his own words, he wants units that are relentless. He focuses on competition, whether through winter conditioning or through scrimmages.

It’s an approach that isn’t for everyone. Practices are demanding because Durkin wants to see which players rise to the challenge. Going into Year 2, Durkin has a roster with only 24 seniors and 24 juniors, compared to 26 sophomores and 38 freshmen.

Those freshmen, though, are part of a Durkin recruiting class that has been ranked as high as No. 18 in the country by major college football websites, and fourth in the Big 10, behind Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

How much playing time those freshman will see this year is unclear, but Durkin relied on a number of true freshman to contribute last season. A player’s competitiveness, Durkin said, means everything.

“Guys that want to be part of the program, it kind of sticks out,” Durkin said. “You get a good feel for the guy. I want guys who have energy, effort and enthusiasm for what they’re doing. If a guy is not that, usually he’s around us for a while and he’s like, ‘Ehh, I don’t know if that’s for me.’ He ends up going another way.”

For now, Durkin is in the process of building and keeping the trust of his players.

“There’s a lot more guys willing to lay it out on the line,” junior running back Ty Johnson said. “If you compare our practices now to our practices last year, if you pulled up film of just the same practice, you can see guys flying around.”

At Maryland, players have graduated from the coach’s ABCs.

“I think once you reach that point of when guys understand it’s going to be (a battle), it starts to work the way you want it,” Durkin said.

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