Most seniors on Maryland’s football team have won 15 games over the past three years. They have been on a postseason team only once in their careers, and that six-win campaign in 2016 ended with a loss in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Then consider the Terrapins’ outside linebacker duo of Clemson transfer Shaq Smith and Ohio State transfer Keandre Jones. Neither has been part of a season with fewer than 11 wins. Smith went to the College Football Playoff all three years he was with the Tigers, and the team won the national title twice. Jones’s three seasons with the Buckeyes included a playoff appearance his freshman year and two Big Ten championships.
They joined a Maryland program that is fighting for relevance in the Big Ten East and has not won more than seven games in a season since 2010. Coach Michael Locksley, fresh off three years at perennial title contender Alabama, has bolstered his 2019 squad by adding transfers such as these two. Even though Smith and Jones never had starting roles at their previous powerhouse schools, Locksley believes they will elevate his team because they have been around programs that win.
“Most definitely that is a real thing: a winning culture and a winning program,” Smith said. “ . . . It all started with small things, and all of the things that I learned in my time at Clemson I try to bring here and spread throughout the locker room and just show guys what winning looks like and what it takes to win.”
Smith arrived in June after he earned his Clemson undergraduate degree, which granted him immediate eligibility, but Locksley already has heard a story that illustrated the promise of his positive presence: A Maryland equipment manager overheard Smith telling a teammate he needed to keep his locker in better condition, a small request but one that Locksley thinks translates to the way his program should be run.
“It was so rewarding and impressive for me because when you start policing yourself as a team, that’s the habits and behaviors that you want to develop,” Locksley said. “And that’s where the success and winning follows.”
For all of the talk about Locksley’s recruiting prowess, the new coach’s best work this offseason came on the transfer market, eased by the NCAA’s new portal system that allows players to explore their options. (However, Locksley cautions teams still have to work diligently to find the right players because “you also can have the other part of the transfer portal, where it brings a guy that keeps his locker a mess, who isn’t a leader, that’s leaving a situation not necessarily because he wants to.”)
In addition to Smith and Jones, Locksley added former Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson, who is the favorite to win the starting job this season despite not practicing with the team in an official capacity until last week. Sean Savoy, another Virginia Tech transfer, will play as a slot receiver, and Tyler Mabry from Buffalo has joined the tight ends. All five are eligible to play this season: Smith, Jackson and Mabry came as graduate transfers; Savoy and Jones received waivers granting immediate eligibility.
In Maryland’s 3-4 system, defensive coordinator Jon Hoke mentioned Smith and Jones playing on the outside with sophomore Chance Campbell and third-year sophomore Ayinde Eley on the inside. The foursome has combined for one start at Maryland (Eley against Rutgers last year). Even though it’s not a familiar group for Terrapins fans, the additions could make the position a bright spot on a defense tasked with replacing many starters, including linebacker Tre Watson, a graduate transfer from Illinois who led the team in tackles last year.
Among the sea of talent at Clemson, Smith was expected to take on a more significant role, possibly as a starter, his senior year, but he nonetheless opted to return to his home state. At Clemson, Smith had experience at the inside spot, but playing outside fits his strengths, Locksley said, because the position allows Smith to react quickly, chase the ball and rush the passer.
Smith, a Baltimore native who attended IMG Academy in Florida, already knew some of his Maryland teammates, thanks to camps and youth football in the area. Jones, too, has roots in Maryland, playing high school ball at Good Counsel in Olney.
“You see guys from the Floridas and the Alabamas and all the schools in the South,” Smith said. “Those guys in that locker room are from that state, that area, that town. And why not start that trend at Maryland?”
Smith and Locksley already knew each other well. Locksley’s Alabama offense faced Clemson the past three years in the College Football Playoff, and Locksley also had recruited Smith. The linebacker was familiar with Jones, too, through playing against him and always wishing they shared a sideline.
Now they’re part of the same team with a pedigree matching that of their Nick Saban-groomed coach, waiting to see whether Maryland can inch closer to the success of the programs from which they came.
“We go to work every day and hope to be our best,” Smith said. “Whatever we can put on film, that’s who we are. We hope we can stand out and be something in the Big Ten.”