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Maryland football brings in four-star flip and plenty of local talent on signing day

St. John’s defensive lineman Taizse Johnson, pictured in a 2018 game, is one of four four-star recruits Maryland signed on national signing day. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

When Maryland hired Coach Michael Locksley, the school hoped his recruiting power would sway local football players toward the Terrapins and that he could convince other top prospects to choose Maryland over powerhouse programs. Locksley accomplished that last year with his first full signing class in College Park, and he has done so again.

Branden Jennings, a four-star linebacker from Florida, had committed to Michigan as one of the top players in the school’s 2021 class, but he announced Wednesday his decision to play for the Terps instead. His signing bumped Maryland’s class to No. 19 nationally, according to 247 Sports, and marked a key recruiting win for the Terps against a fellow Big Ten program. Locksley said Maryland hosted Jennings on campus before the coronavirus pandemic halted recruiting visits, and Jennings’s father grew up with defensive line coach Brian Williams. Terrence Lewis, a five-star linebacker and the No. 16 player in the country, has narrowed his decision to Maryland and Tennessee but will not announce his commitment until Jan. 2.

A year ago, Maryland flipped five-star wide receiver Rakim Jarrett from LSU, and he has turned into a key contributor as a true freshman. The Terps’ 2021 class is packed with defensive talent and includes four players with a four-star rating. A few more players could join the program during the February signing period and Maryland can add transfers, but the 21 players who signed Wednesday should make up the bulk of the newcomers next season.

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“Our focus for this season was on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the front seven,” Locksley said. “I firmly believe you need to build your program from the trenches.”

Demeioun Robinson, an outside linebacker who can contribute to the pass rush in Maryland’s system, leads the group as the No. 64 player in the country. Robinson played for Quince Orchard High in Gaithersburg and is one of more than a dozen players in this class who have ties to the D.C. or Baltimore region.

Four-star defensive tackles Tommy Akingbesote (C.H. Flowers High) and Taizse Johnson (St. John’s College High) will bolster the unit that Locksley extensively targeted in this recruiting class. This season, Maryland has relied on junior college transfers at that position, but Locksley said he hopes talented high schoolers, particularly those from the D.C. area, will be the foundation of his program.

“Everybody in our class, we know our defensive line is going to be able to push our class further, push Maryland as a whole further,” Johnson said in a telephone interview a few hours before he signed. “If we can get to the quarterback, it makes everything else easier.”

The linebacker position should be one of Maryland’s best groups in the upcoming years, with the Terps set to return most of this season’s starters and key players. Jennings, a Jacksonville native, is the No. 7 outside linebacker in the nation. Maryland’s lone signee from junior college Wednesday was linebacker Gereme Spraggins, an Odenton, Md., native who played for Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. Spraggins was rated as a three-star recruit and the No. 25 junior college player in the country, but Locksley said if Spraggins’s school had played this fall, “We would have had to fight off just about everybody in the country for him.”

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This group of signees will have a critical role in Locksley’s rebuilding project at Maryland. After a 3-9 season during Locksley’s first year as head coach, the Terps have shown progress in 2020. Many important members of this season’s team — including quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, some talented wide receivers and linebackers, and young defensive backs — should return in 2021.

This is the first class that Locksley’s staff has recruited for two years, the typical timeline for connecting with high-schoolers. The staff had to navigate the recruiting process during a pandemic, but Locksley said that took “the fluff out of recruiting.” Players can’t be swayed as much by large crowds and facilities. They instead rely on a school’s pitch for how they will develop while on campus.

Maryland’s 2020 class ranked 31st nationally and sixth in the Big Ten, but the program had only a year to recruit those players. The signees in this class have committed to Locksley’s vision and are drawn by the prospect of contributing to the effort of elevating the program.

“For most recruits, they would look at [a program that has struggled recently] and completely be turned off,” said Weston Wolff, a three-star tight end from Florida. “But getting to know the staff and getting to know some of the players on the team, I really get a good vibe about the attitude, and I can tell they’re motivated to win.”

The 2021 class includes three tight ends — Wolff, C.J. Dippre from Pennsylvania and Leron Husbands from Maryland. (The school listed Joe Bearns III as a fullback, but he also can play tight end.) Those players should have the opportunity to offer immediate help at that position. Maryland’s top tight end, Chigoziem Okonkwo, sat out this year because of a medical condition, and Malik Jackson became the team’s first tight end to catch a pass all season just this past weekend.

Maryland signed three running backs — Roman Hemby, Antwain Littleton Jr. and Colby McDonald — who can provide depth in a young position group, particularly if fifth-year senior Jake Funk does not return for his extra season of eligibility in 2021. The Terps did not sign a quarterback in this class and have only two available scholarship quarterbacks on the roster.

Locksley’s staff has had success recruiting in Florida, which consistently produces top high school players, including four of Wednesday’s signees. But this class is mostly filled with skilled players from the area, including three from St. John’s, a powerhouse program in D.C., and three from St. Frances Academy in Baltimore.

Johnson, the four-star defensive lineman from St. John’s, said he expected to go to college and not know many people, but after his decision to play for a local school, he already knows a large chunk of the team. Dante Trader Jr., a defensive back who first committed to Maryland for lacrosse and will play for both teams, said the local players bond through their similarities.

“We can connect on a deeper level,” Trader said. “We have some outsiders like the Florida boys and some other people, but we bring them in like they’re one of ours. It was big for us getting those local players because we know if we keep everybody local, we’re going to be a dominant team in one, two, three years.”

Maryland’s signees for 2021:

Tommy Akingbesote, four-star defensive tackle from C.H. Flowers High (Bowie, Md.)

*Branden Jennings, four-star linebacker from Sandalwood High (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Taizse Johnson, four-star defensive tackle from St. John’s College High (District Heights, Md.)

Demeioun Robinson, four-star linebacker from Quince Orchard High (Gaithersburg, Md.)

*Joe Bearns III, three-star fullback from St. Frances Academy (Huntingtown, Md.)

Terrance Butler Jr., three-star defensive end from St. Frances Academy (Essex, Md.)

*Corey Coley Jr., three-star defensive back from Trinity Christian Academy (Jacksonville, Fla.)

*C.J. Dippre, three-star tight end from Lakeland High (Scott Township, Pa.)

*Tai Felton, three-star wide receiver from Stone Bridge High (Ashburn, Va.)

Roman Hemby, three-star running back from John Carroll School (Edgewood, Md.)

Leron Husbands, three-star tight end from C.H. Flowers (Seat Pleasant, Md.)

Darrell Jackson, three-star defensive lineman from Gadsden County High (Havana, Fla.)

Antwain Littleton Jr., three-star running back from St. John’s College High (Washington, D.C.)

*Kyle Long, three-star offensive tackle from Hazelwood Central High (St. Louis)

Colby McDonald, three-star running back from St. John’s College High (Accokeek, Md.)

Andre Porter, three-star defensive lineman from Washington (Pa.) High (Washington, D.C.)

Zion Shockley, three-star defensive end from St. Frances Academy (Baltimore)

Gereme Spraggins, three-star linebacker from Hutchinson Community College (Odenton, Md.)

Dante Trader Jr., three-star defensive back from McDonogh School (Delmar, Del.)

Jayon Venerable, three-star defensive back from Archbishop Spalding (Glen Burnie, Md.)

*Weston Wolff, three-star tight end from Venice High (Englewood, Fla.)

*player will enroll early this winter