That November, he committed to … Illinois?
Well, Vontae Davis, his old teammate at Dunbar, was already there.
Wait. Vontae Davis, whose brother Vernon starred at Maryland before his 14-year NFL career?
“Yeah, but ‘Locks’ recruited my brother to Maryland,” Vontae Davis said by phone this week. “If ‘Locks’ was still at Maryland, I probably would have gone to Maryland.”
“Locks” is, of course, Michael Locksley, a Washington native, a Maryland assistant from 1997 to 2002 and again from 2012 to 2015, the Maryland head coach now. On Friday night, Locksley brings his 2-0 Terrapins to Champaign, Ill., to face Illinois, the school where he was not only the offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2008 but where he paved a recruiting highway straight back to his hometown.
“I could see the D.C. guys were being successful,” said Tavon Wilson, a safety at H.D. Woodson who went to Illinois in 2008 and is with the San Francisco 49ers now, in his 10th NFL season. “At that point, Arrelious was there, Vontae Davis, Eddie McGee — Maryland guys as well. It was a really great time to be a part of that program with so many kids from back home.”
In 2004, the Illini had one player from the District or Prince George’s County. For his first fall in Champaign, Locksley — who went to Illinois with Coach Ron Zook, who had lured Locksley from Maryland to Florida in 2003 — added three more. By fall 2007, there were Benn, Davis and Nate Bussey, old teammates at Dunbar. There were DeMatha’s Ian Thomas and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Travon Bellamy and Will Davis. Eddie McGee from Woodson, Rodney Pittman from Friendly, Clay Nurse from High Point. A pipeline from the nation’s capital to the cornfields of central Illinois, roughly halfway between Chicago and St. Louis.
In those days, Locksley performed a version of what he is doing now in College Park: He went back to his hometown, worked his lifelong connections there and sold himself — and an opportunity to play.
“Locks was a huge part of it,” Benn said. “He made me feel comfortable as far as him being the offensive coordinator and him laying out a plan for me, telling me I would get out on the field as a freshman. For us to come from Washington, D.C., was a big culture shock. But it was something we wanted to do. I got to be a big fish in a small pond.”
In Locksley’s first stint at Maryland — where he was hired by Ron Vanderlinden and stayed on under Ralph Friedgen — he recruited some of the biggest stars of those Terps teams, Shawne Merriman and Vernon Davis among them. That was natural, and it’s what he’s trying to re-create now; 12 of the 23 members of a 2021 recruiting class that ranked 18th nationally, per 247 Sports, are from D.C. or Maryland. The pitch is easy: I’m from here, my dream job is here, help me build something special here.
But in Champaign — a 700-mile, 11-hour drive from the District — what in the world could Locksley have been selling? At the time, Maryland was still in the ACC, not the Big Ten, so he couldn’t even tell families they would get to see their kids in College Park every other year.
“It wasn’t really a sales pitch,” Wilson said. “When I got to the school, I just saw the family atmosphere and how he took on the father figure role in most of our lives.”
Wilson, for one, lost his father when he was a toddler. So it mattered that Locksley was there to pick him up for church on Sunday mornings, that he was there to make sure he went to class, that he was there to chat — not just about football.
“Having that kind of role model in that particular field was huge for me at that time,” Wilson said. “Getting around him, around Coach Zook and his family, seeing how they supported their players, how they were there for them, it all made us feel comfortable.”
“He was our dad away from home,” Benn said. “He was the one who was always going to hold you accountable.”
The talent from the D.C. area played a role in turning around the program. In the fall of 2007, Benn played immediately — as he was told he would — caught 54 passes and was the Big Ten freshman of the year. Vontae Davis, already entrenched, started every game, blocked a punt for a score in the opener and picked off four passes. Will Davis, a defensive lineman, had 9.5 sacks.
And the Illini started winning. They beat No. 21 Penn State and No. 5 Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks. In November, they upset No. 1 Ohio State — and because the Buckeyes advanced to the Bowl Championship Series title game anyway, Illinois made its first appearance in the Rose Bowl since the 1983 season.
Locksley left after the 2008 season to become the coach at New Mexico, where he went 2-26 in 2½ seasons. But even in that time came another Locksley trademark: the lasting relationship.
“We’d stay in touch even when he was at New Mexico,” Wilson said.
“Locks, I talk to him to this day,” said Vontae Davis, who ended his 10-year NFL career in 2018. “I wish Locks nothing but the best, man. I feel like he goes above and beyond for the guys he recruits. At the end of the day, he wants them to become great men outside the game of football. That’s what I respect most about Locks.”
Friday night, though, will be about football. Another indication of the importance of his Illinois tenure to Locksley’s career: He hired Zook as an analyst last year and made him the special teams coordinator this season. After starting the 2011 season 6-0 and then losing six straight, Zook was fired by Illinois, which hasn’t had a winning season since. For the people associated with a special era of Illini football, this game is significant.
“I’m in the airport right now,” Benn said Thursday. “I’m flying to Champaign.”
But rooting for whom?
“Oh, man,” Vontae Davis said. “That’s a tough one. That’s a tough one.”
“I’m orange and blue through and through,” Wilson said.
“I bleed orange and blue,” Benn said.
Bleeding the colors of Illinois, even though they’re from D.C. What a trick Michael Locksley pulled off all those years ago.