Maryland has hired a head football coach whose career as an assistant included the feat of making memorable experiences out of special-teams meetings.
It has hired the kind of man whose former players see a 37-year-old, first-time head coach with an incentive-laden, five-year contract and say, pretty much, Well, of course.
It has hired a man with a stunning inner motor.
“I mean, it is sick. It’s just crazy,” Brandon Hicks said of the staggering inner motor of DJ Durkin, his former defensive linemate at Bowling Green who was introduced last week as Maryland’s new football coach.
“He brings a different approach to coaching that I hadn’t seen before,” said Justin Tuck, an Oakland Raiders defensive end whom Durkin coached at Notre Dame in 2003-04.
“I tell you this: He’s probably the most intense human being I’ve ever been around, and that’s including Jim Harbaugh and everybody else,” said Josh Mauro, an Arizona Cardinals defensive end whom Durkin coached at Stanford in 2009.
“I feel like Coach Durkin, he’s going to flourish in whatever he does,” said Andre Debose, a Raiders wide receiver whom Durkin coached on special teams at Florida between 2010 and 2012.
Of course, Durkin has already coached under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Harbaugh at Stanford, Meyer at Florida and Harbaugh again at Michigan, not to mention Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame. He has already coordinated defenses ranked eighth in the nation (Florida, 2013), 15th (Florida, 2014) and fourth (Michigan, 2015). His track record coaching special teams was compelling enough that Meyer hired Durkin at Florida to replace . . . Meyer. As a first-time head coach, he’s already secure enough to include two former head coaches, Mike London (who recently resigned from Virginia) and Scott Shafer (recently fired by Syracuse) among his first hires.
Yet even before all of that came his uncommon innards.
It’s one thing to hail from Youngstown, Ohio, where the bloodstreams have little footballs circulating among the platelets. Durkin went to Boardman High School, which might ring in some ears as the same school of Bernie Kosar.
It’s another thing to go across northern Ohio to play at Bowling Green and to bring along that motor. By Durkin’s senior year of 1999, Hicks, a nose tackle, devised a fail-safe way to pass summertime conditioning drills — by observing Durkin, a defensive end running absurdly out front.
“I distinctly remember we’re testing,” Hicks said, “and we have different strategies and different ways of doing it, so you don’t kill yourself on the first two [runs] and then you’re dying. Durkin was there, so you would think, ‘If I could get my pace to at least get close to Durkin. Let me get 10 yards from Durkin. I’ll be fine.’ ”
Said Hicks, “I don’t think I ever saw him slow down at all.”
In huddles, Durkin would instruct, Hicks said. As a “very, very intense ballplayer, very studious about the game,” Durkin took seriously his own seniority, and he seemed to know what every position should be doing on every kind of play. “He could tell you what the linebackers were supposed to do and the safeties,” Hicks said. If a play busted and that kind of play rolled around again, Durkin would inform teammates of what needed to happen differently, saying things like “Make sure you cover your area” or “Don’t fall for this.”
“I haven’t been around too many players who were like that,” said Hicks, who played one NFL season in Indianapolis. Once Meyer hired Durkin as a graduate assistant, “You just knew, ‘This dude’s going to be a coach,’ ” Hicks said.
Durkin mixed the gruff stuff with humanity, a combination often noted in Meyer. Speaking of Durkin, players volunteer the phrase “players’ coach,” with Hicks using “true players’ coach.”
“He was a young guy that didn’t really have any pull, but even still, he went to bat for his players,” Tuck said. “I think that’s one of the reasons that I still keep in touch with him to this day. Everywhere he’s been, he’s been successful, and I think it’s a credit to how he relates to players.”
“They will know exactly what’s expected of them,” Hicks said.
That knack began, as it does, with recruiting, a Durkin skill that could be manna to Maryland fans who have just spent five seasons witnessing 23 wins alongside 39 losses, including a 3-9 mark in 2015. Even as his first hires to his Maryland staff include Aazaar Abdul-Rahim — who, while at Alabama, helped mightily in getting a commitment from Washington-area high school standout Trevon Diggs — Durkin himself gets multiple stars as a recruiter.
When Durkin began recruiting Mauro from a Fort Worth suburb to Stanford, where Durkin coached defensive ends and special teams under Harbaugh from 2007 to 2009, Mauro noticed something extra with Durkin. Above the normal practice of selling the school, Durkin had studied tape of Mauro and began to make suggestions regardless of which university Mauro might choose.
For one thing, Durkin told him, “Eyes on target.”
That was a simple matter and an elemental tweak yet, Mauro said, “it was something that I hadn’t emphasized or that hadn’t been emphasized to me,” especially since his senior year of high school was his first playing “with my hand in the dirt.” Sometimes, Mauro said, when high school defensive linemen are considerably better than the offensive linemen just across, they tend to peek toward the backfield in anticipation. Come the elevated days of college, that habit costs dearly.
“That was just something that was little, but it helped me be a better player,” Mauro said.
Come the elevated days of college, then, Mauro had one season with Durkin before Meyer lured Durkin to Florida. That gave Mauro the chance to experience something that sounds rather distinctive: a special-teams meeting run by Durkin, who, Mauro said, “coaches with his hair on fire.”
“His face gets red.”
In a special-teams meeting?
“He’s very into it. He’s really intense. There’s no relaxing or coaching soft for him. It’s the only word to describe him: ‘intense,’ and then ‘consistent.’ You know what you’re going to get every day.”
Said Debose, who shares the Southeastern Conference career record with four touchdowns as a kickoff returner for Florida: “He would get everybody involved. He would ask random questions around, to make sure everybody shared. It was a different special-teams meeting with Coach Durkin.
“He had a unique way of coaching. His rules are pretty much set in stone in my head. He could yell out something today, and I could sit in his meeting today, and I would be able to answer the question just because of how well he taught me. Even for positions that I wasn’t even involved in.”
Among the quotations that return to mind: “Hands on the block, eyes on the ball, feet gaining ground.”
In 2009, Stanford had four touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns. When Florida had a regime change after 2010, when Meyer left coaching for a season, new head coach Will Muschamp kept Durkin. By the Gator Bowl of Jan. 2, 2012, Debose was off on a 99-yard kickoff return against Ohio State, Florida was scoring also on a 14-yard blocked-punt return, and Muschamp was extolling Durkin as the best in the special-teams business.
“Man, he was amazing at designing plays,” Debose said. “If you look up a lot of my touchdowns in my career . . .”
Durkin stayed at Florida through 2014, coached the team in the bowl game after Muschamp’s dismissal, and left for Harbaugh’s debut year at Michigan. When the 2015 season opened Sept. 3, two Bowling Green teammates saw each other again.
That Thursday night, Michigan opened at Utah, where Hicks resides with a job in cabinetry and furniture design. They greeted each other at the stadium after Utah’s 24-17 win.
“He wants to know about you more than anything,” Hicks said. “ ‘How are you doing? How’s your family doing? What’s going on with you?’ ” Also: “I could see in his face he was already, ‘Okay, tomorrow, film study, this is what we’re doing. And the next day, practice, this is what we’re going to talk about.’ ”
Said Hicks, “Maryland’s lucky to have him.”