When Maryland Coach DJ Durkin and his assistants began mapping out their recruiting territories last winter, the consensus priority was to focus on the three-hour radius surrounding the Washington area. The staff didn’t just plan to immediately bolster the roster by signing football recruits in their own backyard but rather create a culture in which it would be commonplace for top local prospects to progress from grassroots leagues to area high schools and then to Maryland.
But Durkin didn’t forget about the vast network of relationships he had built while he was a fast-rising assistant at Florida. He had continued to pound the recruiting trail there while serving as Michigan’s defensive coordinator in 2015, and within his first two months as Maryland’s head coach, he signed seven players from the Sunshine State — comprising nearly a third of his first recruiting class in College Park. Maryland had signed just five high school prospects from Florida in its previous four seasons.
Maryland (1-0) will travel to play in Florida each of the next two weeks — it will meet Florida International (0-1) in Miami on Friday night, followed by Central Florida in Orlando next Saturday. While Durkin has played down the significance of that exposure on his continued efforts in those hotbeds of talent, the trips are being celebrated by the 12 Maryland players from Florida, the second most represented state on the roster.
“I would say this would be a statement to show the young prospects coming up in the state of Florida, that Maryland is going to be potentially, if not already, a pipeline,” said Maryland safety Denzel Conyers, a native of Gulfport, Fla., who initially signed to play for Florida International. “This will put a stamp on . . . the process that our coaches have been recruiting the state of Florida.”
The pipeline has certainly been set by Durkin, who was named Rivals.com’s recruiter of the year in 2012 while at Florida and has assembled a staff at Maryland that has deep ties to the high school football scene there. The 2016 haul of prospects illustrated the staff’s reach: Maryland signed players from metropolitan areas such as Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, from the coastal area of Delray Beach to the northern panhandle town of Quincy. The staff has also leveraged its strong relationships with IMG Academy in Bradenton, an elite boarding school that has become one of the country’s foremost college football recruiting factories. In April, Durkin plucked a commitment from one of the highest-rated prospects in program history in five-star defensive end Joshua Kaindoh, along with four-star defensive tackle Cam Spence.
Those pledges represented a fitting intersection between Maryland’s two recruiting bases at home and in Florida, given that both Kaindoh and Spence are Maryland natives and have invested themselves in Durkin’s vision of building a program. (Spence has since transferred to St. John’s College High School in the District.)
But those commitments also were the product of years of groundwork that had been laid by Durkin and a number of his assistants in the state, and they underscore the program’s boldness in targeting top prospects. IMG Academy Coach Kevin Wright said that Durkin has shown the same kind of bravado on the recruiting trail in Florida as his former boss, Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh, who turned heads and raised the ire of the coaching community last March when he hosted part of the Wolverines’ spring practice at IMG Academy. (Durkin joined Harbaugh at a couple of satellite camps in Florida in June.)
“He brings that same energy into Maryland, and the name recognition, and just the way they go about their business,” Wright said. “Where I think in the past, maybe Maryland felt like it wasn’t worth the time because they would get beat out. You can only have so much time and resources to invest from a recruiting standpoint. I think these guys have come in with a whole different attitude in regards to, ‘Hey, we’re going to go down there and we’re going to sell our product, because our product is good.’ ”
Ideally, every program aims to have a strong recruiting presence in Florida, arguably the richest state in football talent. But there is a fine line between recruiting there and recruiting there at a high level, according to Jimmy Buckridge, who coaches at Orlando power Timber Creek. He watched Durkin establish relationships in the area while he was at Florida and Michigan and doggedly earn commitments for 2017 from Timber Creek wide receiver M.J. Jarrell and for 2016 from running back Laderrien Wilson of Kissimmee Osceola, also in the Orlando area.
“It definitely has been a difference since he’s been there. To be honest with you, I can’t remember the last couple years [before Durkin] that anybody has gone to Maryland from the state of Florida, in this area,” Buckridge said.
Maryland’s reach has extended into other hotbeds — it has also signed or committed prospects from Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina — and it has gained a foothold in its own backyard while building one of the country’s top classes for 2017, netting 11 commitments from players from the Washington area. But it continues to target a stable of prospects in Florida, including IMG Academy linebacker Jordan Anthony, a former Good Counsel prospect who would fit between the staff’s efforts to recruit within its two primary bases.
Durkin said this week that is difficult to quantify how the next two weeks playing in Florida will affect the program’s long-term recruiting ambitions. For now, he and the staff are more concerned with promoting Maryland by beating Florida International.
“Is Florida a huge piece for us? Yes. Is us playing a game there the end-all-be-all and will it somehow manage to help recruiting opportunities, or will it somehow put us in a position to recruit some of the blue-bloods? Maybe, maybe not,” Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell said. “I think for us, we need to go down, do well and be successful. I think if we do that, that will help us.”