Less than 24 hours after he was named Maryland’s head football coach in December 2015, DJ Durkin made a short drive from the College Park campus to Upper Marlboro to visit Riverdale Baptist, a small high school with a budding football program. In the months after, Durkin spoke frequently about building a proverbial fence around the Washington area to stock his program with homegrown prospects, and he could reference early visits such as this as the foundation of that vision.
“Riverdale Baptist is not traditionally considered a football powerhouse in the area, and he spent an hour and a half simply meeting a relative no-name head coach in me,” said Ceasar Nettles, who has been coaching at Riverdale Baptist since 2007. “He’s a godsend to Maryland football.”
Nettles’s perception of the program completely changed after that point, at least on the recruiting front, where the Terrapins’ 2017 class has emerged as one of the surprise story lines heading into National Signing Day on Wednesday. Durkin and his assistants have assembled what could end up being the highest-rated recruiting class in program history — currently No. 17 in a composite ranking of major recruiting services compiled by 247sports.com — in large part by energizing a once-stale movement of local talent to College Park.
That success, however, bumps up against the resurgent titan that has long overshadowed Maryland in its own back yard: Penn State.
Almost 14 months after first visiting Riverdale Baptist, Durkin is hoping to land its four-star cornerback prospect, Tariq Castro-Fields, who would be one of Maryland’s top signings. But Penn State is considered the front-runner to land Castro-Fields, who is also considering Alabama and is expected to announce his decision Wednesday.
Durkin took over the Terps with what appeared to be a rare opportunity to beat back Penn State in Washington-area recruiting. The Nittany Lions were still rebuilding from major NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and Coach James Franklin’s job security was questioned after consecutive 7-6 seasons. When 4-0 Maryland traveled to 3-2 Penn State in early October, it was both favored to win the game and boasted the higher-rated 2017 recruiting class.
Then the Lions rolled to a 38-14 victory, the second win in a stunning nine-game streak that culminated in a Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl berth and national attention. The turnaround improved their recruiting brand and has boosted the ranking of their class entering Wednesday to 15th in the nation, just above Maryland.
Penn State has recruited a number of Maryland’s targets throughout their prep careers, including making a late charge to nab another four-star recruit, Virginia linebacker Ellis Brooks. It pushed hard this fall to flip five-star defensive end Joshua Kaindoh, who originally committed to Maryland in April. Kaindoh, an Essex, Md., native who played last season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., decommitted in late November after a visit to Penn State. (He later committed to Florida State.)
“Penn State’s season has made recruiting a little bit more difficult for Maryland,” said Adam Friedman, a Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “But Maryland’s staff has seemingly been up for the challenge so far.”
The sheer size of the Terrapins’ recruiting class is notable: Durkin signed eight early enrollees and is expected to add more than 20 officially Wednesday. Also notable is the number of high-caliber local athletes that Maryland was able to pry away from national powerhouses.
“We didn’t use up all of our scholarships from last year’s class for a reason. I wanted to save some. This is the first class that we had a full year to recruit. Last year when we came, we had a month to recruit. I think what we did with a month . . . was really phenomenal. That doesn’t happen a lot,” Durkin said earlier this month. “With all of that being said, we saved spots with the understanding that this is going to be the class that puts it forward.”
That includes the expected signing of four-star DeMatha running back Anthony McFarland, who committed to the Terrapins over Alabama and Miami on Friday. That fortified the pipeline between the high school powerhouse and College Park, and Durkin is also expected to sign DeMatha’s towering four-star offensive lineman, Marcus Minor, who is rated behind only McFarland in Maryland’s class. Durkin has plucked prospects from other Washington Catholic Athletic Conference schools, too, including from St. John’s, Good Counsel and Gonzaga, as well as from several respected Maryland public school programs, such as Potomac, Quince Orchard and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Yet Durkin and his staff have suffered a number of setbacks as well. Maryland faced uncertainty with several prospects when assistant coach and top recruiter Mike London left the program to become the head coach at Howard; among those affected was talented Virginia athlete Dazz Newsome, who earlier this month followed Kaindoh’s lead and became the second Maryland recruit to decommit.
No departures, however, have been devastating to the overall body of work on Durkin’s first full class. McFarland and Minor are the headliners, but there are also four early enrollees who are expected to bolster a thin secondary. It could add another in Castro-Fields. The class includes a potential answer at quarterback, a problem position within the program for years, in four-star Kasim Hill of St. John’s in the District. There are reinforcements arriving on the offensive and defensive lines with the expected signings of eight prospects, all of whom are expected to bolster positions of need and help vault Durkin’s vision a step closer to reality.
“You look at every position group, we need to get better,” Durkin said. “You look at the recruiting class, every position group is represented in that class because we do — we need to get better. That’s really clear. For us to be at the level we want to be at, which is top of our conference and competing for championships, we have to improve.”