D.J. Durkin challenges Maryland players in first meetings

When D.J. Durkin sat down to meet individually with his new players at Maryland, he wanted to bring along some notes on each of them. Durkin, having spent most of his first two weeks as the Terps’ new head coach on the recruiting trail, didn’t have time to break down their film, so instead he decided to show them the scouting reports he put together while game-planning against them as Michigan’s defensive coordinator.

Some were complimentary. Some were not. All of them drew interesting reactions.

“I think some of them were probably kind of shocked. They looked at me a little crazy,” Durkin said. “But that’s OK. That won’t be the last time they look at me like I’m crazy.”

Durkin coached his first season in the Big Ten in 2015, moving from Florida to Michigan to run the defense for Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines. This fall helped him get acquainted with the gauntlet that is the Big Ten East Division and most of the teams he’ll face at Maryland. A matchup against the Terps in October gave him a good first look at what he’ll be inheriting.

As he started considering the job last month, the 37-year-old, first-time, full-time head coach (he had a brief stint as Florida's interim head coach last season) says he reviewed the Maryland program and saw an opportune time to jump on board. He said the administrators are all pulling in the same direction, a new practice facility is in the works and there is a palpable hunger to get better around campus. He also thought he saw problems he could fix.

“We need to play better and play harder and play with some more passion for what we do,” he said, sounding an awful lot like his former boss did when they arrived in Ann Arbor less than a year ago. “It’s our job as coaches to teach them that. They need to learn how to play with the belief you’re going to win -- not hoping you’re going to win, but believing you’re going to win. I think we can make big strides right there.”

Big strides will be needed if the Terrapins (3-9 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten) are going to find a way to keep pace in their ascendant division. Durkin told his players to expect major changes at the facility -- from the weight room to the dining room and everywhere in between -- when they return to campus in January after the semester break. By then, they’ll also likely have a better idea of who the rest of their coaches will be moving forward.

Durkin has stuck to his promise of being methodical while adding to his staff. All three on-field coaches who have signed on to this point are defensive guys: Scott Shafer, Mike London and Aazaar Abdul-Rahim. Offensively, Durkin said decisions will be coming soon, but “timing issues” during bowl season and wanting to give current staff members a shot have kept him from making any moves yet.

When he does make hires on that side of the ball, he said he’ll base his decisions on style more than scheme. He wants all of his coaches to be able to adapt to the roster and use whatever playbook is necessary to play with the attitude he expects from the program.

And what is that attitude exactly? The word Durkin uses most often when describing his image for the future is “aggressive.” That was a staple of his defenses' vocabulary at Michigan, Florida and Stanford during the past decade. Now he also wants his offense to be the aggressor, whether that means physically dominating an opponent or challenging them by taking shots down the field.

Neither path will be easy in a conference that featured six of the top 20 scoring defenses in the country this season. Durkin said he got plenty of well-intentioned calls in the last few weeks asking if he was sure that taking the Maryland job was the right move for his foray into head coaching. Given the competition, it’s a valid concern. He said each call made him more confident in his choice. The Terps likely aren’t going anywhere without some nay-saying fuel.

“It’s such a positive,” he said. “I want to recruit guys that embrace challenges and embrace adversity and embrace competition. If you’ve got a team full of guys that embrace those situations, you’re going to be pretty good. If a guy is shy of that or doesn’t really want to do that, then this is probably not the right place for them.”

So, the first thing he did when meeting with guys one-on-one was challenge them. Durkin pulled out his old notes from October, from before he knew he would have a chance to coach these players, and let his players know what the rest of the competition thinks of them.

“Everyone has their own perception of themselves,” Durkin said. “Sometimes the reality of how other people see you, positive or negative, can help you.”