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On Maryland Football's Local Recruiting Turnaround: How It Happened and What It Means for the Future

<strong>Warning</strong>: this post is long.
Warning: this post is long.

This post is pretty long - you've been warned - but I had a lot to say on the topic, even if much of it is peripheral. A companion piece (a big board, essentially) will be coming tomorrow morning.

I have to admit, it's getting tougher and tougher to contain myself.

I made it through the Maryland Pride jerseys, through the hiring of Mike Locksley, through last year's late recruiting surge that made anything seem possible, through Wes Brown's awesomely rambling commitment, through the day-long party that was Stefonukkah, and at no point in that chain of events did I ever lose control, break out the champagne, and celebrate Maryland football finally figuring out how to recruit locally. It was far too early for that, I suppose, when you consider the Charlie Brown-ish nature of Maryland sports - football in particular.

But now after the latest round of local commitments, headlined by big-time recruits Derwin Gray and Yannick Ngakoue, I'm edging closer to just setting off the fireworks now. It's clear that what's happening here isn't just a one-off; Maryland isn't just striking it rich a few times at random. They've actually built upon the successes of last season, are reaping the rewards from a plan that seems to be working. And that's worthy of a little celebration.

On the surface, it's more than a little curious that this long-awaited turnaround is happening now, of all times. Consider, after all, where the program was in January. Hemorrhaging transfers, just fired two coordinators, a laughingstock in the media, a grumbling fanbase, a coach on the hot seat - and, of course, there's what was happening on the field. I don't think anyone would've been surprised if February's upstart recruiting efforts were found to be an aberration, if Maryland's challenges ended up too much to overcome.

It appears, surprisingly, they weren't. This revelation is somewhere between an evolution and a revolution for a program that can fairly be described as "historically moribund" - somewhat on the field, and certainly on the trail. It's real. And it's very, very exciting.

What we're seeing now are the benefits of a concerted plan, or at least what looks like a concerted plan, probably in the works since the Ralph Friedgen days. First came the branding: the new uniforms, the Terraprint, switching out "Terps" for "Maryland", and most of all the buzz-worthy Maryland Pride jerseys that finally had people talking about Maryland football. That alone wasn't enough with the program floundering on the field, so the next step was hiring Mike Locksley, known by the dual titles of Worst Coach Ever and Most Connected Man in D.C.

And then came the sales job, the fusing those first two steps. The unenviable task: convincing the wealth of talented local stars to stay home - not because Maryland is their best option (because, if we're being frank, it isn't) but because staying home is cool. Never mind that that's never been the case here. It's the Fab Five Phenomenon, The U Effect. There's a certain appeal, especially to the mind of a glory-hungry youngster, to the idea of making history, resurrecting a program, and doing it while putting on for your city. For the first time in ... ever, I guess, Maryland is delivering this idea, delivering it effectively, and seeing the results pop up everywhere.

This pitch is so ubiquitous that it's beyond coincidence. Read an interview with a local, almost any local, and you'll see what I'm talking about. Wes Brown talked about it when he committed. Stefon Diggs talked about it when he committed. It's basically the only thing Jalen Tabor says. Here's a prime example from the latest spree:

"We didn't want to be followers and we wanted to start a trend. Everybody wants to go to like a Florida State. . . . There will be a change up there [in College Park]. There are commits going there every day."

Added Ngakoue: "I wanted to be at the school that's on the come-up. I don't want to go to a school that's just a top program. I want to be at a school that we can be part of history and our names are there because we turned history around." [...]

"We can make that team better and show people in this area you can make that team better," Ngakoue said.

Not everyone will buy that it's actually cooler to stay at home and go to a suffering program to be a hero, instead of packing up for glamorous options like USC and Ohio State. But some will, especially if Maryland can translate these recruiting victories to real victories. And the more successes there are, the more people it'll work with.

Even right now, as I'm writing this and you're reading it, you can see the narrative being built, and narratives are self-perpetuating. Some people talk about it, so more people hear it. First the idea had to be given credence, which was done by Stefon Diggs; now it's being repeated by Gray and Ngakoue, which gives it momentum. Before long there will be articles in the Post and segments on ESPNU Recruiting Nation and posts on Rivals, all of which will make it even cooler - because, let's be honest, what's cooler than being talked about? And so in the same way that Diggs begat Gray (or begat the narrative that begat Gray), so too will Gray hopefully beget Paul Harris and Taivon Jacobs, who will hopefully beget others. And thus the narrative sustains itself. Recruiting, in what's a first for Maryland, sustains recruiting. Success, to some extent, sustains success.

This idea is not new - not in general, and certainly not here. It's something that Marylanders have been dreaming about for years. Every year, some section of the fanbase talks up how critically important it is to lock down the über-talented, underrated DMV. Every year, the staff talks the same game. And every year, the area's best products are stolen by Penn State and Florida and Illinois and Ohio State and Illinois again and Florida again and West Virginia and Cal and Alabama.

These schools, save for Illinois, didn't work to put in a pipeline. They didn't stick around, offer fringe players to show they were for real, work for years to craft connections. They were merely recruiting tourists, vacationing in Maryland's backyard. DMV players were, in a way that's unusual to those in Miami or Houston, simply on the open market. If there was one thing you count on from Maryland's football recruiting, it was that they wouldn't put up a serious fight for their national prospects.

That, finally, is changing. The mythical Fence Around The DMV is finally being erected - or, at the very least, the foundations are being placed.

Actually, "mythical" is probably a good word for The Fence. You're never going to lock down any area in its entirety, just as some kids every year escape SoFla, LA, and Texas. A good example is sitting right in front of our eyes: after all the work last year to build relationships at Good Counsel, with Stefon Diggs and the Dancels and all the hype, look what happened with Good Counsel's best three players: Dorian O'Daniel's off to Clemson, Kirk Garner's committed to Virginia, and Kendall Fuller has, ostensibly at least, cut the Terrapins from his list. It's clearly a work-in-progress, but even once it's finished the biggest prospects in the area will have their heads turned by the Michigans, USCs, and, yes, even Clemsons of the world.

But Maryland has finally established its home-field advantage. Now it's conceivable to land the area's best-and-brightest, in a way it never really was with Jelani Jenkins and the Kouandjios and Arrelious Benn. And just as importantly, it's more than conceivable for Maryland to populate a class with the almost-best-and-brightest: the Yannick Ngakoues, Paul Harrises, and Marcus Newbys. And while that might not be a championship-winning haul, it's talented enough to be in the postseason picture every year. Crucially, it should also be a strong enough base so that, when Maryland does occasionally strike it rich with a Stefon Diggs or two, their talent can truly take the Terrapins from Good to Great, instead of Poor to Mediocre.

I think I'm done looking for The Fence, actually. Competency has arrived in its stead, and that's enough for me.

Every time a discussion about Maryland football recruiting pops up, another conversation habitually follows it (at least nationally, if perhaps not with the locals). It sometimes varies, but it's usually something like this: "Just how good is Maryland's recruiting base?" Is there enough top-flight talent? Enough depth? Could Maryland build a contender from it? A bowl team? How does it compare to Miami? And LA? Is it more or less than Rutgers? Or Missouri? Do Marylanders overrate it, or do nationals underrate it?

Some of those questions can't be answered, or at least we can't answer them at the moment. But, luckily, the past few crops seem to have silenced most of the doubters. Just look at the local talent from last year alone: Goldman, Darby, Diggs, Brown, Jones, Madaras, Reid, Crawley, McManus, Watson, and so on. That's the type of class titles are built upon. And it's to say nothing of talents that came just a bit earlier (the Kouandjios) and just a bit later (Kendall Fuller, Dorian O'Daniel, and Derwin Gray).

It's a shame that Maryland wasn't set up to capitalize upon the wealth of talent that passed through local powerhouses last year. But now they're looking as if they will indeed be ready the next time it comes around. And it might be coming sooner than expected: the 2014 class has the potential to have as much high-end talent as we've seen in the area. Jalen Tabor's a likely five-star and possible top-five prospect; so's Damian Prince. Da'Shawn Hand is potentially the best player in the country. Throw in Baltimore's William Crest and northern Virginia's Caleb Henderson as two of the best young QBs in the nation, and you've got a veritable embarrassment of riches.

The 2013 class, in fact, could be as much about 2014 as it is 2013. If Maryland can get to a bowl and finish decently on the trail, they'll set themselves up for plenty of buzz heading into loaded local class. Play their cards right, and they could walk away with a more-than-impressive haul. And with two strong years of local recruiting having come before it, it could be the finishing touches on a decidedly contender-worthy roster.

Interestingly enough, Maryland seems to be answering those questions about the quality of local talent on their own: they're recruiting the hell out of the state, and basically nowhere else. The Terrapins stand with 10 commitments, plus a potential 11th in the form of Michael Parker. Of those, 8 hail from the state or D.C.; Parker's from Northern Virginia, hardly an hour from campus, while Jarrett Ross is only about two hours up the road in Wilmington. There's only a single true out-of-towner in the bunch, offensive tackle Jajuan Dulaney, who hails from Georgia.

And if you take a look around at their big remaining targets, well, most of those are local, too. This is a departure from recent history: previous classes have seen Maryland mine Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, all to varying degrees of success. Look, for example, at the 2011 class. The haul consisted of 21 players; four were from Florida, four were from North Carolina, two from Pennsylvania, and two were from Delaware. Only five players hailed from Maryland or D.C., and two of those (Tyrek Cheeseboro and Nate Clarke) were holdovers from the previous year. The year prior, there were only seven locals. And before Locksley was hired late last year, eventually bringing four locals with him, the number was seven again.

In short, Edsall & Co. seem to be hitching their wagon to the DMV to an unusual extent. Their hand is forced here to some extent, admittedly; after what happened last year on the field, they're a much less attractive proposition and almost need the home-school advantage to land kids. But it's structural, too: this staff is set up to do well locally, and that's exactly what they're doing. While no program is ever going to lock themselves in, it does seem as if this focus on the locals will be the Terrapins' new M.O., at least for the time being. Whether or not they can land the local elites is still to be seen; either way, this will be a team built on the back of Marylanders. And that will make those Pride uniforms all the more special for it.

A quick word must be said on the matter of the coaching staff, because it's gone around a few times now. Without a shadow of a doubt, Mike Locksley is at the center of this revolution. It may be that he's the one with the plan; it's certainly the case that he's the one who has the connections and the charisma to pull it off. Without Locksley there is no Brown or Diggs, which means there is no Gray or Ngakoue, which means we're still complaining about how poorly Edsall recruits and how he's on the hot seat this season.

Which, in case you haven't noticed, no one is talking about anymore. (Not really, at least.) Instead, we have impressive commitments and optimistic, hopeful sentiments like this. If you've ever doubted the importance of having at least one top-notch recruiter on a staff, let this example be a lesson to you.

But recruiting is a team game, and those on the margins deserve their own credit. Let's start with Edsall. He seems like a nice guy, but no one's ever accused him of being charismatic or able to control a room. Nor does he strike me as a political or calculating fellow. But that's what you have assistants for, right? Edsall has shown a genuine effort and commitment to recruiting, especially locally, that evaded the Ralph Friedgen years. He's active. He makes trips to local schools. He's seen. I don't think he'll be landing any recruits on his own, but he's helping, not harming, the process.

And there are the other assistants, who have done critical groundwork and recruiting of their own. Brian Stewart has to sell his 3-4 scheme to defensive targets. Tom Brattan has to connect with linemen; Lee Hull, with receivers. Lyndon Johnson is a crucial piece of D.C. recruiting; Greg Gattuso and Andre Powell bring other parts of the country into play, too. Having assistants who are competent is a big part of the process - Maryland is landing these players largely because they're able to get the players comfortable with the entire program, not just one coach.

Still, it's Locksley who deserves the lion's share of credit in this. He is both the catalyst that started the process and the glue that holds it together, and Maryland is immeasurably lucky to have him on the staff.

The next and final matter is, of course, what happens now, because this is far from settled. In the immediate, Maryland needs to keep the momentum on the trail going as much as they can. That means they need to continue to wrap up commitments, or at the very least keep a few big names from committing elsewhere for the time being. Four-stars Paul Harris, Marcus Newby, and Taivon Jacobs are probably the three who most apply here; any one of them would keep momentum rolling in a big way.

But long-term, Maryland must win. They must win now, and they must win down the road.

If they go 4-8 this year, this effort stands a good chance of simply falling apart - at best, it'll fall well below where it could've. No matter how good a sales job you do, recruits are loathe to join a long-term loser, and it's a bad idea to remind them of that fact. Commitments will decommit. Edsall, eventually, would be fired, and Locksley may well go with him. Buzz would disappear. And everything being built here disintegrates.

On the other hand, rack up a few victories and it kicks into overdrive. Kendall Fuller, for example, is likely to take his recruitment down to signing day, or at least near that. If Maryland has a good showing, he may be receptive to a late, Diggs-esque push from the Terrapins, especially with the local recruiting narrative getting pushed more and more. A similar effect could be in play with dozens of prospects, and not just those in DC and Maryland - kids from Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania will be receptive to it, too, and they can supplement the local core.

But it's also important to convert recruits into wins, which isn't an easy task. As I imagine Gary Williams would like to remind us, winning on the trail isn't the same as winning where it counts, even if it's generally an important step. There's no problem reacting to all of this positive news by taking it in good faith and reacting positively. But I won't blame you if, after last year, you remain wary. Truth be told, that's probably best for your health. Then again, if you're here, you're probably not in this for the health of it.

This post, I'm aware, may have been a bit premature, the tone a bit overly optimistic. I think I'm a bit more grounded in the real world, and I'd encourage you to be the same. Be wary and keep your guard up, if that's your way. But for the first time in a long time, I'm optimistic about the long-term future of Maryland football - not optimistic because the right set of circumstances has arisen (like after the Maryland Pride uniforms were unveiled) or because something's happened that can, theoretically, be built upon (like when Stefon Diggs committed).

No, I'm optimistic because for the first time in a long time the program is visibly building something. They're not just playing the game the same way everyone else is. They're not drifting through mediocrity and celebrating the occasional nine-win year when it comes. Instead, they're leveraging their unique natural resources and making something of them, trying something a bit different. For the moment, it's succeeding, and that's wonderful. Will it work long term? No one knows, but for a program like Maryland's, this is the right type of thing to try. And if it does work out, well, it might just get Maryland football to where it wants to be.