As a rookie head coach at Maryland, DJ Durkin hired a couple of former head coaches to help him out. Then he hired Walt Bell.
The Terps’ 31-year-old offensive coordinator comes from Arkansas State full of bright ideas, and brings a totally new, fast-paced offense to College Park. He’s not afraid to tweet out his excitement when Maryland receives favorable recruiting news, and is committed enough to the program that he sleeps in his office a few days a week just so he doesn’t have to sacrifice time commuting.
Testudo Times caught up with Bell Tuesday at Maryland football media day to talk about a range of subjects, including his style of offense and his social media presence. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:
TT: How has the transition to College Park been for you personally? I know you just packed up your bags and came right over here.
Bell: Yeah, I took the job the day after [Arkansas State’s] bowl game, and packed a duffle bag. I came home for Christmas, packed an even bigger duffle bag, the moving company moved stuff. I’ve been here basically since the day after Christmas and haven’t left. I work enough where, and I don’t want to ruffle feathers, College Park has really been wonderful, but you honestly get to a point where you’re here so much, that you honestly don’t know what’s going on. Whether it’s Jonesboro, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; Stillwater, Oklahoma; all the places I’ve been, they’re all great places, and I see [the football complex] more than I see what’s going on in the community.
Testudo Times: You’ve been one of the staff’s most vocal coaches on social media. One thing people have noticed is the turtle gif you often tweet out. What’s behind that, and were you on Twitter before you were a coach?
Bell: No, (*laughs*). I’m old enough, I became a graduate assistant the day I got out of college. When Twitter got big, I was a graduate assistant so I’ve always been on Twitter. In terms of how much thought? Not really. Growing up as a kid, I watched ninja turtles, G.I. Joe, Transformers, I was in the heyday, the mid-to-late eighties, for cartoons in America, so everything I need to know in life I learned from one of those three shows (*laughs*). But no, it doesn’t take a lot of effort. It’s just something I do. I think the most important thing on social media is to just be authentic. Be yourself. I’m going to do what makes me laugh, what makes me smile. But it’s part of our world now, not only branding for your program but branding for yourself. Also any time you can get in a kid’s pocket, any time he’s scrolling his timeline and your face shows up, that’s a good thing.
TT: What’s it been like adjusting to Maryland?
Bell: It’s not really an adjustment for me, because it’s all that I know. But for the players, the pace of practice, the expectation level, I am as Type A and in the worst sense of the word, a perfectionist, and that’s typically not a good thing, and there’s a lot of areas where that’s not a good thing, but it kind of suits me well for this job. The expectation level for the kids, the pace at which we play, how long it takes you to get playing effectively and efficiently at that pace — and there’s a giant learning curve — I think the best way to compare it is from the first practice of spring to the first practice of fall camp. I mean it is night and day. They’ve had an incredible summer, a lot of retention from the spring, and also things that got added in the summer. In the practices they had on their own, you could tell they got a lot of work done. Our kids have done a great job, not only from improving from spring one to fall one, but in terms of general, in the eight months we’ve been here, buying in, trying to do what we’re asking them to do, showing up every day with the attitude to put the work in.
TT: Has it been different coaching the freshmen who haven’t played in any college systems before?
Bell: Oh, absolutely. I think the biggest thing for them is how little process time you get. Just because, the pace we play, they have to say “signal, hey, are you lined up?” and process, and especially for those guys, especially when they’re really not there yet mentally — they don’t really know. They kind of know, but they don’t really know — those guys typically struggle. The good news is, the first few days, we had split practices. So we had practice the first few days with just the young guys. They had own individualized time planned, but still had portions of practice integrated in with the whole group. They were a whole lot more apt to get in there and actually be productive as opposed to just thinking all the time. That’s typically a huge adjustment for them. Not only the speed of the game, the change from high school to college, but the mental side of the game. At the pace we play, not only is there a large learning curve mentally, but now all of a sudden you have to process it in six, eight, 12 seconds, and that’s tough.
TT: One thing [defensive end] Melvin Keihn talked about was how players have to be able to make decisions when they’re tired, and how that was a big part of what the coaches were talking about. How important is that, to be able to make decisions when you’re tired at the end of games?
Bell: That’s what our whole offense is built around, is the back half of the second quarter and the back half of the fourth quarter, and we hope that we’re in a lot better shape than they are. But the only way to get that done is in practice. You have to continually put your kids in the most trustful environment that you can. Whether that’s mentally, whether that’s figuratively, from a conditioning standpoint, whatever that may be, so we’re going to teach them how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. And eventually they’ll be comfortable with that. And eventually, they’ll find solace in that, because it’s a great feeling to know that you’re in better shape, you’re better prepared for this moment because of how bad it feels, and you know you can execute.
TT: Another thing you’ve mentioned is how decision-making is going to be a little simplified for the quarterbacks. Why is that?
Bell: Because at the end of the day, I’m going to be judged on how 18-to-22-year-olds execute for three hours on a Saturday. Not what happens on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, but for a three-hour period on Saturday in front of a bunch of people. I’m only judged on that three-hour window of how they execute. The easiest way to better their execution skills is: do less. The more repetitions you get at something, the better you’ll be. There’s no substitution for repetition in anything you do in your life. If you want to be the best kite-flyer on the planet, go fly kites. You want to be the best weight-lifter. Go lift weights. We’re going to do 10, 12, 14 things over and over and over and over and over, so for those three hours on Saturday, we can execute them at a high level. It doesn’t matter what I know. It doesn’t matter how good I am. It’s “what can they execute for three hours on a Saturday.” It’s not just for the quarterbacks, it’s for everyone to mentally lighten their load but at the same time increase their volume of repetition. Not only physically, but mentally, they’ve got this library of repetitions they can draw from.
TT: I’ve never heard an offense explained quite like that. Your offense has six tailbacks this season. Is it hard at all to juggle so many players at one position?
Bell: No, and Wes Brown is a senior, Kenny Goins is a senior, Trey Edmunds is a senior. They’ll be three of them gone in a year and we’ll be back to balance in terms of the backfield, so that was a little more preparatory for the exodus that we’re about to have. But the best guy is going to play and it’s as simple as that.
And No. 1, running back, physically, is one of the more demanding positions to play because you’ve got 11 guys on the other side trying to knock his face off every play. So that’s a very violent position to play in terms of the amount of collisions you’re going to be involved in and the amount of snaps you’re going to play, those guys are going to get beat on. It typically takes three or four guys per game, maybe four to five to make it through a season, so the depth will be needed. So the best guy is going to play. He’ll get the lion’s share of the carries, but there will be two or three other guys that are in there helping and will be counted on to be productive.
TT: There seems to be a lot of competition at wide receiver, with at least six or seven guys who could get to play. Do the same things apply there?
Bell: When you’re going to play anywhere from 70 to 80 plays a game at the effort level we require them to play, it’s going to take six to eight guys per game. And then you’re competing for reps. It’s who gets 55 reps, who gets 35 reps. Who gets 60, who gets 20. You’re competing for reps, is really what you’re doing. It takes a whole big group of kids, and we do that by design. No. 1, we keep them fresh so the effort level can stay high over time, and two, we develop depth. So when you lose a Levern Jacobs, a Malcolm Culmer, that next year there’s somebody who’s been in the fire and played meaningful reps.
TT: I saw last week you tweeted a picture of your mattress in your office. Are you actually sleeping on it?
Bell: Yeah, I sleep here every night during camp, and typically Sunday, Monday, Tuesday during the year. It saves me 40 minutes. As soon as I get up, I can roll over, go downstairs, work out, come right back, bang, I’m here. Instead of having to write on a yellow notepad, if I have some idea by the nightstand or have some eureka moment — which are few and far between — but if one of those does happen, I’m right in front of my computer, we can make that change. I don’t do anything in moderation very well. This is definitely one of the most positive addictions you can have. I love this game, and it is a small price to pay to hopefully be good.
TT: Did you know DJ Durkin at all before he called you?
Bell: Not one bit. I think Larry [Fedora], when he had an open coordinator position at North Carolina, had interviewed DJ, they’d spent some time together, and I think DJ called Larry because I think they had built a friendship, and Larry suggested me. And it was really quick after that. It was one phone call. We talked for a couple hours. It happened really fast.
TT: What was his pitch to you?
Bell: Oh, he didn’t have to pitch me on anything. Just sitting in a room, we figured out that we’re like-minded, we believe in the same things, and, do we have the same sense of program? How do we treat people, how do we treat the athletes? Is he going to let me do what we do? All those things you have to weigh professionally, he checked every box. He’s as good as there is, and I’m excited to be here.
TT: Durkin obviously has a background as a defensive coach. How involved is he in the offense?
Bell: Everything we do, he knows. He’s involved in everything we do, and in a positive way. So many people see that as meddling, but everything is positive. Sometimes it’s “Hey, you guys know that when you do this, we know that, right?” The biggest thing is, schematically, they’re tough to deal with. They provide problems every day in practice, pressure packages are great, multiple fronts, multiple on the back end, they do a great job every day and it’s just going to make us better.