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Being good on special teams should be a pride point for Maryland football

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DJ Durkin has a background for it, and Maryland hired away an FBS head coach to run its special teams this season.

maryland football spring game practice wade lees
New Maryland punter Wade Lees.

Special teams have often been a big part of DJ Durkin’s portfolio.

Before he was Michigan’s defensive coordinator or hired last winter as Maryland’s head coach, a handful of Durkin’s jobs in his long football life have had to do with the game’s third phase. He has coached special teams at three schools – Bowling Green, Stanford and Florida – balancing them with a defensive coaching job at each stop.

When Durkin coached his first spring practices at Maryland back in March, special teams drew a player fervor. Durkin had an obvious enthusiasm about them.

"I believe you're a selfish player if you're not helping on special teams,” the coach said back then. “Obviously, other than linemen and guys that don't fit that build," Durkin said. "We're doing that with the team. You see starters at receiver, DB, linebacker, all out there competing on special teams. And they'll continue to do that."

Sure, you could say Maryland’s coach takes this seriously.

One of the more interesting assistant hires Maryland or any other team made all last winter was that of Pete Lembo, the Ball State head coach who agreed to join Maryland on a two-year contract worth $700,000. His jobs: tight ends and special teams.

maryland football spring game practice
Maryland special teams coordinator Pete Lembo.
Alexander Jonesi

As Lembo comes to Maryland, so do new starters at some of his unit’s most important positions. Will Likely is still here, and he should get first crack at returning punts and kickoffs, as he has done for years. But former Lou Groza-winning kicker Brad Craddock is gone, and Maryland probably will have a new starting punter, too. That’s to say nothing of breaking in new players up and down kick coverage and return units.

Adam Greene has big spikes to fill.

Greene looks to be Maryland’s new starting kicker. This should be fine.

While Craddock missed time with an injury last year, Greene filled in and went 3-of-5 on field goal attempts. His longest make was from 44 yards, so he’s got range that is – at worst – pretty normal for a Power 5 kicker. He also missed a few, which college kickers will do, especially when they’re coming on as relievers.

Greene strikes me as a kid with a good head on his shoulders. He’s been an academic All-Big Ten pick for two years running, and he’s been really nice (much like Craddock) in the interactions I’ve had with him.

Any college team that loses a kicker like Craddock will probably get worse at the position. Still, there’s no reason to think Greene can’t do a solid job and endear himself to the Maryland faithful just fine.

maryland football spring game practice
Maryland punter Wade Lees.
Alexander Jonesi

Get ready for Maryland’s Aussie punter to kick the chocolate out of some footballs.

The backstory here is already legendary in our corner of the internet, but it could spread if Wade Lees turns out to be great.

The Australian committed to Maryland last winter, at the tender age of 27. He’s part of what’s become an entrenched pipeline of Aussie kicking talent to FBS programs, and he’s got the ability to absolute destroy footballs with his leg. Watch for yourself:

Maryland’s punting game was unspeakable last year. The Terps averaged 37.23 yards per boot, a cool 125th in the country and dead last in the power conferences. That’s bad! It’s, like, half a lob wedge! Things need to get better.

Lees is going to make things better. How much better? Your guess is as good as mine.

Hey, Will Likely’s still here.

And this is the most fun thing.

Likely is a punt-returning maestro. He averaged 18.2 yards per run-back last year, second in the country among qualifiers, and made two house calls. He wasn’t as electric on kickoff returns (22.5 yards and one additional touchdown), but Likely is a significant field position weapon. His shiftiness and straight-ahead speed are both elite, and he’s turned himself into a really terrific college football player.

That mostly manifests itself at cornerback, but it sure doesn’t hurt to have some return game electricity. Likely is as good a conductor as anyone in the country.

Maryland’s special teams were good in 2014, then mediocre in 2015. Expect this year’s to fall somewhere between the two.

In 2014, Randy Edsall’s last full season in charge, Maryland finished 25th in the country in special teams efficiency – a measurement, basically, of how many points the unit contributes to the team’s score margin during a game.

Craddock was the country’s best kicker, and Likely did a lot to help, too, and the efficiency number was .05 points per possession – a few points extra per game for Maryland, on average.

Last year, things got worse, and Maryland finished 75th. Likely was great, but Craddock declined a bit and then got hurt, and the punting game was the punting game. It didn’t work. The efficiency number fell to -.01, and special teams stopped, overall, being an asset for Maryland.

So, where are we this year? Somewhere in the middle, probably. It’s not reasonable to ask Greene to be 2014 Craddock, but he could be pretty close to 2015 Craddock (8-of-10 on field goals, a 37 percent touchback rate on kickoffs). Lees will be better than Maryland’s punting game last year and quite possibly better than Nathan Renfro in 2014, too. Likely will still be Likely.

You can win games on special teams, and you can lose games on special teams. Last year, Maryland’s games almost all ended with big margins, so that didn’t happen. But the Terps will play several toss-up games in 2016, including conference bouts with Minnesota and Indiana.

Good special teams could be the difference between 5-7 and 6-6, or between 6-6 and 7-5. They can’t be ignored, and with Durkin in charge, they won’t be.