During the 2021 football season head coach Michael Locksley promoted the idea he had years prior of creating a welcoming and winning culture within the Maryland program.
Fast forward to three months after the Terps won their first bowl game since 2010 and Maryland football’s coaching staff communicated the same goal on the first day of spring practice: lead a team that is committed and connected.
On Tuesday, Maryland’s assistant coaches spoke with the media and each one continued to promote the idea of creating a team that is connected and committed to one another while also committed to the vision Locksley has in mind for what the team could be.
During his opening spring press conference, Locksley discussed how when in New York for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, the team had a different look than he had seen all season. Maryland won that game in a dominant fashion as it defeated Virginia Tech, 54-10. Locksley took notice of the fun the team had that game and hopes to see that carry over to this season. But off the field, Locksley also saw something different.
“I really felt the connection with our team,” Locksley said. “And I think that was a byproduct of us having to be forced to spend time together up in New York, still going through the pandemic criteria that were placed upon us but our team really, really did a great job of, as I say, connecting with each other.”
The head coach then continued by saying he saw groups of players who didn’t spend time together very often prior to the trip, share quality time together. Locksley made it seem as though the domino effect from the bowl game and the extra time together it gave this team seemed to give the 2022 roster a strong foundation heading into the spring season.
“The big emphasis for us is to be connected as well as committed,” Locksley said when addressing the media. “And for me, those are the two things that for us to take the next step is a program, which our goal is to take that next step, it’ll definitely be a byproduct of how connected and how committed we are as a program.”
During the offseason, the Terps elevated tight ends coach Mike Miller to co-offensive coordinator. He will also remain in his role working with the tight ends and is in his fourth year on staff with the Terps.
“It’s been so gratifying to do it the right way and to watch the confetti fall at the end was something I’ll never forget,” Miller said about how the team has progressed since joining Maryland. “And I know our players won’t forget.”
The co-offensive coordinator served on the staff at Clemson in 2015 when the Tigers won the ACC Championship along with the College Football Playoff Semifinal Orange Bowl. In 2017, Miller was at Alabama helping the receiving core. The Crimson Tide won the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship and later that year, Alabama won the SEC Championship and the Orange Bowl.
Despite watching confetti fall a number of times in his career, Miller said something was different about it this time given the role he has on this Maryland staff. He explained that being able to watch the athletes he recruited help bring Maryland its first bowl win in over a decade was a special experience.
“It’s every year we’ve raised the bar, the standard of our football,” Miller said while talking about the bowl game win. “Every year take the next step.”
Part of the way the Terps are looking to advance to the next step is building off the bond they created from the bowl game.
Wideout Rakim Jarrett is back for his junior year with Maryland and played a role in that bowl game victory. Jarrett finished the year as the No. 1 receiver on the team totaling 829 yards on 62 receptions and five touchdowns. The sophomore also added six receptions for 60 yards against Virginia Tech in New York and he also has seen a shift in the team since that experience.
“When I first got here, when we finish [practice] everybody go home their separate ways,” Jarrett said on the first day of spring practice. “Now, guys are hitting each other up asking ‘What are you doing?’ and trying to hang out more. So I think the bond is growing more together within the team. It should be fun to build.”
It’s not only players and coaches who were part of the Pinstripe Bowl win that feel that sense of connectivity, however.
Maryland’s newest editions such as wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer, safeties coach Wes Neighbors and inside linebackers coach Lance Thompson are also feeling the immediate connection.
New members of the coaching staff are already taking steps to solidify bonds with players and build up trust early on in their first few weeks with the program.
“We’ve had some great conversations about their families, what they’ve been through things of that nature,” Brewer said about the team’s wide receivers. “Some have gone through some injuries, others have had a lot of success and are doing great so it’s been that kind of transition. Now it’s time to get on the field a little bit, get a chance to see what they can do and take some of the skill sets that I have and hopefully put some tools in their tool bag and they can use later on and grow from that.”
Neighbors, who has worked with Locksley before at Alabama, told his family that if the head coach ever gave him a call to come work with him up in Maryland that he would take that job. Part of that was the mentorship Locksley offered Neighbors as a young coaching professional.
Neighbors said he thought Locksley was a great leader and liked the way he interacted and motivated both him and the players.
As a new addition to the staff, Neighbors has also made this commitment Locksley continues to promote to the next step and being connected with one another.
“When I move into a house, when my family gets here, keeping them around my kids and my wife and my family and just letting them see me vulnerable, who I am outside of [football],” Neighbors said about the players.
And I think that's a big deal and for me to see them in that light just because we’re all human... at the end of the day, I think as a football coach, we’re going to be some of the most influential people in their lives during this time span, these three to five years that they’re here.”
Thompson, who was ranked the No. 1 recruiter in the nation by ESPN in 2014, is all about relationships as well. He joined the Terps in February and said in the six weeks he’s been with the team, he has been able to see Locksley focus on the relationships the head coach emphasizes so greatly.
“I’ve been here watching him talk to them in terms of creating a family atmosphere, getting to know your teammates beyond just football and beyond just a student,” Thompson said about Locksley. “Find out about his family situation cause we all got things going on in our life.”
Thompson said he visited campus two years ago and watched practice as Locksley was looking for his input and said the head coach and the rest of the staff have done a “remarkable job” with their commitment to the program and accelerating forward.
This Maryland team has seen a lot of growth in the last few years as last season it advanced to a bowl game for the first time since 2016, picked up a bowl game win for the first time since 2010 and finished the season with a winning percentage over .500 for the first time since 2014.
This coaching staff, along with the players wearing Maryland uniforms, are committed to continuing that growth through hard work and strong relationships with one another.
“I want to win also on Saturdays, but I will also help everybody get better,” Thompson said. “And I think that’s one of the goals that Mike’s really established for the staff and for the players in terms of divine leadership. Taking care of your business, doing things the right way.”
When it comes to working on the cohesiveness of the team and sharing a common goal toward building the program, it is not just about those who were on the 2021 roster. Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa touched upon the fact that the team looks very different from how it did back on Dec. 29 but that the bond is already growing between returning players and new ones.
Players have transferred out of the program such as a group of wide receivers and linebackers while others have transferred in like wide receiver Jacob Copeland from Florida and linebacker VanDarius Cowan from West Virginia. Tagovailoa also mentioned there are a few incoming freshmen who enrolled early now in the mix as well.
In an effort to maintain that cohesiveness between the old and the new, Tagovailoa and the other players who have worked with Locksley before seem to place an emphasis on establishing these connections early on.
“I think a lot of our older guys on the team kind of making the culture like that where everyone can talk to everybody,” Tagovailoa said while also pointing out he spends time with players ranging from the youngest to the oldest guys on the team.
Now, with spring practice leading up to the annual Red-White Spring Game, the Terps have time to continue to put in the work both on and off the field during the 2022 season. Looking to take the next step after picking up a win-or-go-home victory over Rutgers to qualify for a bowl game and then closing out the season with a dominant win against Virginia Tech in the Pinstripe Bowl, this team will continue to push the program in an upward direction.
“The more connected we are, we just feel like we just build that bond,” senior defensive back Jakorian Bennett said. “And you know have that brotherhood. Just go out there just knowing that your brother on the left side and right side, just go do his job. Just kind of give it all you got to the person next to you.”