As I walked into the repurposed Cole Field House for the first time on Wednesday, I couldn’t go farther than the flag-painted end zone before feeling the need to simply stop and look around. Maryland’s new football practice facility is everything I was told it was; finally being in it was surreal. The Jurassic Park theme song played in my head.
The condensed enormity of the place will overwhelm just about anyone when they enter for the first time—just ask the football players who experienced it last week. Even Gary Williams, who coached Maryland basketball when the Terps played in Cole, was thrilled to see what his old home had become.
“I was really worried about what they were gonna do to this building, whether they were gonna tear it down, build classroom buildings or whatever,” Williams said. “The idea that they did this is just tremendous.”
The building was filled with a celebratory vibe Wednesday, and for good reason. The venue in which we stood wouldn’t have been possible without the support of high-ranking business, political and university officials. Head football coach DJ Durkin thanked Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank for “getting the ball rolling” on the project, the various officials for their visions, and the over 140 donors for their contributions.
During the hour-long ceremony, assorted speakers—including Durkin and University of Maryland president Wallace Loh—celebrated the building for what it will become: a one-of-a-kind facility integrating athletics with medical research and innovation.
Right now, at the conclusion of the project’s first phase, it’s only a practice football field. But even that is worth celebrating.
The new building has helped energize a program that was already trending upward. It’s a recruiting chip for a staff that already has plenty. Maryland held its summer recruiting cookout over the weekend, and two guests have already pledged to the Terps this week.
Even for the current players, who began fall camp Wednesday and whose season kicks off on Sept. 2 at Texas, Cole Field House has provided a jolt of confidence. Senior defensive tackle Cavon Walker called the new facility a “game-changer,” and that he’s been able to find motivation from it.
“You walk into that facility like, ‘Man, this is a great place. I gotta train hard in this place because it’s so great, I don’t wanna let this place go to waste. I’m not gonna let this weight room they built go to waste. I’m not gonna let this beautiful field go to waste. I’m gonna work as much as I can on this field, as long as I can,’” Walker said. “I feel like that’s the mindset these guys are having right now that we didn’t have in the past. That’s why we got that killer instinct in our head, and I feel like it’s gonna push us through the season.”
While the team is still primarily practicing outside, having an indoor field as an option puts Maryland on par with the rest of the Big Ten. Cole’s ceiling is 92 feet high, but sophomore punter Wade Lees said he’s nailed it a couple times already. “It’s gotta be a pretty big ball,” he says. “I’ll just keep trying to do that, and it’s a good aiming point as well if I’m in there, because I’m obviously trying to get the hang on the ball.”
Although even the football aspect of the project isn’t done—the Terps will soon have a new locker room in Cole, connected to an underground tunnel that enters Maryland Stadium—Durkin’s team is fully enamored with its new playground.
“That new turf field, like, I just wanted to lay in it for an hour,” Walker said.
“But I had to work.”
Any coach in the sport carries an optimistic energy at this time of year, but Durkin’s brand of it seems contagious. It’s carried over to his veterans, whose stints at Maryland predate him and who bought in to his philosophies and approach.
“If they’re still here, part of this thing right now, then they’re about the right things,” Durkin said. “It was really hard for a lot of guys to really make it this far, and it was intentionally that way.
“Now you have a group of veterans that are fully invested in the program, that have been through a lot of ups and downs, coaching changes, and had a lot of opportunity to just tap out and say, ‘It’s not for me, I need to move on,’ and they didn’t, so that makes them even stronger to me. We’re gonna lean on those guys for sure.”
The Terps will lean on Ty Johnson, who rushed for 1,004 yards on 9.1 yards per carry in 2016 and, as a junior, suddenly finds himself as the elder statesman at running back.
“I feel like an old head now,” Johnson said. “I know I have to help the young guys even more. … They’ll have questions that I need to know the answer to.”
They’ll lean on junior wideout D.J. Moore, who like Johnson is assuming a leadership role in an inexperienced position group. They’ll lean on Damian Prince, who’s already started 19 games on the offensive line entering his redshirt junior season. On defense, they’ll lean on a senior class featuring defensive end Jesse Aniebonam, linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. and safety Denzel Conyers.
“The young guys got experience last season and in spring ball, and they’ve grown a lot mentally and physically,” said Conyers, who tore his ACL early last season but was ruled eligible for a sixth year. “So it makes it a little more competitive, brings the dog out of me.”
Even before the new facility was a tangible thing, Maryland’s recruiting started reaching new heights under Durkin. His first full class is in College Park now, with several incoming freshman expected to push these veterans for playing time. Durkin emphasized “raising the bar” at both the top and bottom of the roster; this is done by recruiting players who raise it right away and developing players in a competitive environment.
“We're not there yet in terms of where we want to be from 1-to-85 or 1-to-105,” Durkin said last week, “but we're certainly a lot closer and I like where we're at.”
Because Maryland isn’t “there yet,” the results won’t be easy to come by in 2017. The Terps’ schedule is among the toughest in the country. Their division is stacked with blue bloods, and the rest of the slate features a bevy of difficult matchups. Duplicating last year’s six wins would be an accomplishment.
But they won’t enter the fall without an edge. Football players find that edge from lots of places: being underrecruited, coming up short somewhere else, even a new facility that can’t go to waste. Every player finds their motivation from something different, and the best teams turn those desires into common goals.
For Prince, the edge comes from seeing teammate Mike Minter essentially retire from football with eligibility remaining because of the toll the game took on his body. Prince said Minter’s situation served as a reminder of how lucky he was to play football at this level, even as it takes him away from his family and the “normal” life of a college student.
“I’m definitely thankful every day that I get to put on my helmet, shoulder pads and just be healthy,” Prince said. “It’s really just a blessing, because I know there really is some people who, it was too overwhelming. They just can’t take it.
“This is a hard game, this is a physical game, this is all a grind. So every day I’m able to go out there and not just play, but practice and feel healthy, it’s all a blessing.”
It’s August. Maryland football is healthy, thankful and excited to get back on the field. And no matter what happens this season, the bigger picture is bright.