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Why Mike Locksley was the right choice for Maryland football this time around

After not getting the job in 2015, Locksley was the best candidate for the post this time.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The University of Maryland officially concluded its search for its next head football coach Tuesday night. The search turned up a familiar face, as former Maryland assistant and interim head coach Mike Locksley was given the title fresh off an impressive season as Alabama’s offensive coordinator.

It will be Locksley’s third time as a coach at the university, but the first time he’s fully in charge. He came close to the job back in 2015 after taking over for Randy Edsall midseason. Locksley went 1-5 as the interim head coach, and the school ultimately decided on DJ Durkin as the next head coach.

Now, Locksley returns to replace Durkin, after Maryland found itself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons following the death of late offensive lineman Jordan McNair on June 13. The school placed Durkin on leave in August, then briefly reinstated him in October, at the behest of the University System Board of Regents, before firing him the next day on Halloween. Locksley has been the leading whisper candidate since Durkin was first placed on leave, and now he’ll be tasked with leading the program in a new direction.

There’s an argument to be made that Locksley should have been given the job the first time, but that ship sailed. It’s time to look at why Locksley was a virtual lock for the post this time around.

His stint at Alabama went as well as it could have.

The first time Locksley was up for the job, his tenure as head coach at New Mexico was the most poignant experience on his resume. Now, he’s fresh off winning the Broyles Award, given to the best assistant in the nation, after orchestrating the nation’s second-highest scoring offense with Alabama this season.

Locksley’s prior coaching record is a good reason for pause. He comes to College Park with a 3-31 record as head coach, going 2-26 from 2009-11 with the Lobos and 1-5 after Edsall’s firing in 2015. However, Locksley has been under Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s tutelage for the past three seasons and brings that experience with him.

After getting passed over for the Maryland job the first time, Lockley went south and started as an offensive analyst for Alabama in 2016. Saban named him wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator, along with quarterbacks coach Brian Daboll, the next season to replace Lane Kiffin. Locksley took over the top role this season, as Daboll became the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills. With Locksley taking over a team of his own, this is now the fourth straight season one of Saban’s coordinators have accepted a job as a head coach.

With Locksley as his wide receivers coach, current Atlanta Falcons wideout Calvin Ridley finished with 63 catches for 967 yards and five scores before becoming an NFL first-round pick last April. This season, Lockley’s offense allowed Tua Tagovailoa to flourish as a Heisman finalist in just his sophomore season; he’s thrown for 3,353 yards and 37 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Locksley likely locked in his Broyles Award by orchestrating a comeback in the SEC Championship, after Tagovailoa went down and former starter Jalen Hurts took over under center.

Locksley has a path to keeping Maryland moving forward.

Locksley will be announced as head coach at a press conference Thursday, but has a lot of work to do with just two weeks until the early signing period. Maryland’s 2019 class is down to just eight commits, after four players decommitted between the time the first ESPN reports dropped and Durkin was fired. Locksley has shown his ability to recruit, especially in the area, and should be able to find a way to shore up the class.

The Washington, D.C., native was instrumental in Maryland’s recruitment of current Heisman finalist Dwayne Haskins, as well as current Alabama freshman Eyabi Anoma and multiple blue-chip 2019 commits. He was also responsible for getting Damian Prince and Stefon Diggs to College Park back when they were five-star recruits. He has a well-respected pedigree as a recruiter, and depending on who fills out his staff, he could make quick progress towards putting together a respectable first class.

Locksley also seems like the safest bet to stem the tide of potential departures. First, he has to figure out which assistant coaches will remain under his tenure. Then, he has to meet with his team and figure out which players are staying and who’s leaving. Defensive backs Qwuantrezz Knight and Marcus Lewis transferred midseason. Running back Lorenzo Harrison III endorsed Locksley the first time, and some members of this team already have familiarity with his coaching style.

His familiarity with the university is only a plus, and he appears to have been keeping track of the Terps throughout their ordeals this season. In his announcement, he applauded the team for how they stuck together and honored McNair this season.

Throughout the search, all roads led back to a reunion with Locksley.

The school hired a search firm to look for a new coach, and turned up three finalists: Locksley, Maryland interim head coach Matt Canada and Michigan offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. All roads led back to Locksley. There was a lot of pressure on athletic director Damon Evans to get this deal done, especially considering the athletic department’s dysfunction was made public by the report the Board of Regents used to justify reinstating Durkin. A lot of heavyweights in the booster community were reported to support his candidacy, including Under Armour founder and Maryland alum Kevin Plank.

Given what Maryland just went through, and the likely difficulties facing the program in terms of getting back on a track forward, the new coach almost had to be someone familiar with the university. Only Locksley and Canada fit that bill, and Locksley has the Terps’ latest interim coach beat there by a mile. Locksley has 10 prior years of experience at the university, in two separate stints. He started as the running backs coach in 1997, adding recruiting coordinator to his title from 1998-2002, then returned as offensive coordinator from 2012-15. Haskins only flipped his commitment to Ohio State after Locksley wasn’t retained.

Even with all signs appearing to point to the former interim head coach making a return as top dog, the biggest hurdle appeared to be his relationship with Evans. Evans was heavily-involved in the 2015 search that led to Durkin, but apparently even that was not enough to prevent a reunion.

Now none of this is to say that Locksley was a perfect candidate or will see immediate success. As with everything, there are pros and cons to his hiring. But taking the entire situation into account, Locksley made perfect sense for the job, and getting passed over in 2015 may have inadvertently turned him into the only right answer this time.