Maryland football’s staff of on-field assistant coaches came to College Park from all over the place, through a wide range of journeys. Since fully forming over the winter, the group has come together to lead the Terps in preparation for the 2019 season.
Last week, Maryland made all 10 assistants available to the media. We’ve already written about how the two coordinators’ NFL experience is helping the current Terps, and we’ll have a lot more over the coming days, weeks and months. Some of the best from that afternoon includes Scottie Montgomery on calling plays from the booth and not-a-natural-East-Coast-guy Mike Miller on confusing Philadelphia and New York.
For this piece, though, I caught up with nearly every assistant to discuss the process of coming to Maryland, how their families have handled the move, what they’ve seen from their new players and more.
Because Locksley finished out the season at Alabama while working on recruiting and hiring for Maryland, it took time for him to assemble a staff. Only three hires were in place before the December signing day, and the last on-field assistant came aboard just before the later one in February. When I asked coaches when Locksley reached out to them and what the hiring process was like, I got plenty of different answers. Some processes started in December, others in January, and some moved quicker than others.
Special teams coordinator/inside linebackers coach John Papuchis: “I would assume everybody’s journey was a little bit different, but in terms of mine, I reached out to Coach Locks. I’m from Maryland, I grew up a Maryland fan, and when he got the job, I had a lot of belief and faith that he was the right guy to get this thing rolling, so I reached out to him, but we also had a lot of coaching relationships in common, so I think a lot of people reached out to him on my behalf, and I think that went a long way.
“Pretty quickly after he got the job, he wanted to know if I was interested in coming up and talking to him about it, and it all happened pretty quick. This is where I wanted to be, so it didn’t take a lot of thinking on my part.”
Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery: “So I flew [to see another school] with my wife, and I was on my way back and I received a call. And I was supposed to be flying somewhere else, but instead of flying somewhere else, I got in a car and I came here. And the rest is history. After that point, we talked about all the whys and why nots and the things that go with it. I left amazed, not only at the university and the new facilities, but I just really liked Coach, his readiness for this opportunity and his offensive prowess.”
Defensive coordinator Jon Hoke: “He just texted me and wanted to know if I could come up and talk to him, and I absolutely said yes because I’ve known Coach. And so I came up, and we actually sat down and spent a whole day talking about philosophies, installs, what his picture of a defense was—he was a defensive coach for nine years—and so I just kinda got a feel for where he was at, what my philosophy was, and we had a really good conversation for an entire day.”
Running backs coach Elijah Brooks: “I definitely had to talk it over with my family, and I had their support. It was tough leaving a place like DeMatha that had been home to me so many years as a coach and player, but I definitely was up for the challenge. I wanted a new opportunity, and this was two miles down the road. This was it for me.”
Each of the assistants obviously had to believe in Maryland enough to either leave a job or move a family. It’s easy to look at the facilities on the way and believe the program can become something special. Several coaches also had incredible trust in Locksley as a coach and person. Whether or not they had strong feelings about Maryland before joining the staff, they all do now.
Outside linebackers coach Brian Williams: “For one, just the leadership of Coach Locksley. I’ve always admired him from afar, and obviously just this area has really produced great players and has been a great hotbed for recruiting. And then this university has always traditionally been great in all of athletics, so it was just a very exciting time. Kind of like the perfect mix.”
Wide receivers coach Joker Phillips: “I had a chance to play [at Kentucky] for a guy that was a longtime coach here, Jerry Claiborne. I’d seen the things that he’d done with this program. I really thought that it could get back to that type of level, when Maryland was winning ACC after ACC championship. This program has that potential.
“We were actually practicing here for our bowl prep at Cincinnati when we were playing Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl, so I got to see some of the facilities being built, was able to see Cole Field House, and was able to see this massive construction that’s going on. And after talking to Coach Locksley, I just thought it was the right chance, right opportunity and right time to come into a place like this.”
Offensive line coach John Reagan: “For me, one, there was an excitement about getting in the Big Ten and getting back to the FBS level. At the same time, it was very much almost like a calling ... I’ve been asked to do something that’s pretty unique and pretty special. They need me when in a tough situation. I was excited about the opportunity. Didn’t take long for me to say yes, and didn’t take long for me to get down here and want to be a part of it.”
At the highest levels, coaching can be a lucrative profession. But it can also uproot families on a moment’s notice. Job changes often mean moving wives and kids to another place, and the process of finding a new home isn’t always an easy one.
On a staff that runs the gamut of age and experience, every assistant faced a slightly different circumstance in moving over. Some moved young families in the middle of a school year. Some have loved ones who still haven’t joined them in Maryland. Others don’t have kids but left close friends behind. Brooks didn’t have to move at all. And there are plenty of stories in between.
(We’ll have a feature later on about how the assistants stayed at a hotel together for a month to bond with each other. Stay tuned.)
Papuchis: “Adjustment’s been great. I have four young kids all in elementary school, my wife is pregnant right now with our fifth one, so with them being in elementary school, the transition’s a little bit easier than when they get older. I think a lot of times when kids get to middle and high school and they have their sports and activities, finishing through their grade becomes critical for GPAs and test scores and getting ready for college. So right now with them being so little, it’s a little bit smoother of a transition. Everybody’s up here now, they’re all enrolled in their new school, and they’re happy and excited to be here.
Williams: “Kinda still going through it, but it’s good. I think the biggest thing is just the guys I’m working with on the staff and the players make it all enjoyable, so that’s been really good. It’s just my wife and I, and she’ll be moving on up later on this week, so it’s been good.”
Montgomery: “It’s tough. You never want to be without your family for that amount of time, but my wife has done an unbelievable job of getting my kids here every other week, or she’s coming up during the week or going back and forth, so it’s always tough. My son is a really good soccer player, and to snatch him off of a team? He knows what team means, and to snatch him off of that team was probably a little bit too much for my wife and myself, to pull him out of the school that he was going to. So we listened to him on that one. I have to make a lot of decisions, but you never want to create a situation where you’re snatching someone who wants to be on a team, off a team. I get to go home sometimes on the weekends sometimes and I get to see him play, so that’s the good part.”
Ask any college coach why they love what they do, and the answer always centers on the players. And this is the same group that came together following a teammate’s death last year, the same group Matt Canada gushed about at every opportunity. The new coaches all see a lot of those same qualities.
Defensive backs coach Cory Robinson: “Just our players. Just the way that they come in every day with the right attitude, right approach, they’re open to being coached, they’re open to new ideas and new things that might be different from things they’ve had or things they may have expected. The players, man, they’ve definitely been the highlight so far, and we really look forward to each and every day that we get to coach these guys and get a chance to watch them run around and play the game that they love.”
Hoke: “The players, always. We’ve got a good group of men to work with. They work extremely hard, they want to get it right, they’re very passionate about what they do, we have passionate coaches about what they do, so it’s been great.”
Brooks: “Being able to focus and coach football every single day. To go out there for those two hours and work with high-level athletes has been a dream, and I’m loving what we’re doing right now, so I think that’s the highlight for me.”
Each of Maryland’s position groups is in a slightly different spot. Some are relatively loaded with talent, while others are fighting to build depth. I asked coaches what they’ve seen from their group so far and what they want to see going forward, and enjoyed the range of things they focused on.
Phillips (WRs): “[I want to see] just a total overall understanding of the offense. I think the biggest thing that you see is just to create football awareness. You can’t play fast until you have that football awareness, of understanding what’s about to happen. When you know what’s about to happen, being able to see things, that allows you to play faster. And that’s what we have to do as an offense. We’ve got to be able to play fast. Right now, we can’t play fast because we don’t see what’s about to happen.”
Reagan (OL): “I think there’s been quite a bit of development. I think one of the things where without tremendous numbers there, obviously, it’s allowed for a lot of competition, it’s allowed for a lot of guys to get repetitions, it’s allowed a lot of opportunity.
“I think you’ve seen the older guys show their maturity. Guys like Sean Christie and Ellis McKennie, who are obviously the most senior in the group, have been able to develop a little quicker with what we’re doing because they’ve adapted and had to adapt a few times to offensive line coaches. But I’ve been impressed and encouraged by the development of all of our guys. ... Johnny Jordan and Terrance Davis and Marcus Minor that have significant playing time, and you’ve got guys that have high rankings and have also had great development here this spring.”
Robinson (DBs): “Just to get better every day. That’s really what it starts and ends with. That’s our daily goal, and if we can just get a little bit better each and every day, at the end of this deal when we measure it, we will have come a long way. It’s that ‘how to eat an elephant’ theory—one bite at a time.
“If we just keep going every day, trending upward, I think we can really have a chance to get somewhere where this group will be looked at as a strong point on this team and one of the strong units in this conference.”