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Maryland football finding familiarity in new faces as 2019 season approaches

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The Terps have a new coaching staff and several high-profile additions, but there aren’t many strangers in the room.

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Shaq Smith had just arrived in College Park, but it didn’t take long for him to feel right at home.

The Baltimore native and former Clemson linebacker was back together with Cory Robinson, Maryland’s new defensive backs coach. Robinson had been a mentor to Smith since seventh grade, and while they overlapped for just one season at Calvert Hall High School, the graduate transfer speaks of Robinson as a father figure.

“It’s indescribable,” Smith said. “Having him being in my corner since I was in the seventh grade and going from middle school to high school and now being able to reunite in college, it’s not often that is done at this level. … And to do it both for our home state, it’s second to none and it’s a great feeling.”

The 2019 Maryland football team is filled with connections like this. Robinson has relationships with several other Baltimore-area products. Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery first met rookie receiver Dino Tomlin as a little kid when he was on Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers staff. And running backs coach Elijah Brooks coached 12 current Terps at DeMatha, with former Stags Anthony McFarland Jr. and Lorenzo Harrison III now in his position group.

“I remember I shot him a text and was like, ‘I’m happy for you and I’m ready to roll,” McFarland said of his reaction to Brooks’ hiring. “We’ve been familiar with each other for a while, he’s known me since eighth grade, so at the end of the day, I know what I’m gonna get out of him and he knows what he’s gonna get out of me.”

All this, of course, starts with head coach Mike Locksley. He’s from D.C., and seemingly every twist and turn in his coaching career has brought him back to Maryland. Along the way, he’s developed relationships with players and coaches throughout the area, leading to plenty of recruiting success and the “Godfather of DMV Football” moniker that’s followed him around for more than a decade. Combine that with him being at Maryland as recently as 2015, and he didn’t have to get to know many new players after his hiring.

“Most of the juniors and seniors on our team were guys that I played a role in recruiting here to Maryland. A lot of the sophomores like Anthony McFarland, I started the process on them and recruited them at other places,” Locksley said. “And so walking into the door and having those built-in relationships, not just with the kids but with their families, there’s kind of a trust factor that’s there that I think has allowed us to kind of expedite the growth of the relationship.”

Locksley wasted no time turning his connections into more impact additions. Robinson and Brooks were hired in December, and a wave of incoming transfers started in late January. Linebacker Keandre Jones (a former Maryland commit when Locksley was on staff) and wide receiver Sean Savoy (a D.C. native) joined the Terps for the spring semester. Quarterback Josh Jackson committed weeks later. Then came tight end Tyler Mabry, then Smith, then wideout DeJuan Ellis, with a handful of late-recruited Class of 2019 signees along the way.

Even the new faces feel like old faces, though. Jackson and Savoy formed a close bond at Virginia Tech and are now roommates at Maryland. Ellis spent a year with that duo in Blacksburg. Jones and Smith played against each other in high school and have been friends for years. And seemingly all of these players have ties to Locksley or one of the new assistants.

“[Our relationship] goes way back,” Smith said. “Coach Locks has been a great guy ever since I met him, and he’s always been there. Just looking at him and the things he’s done since I’ve known him, who wouldn’t want to play for a guy like Coach Locks?”

“Family” has been a constant theme in Locksley press conferences and team appearances. While he’s far from the first coach to highlight the term, he might be the first to turn it into a karaoke lyric.

Sports teams are inherently fraternal, and it’s the good fraternities that can stick together through the grind and adversity of a season. This group at Maryland has a challenging three months ahead, but the familiarity and trust that already exist all around could lead to something special.

“When you put your own individual goals aside for the betterment of the team, I see a lot of that in the culture of our team,” Locksley said. “You see that every day with how we practice, how they respond to each other when good things happen or bad things happen throughout the course of our training camp. I feel good about the direction that we’re in.”