Before he was Michigan's defensive coordinator and long before he became Maryland's head football coach last winter, DJ Durkin spent much of his career coaching special teams. While holding defensive coaching roles, too, Durkin spent three years apiece as a special teams coordinator at Stanford and then Florida. Before that, a year at Bowling Green.
It's a big part of Durkin's background, and it's been a big part of Durkin's approach since taking the Maryland job in December. He made Ball State head coach Pete Lembo one of the higher-profile special teams coordinator hires of all time, and his second Maryland commitment was Australian punter Wade Lees.
Now going through his first spring practices with Maryland, Durkin has apparently put special teams front and center. At the team's last two practices open to the media, some of the team's most impassioned moments have been reserved for special teams. Durkin, alongside Lembo, has watched them intently.
"I believe you're a selfish player if you're not helping on special teams. Obviously other than linemen and guys that don't fit that build," Durkin said. "We're doing that with the team. You see starters at receiver, DB, linebacker, all out there competing on special teams. And they'll continue to do that."
At a practice on Tuesday, Maryland simulated a few live game situations. The Terps spent about 10 minutes doing 11-on-11 offense-versus-defense drills, then transitioned to field goals, which got the roster engaged and loud.
Lou Groza Award winner Brad Craddock is gone, and Maryland's top two placekickers are rising redshirt junior Adam Greene and junior Daniel Sutton. Green, who replaced an injured Craddock late last season and went 3-of-5 on field goals, is likely to be the first-team option. He had no trouble with kicks inside 40 yards on Tuesday, although both he and Sutton struggled with a swirling wind when they pushed out to 50-yarders.
It's hard to get a complete read on Lees, but he seems likely to be the starting punter. This is a very imprecise measurement, but Lees has appeared to punt balls about 55 or 60 yards in the last two weeks. Lee Shrader, Nicholas Rubinowicz and last year's starter, Nicolas Pritchard, are also involved.
(Tangentially, I spoke with former Utah punter Tom Hackett the other night for an SB Nation story, and I asked him about Lees, as both are alumni of the ProKick Australia program that sends punters to America to play football. Hackett is "good mates" with Lees and says Maryland will "have a good time" with Lees, who committed as a 27-year-old freshman.)
Two seasons ago, Maryland's special teams were great. Last season, they weren't. If there's one obvious bright spot heading into this year, it's kick and punt returner Will Likely, who had three return touchdowns and averaged an outrageous 18 yards per punt runback last year. (Likely has been out of action this spring with an undisclosed injury.)
Just how good Maryland's going to be at that phase of the game remains to be seen, but the program looks invested in it.
"That's to me where you build your team. It's a third of the game," Durkin said. "You've got to be great at it."