Maryland head football coach Michael Locksley was as jolly as a football coach could be on a Zoom call with reporters Dec. 16. The Terrapins had just announced 21 signees in the Class of 2021, and Locksley, who turns 51 on Christmas Day, kept a smile on his face while discussing how Maryland put the class together. He pressed a “that was easy” button as the virtual press conference ended.
The Terps’ class is currently ranked 19th in the country, according to 247Sports; the program’s highest finish in the last decade is 18th in 2017. Maryland’s defense in particular receives a major boost, with 12 of the 21 signatures coming on that side of the ball, including the seven highest-rated prospects and a quartet of four-star talents.
“I asked Santa for some defensive help, and I guess I was a good boy for most of COVID, and he delivered early,” Locksley said.
Here’s the full story of how this recruiting class came together.
Maryland went to work early, building a strong class around local talent.
The depth of football talent in the “DMV” is well known by now, and Locksley believes the path to making Maryland a national contender starts with keeping that talent home. His track record in the greater D.C. area is well-documented, but that didn’t translate to many signees in 2020, Locksley’s first full class. The Terps still put together an impressive group in the end, but only landed one of the 26 four- and five-star recruits in D.C., Maryland and Virginia (five-star stunner Rakim Jarrett).
This year was a different story. Thirteen of Maryland’s 21 signees are DMV products — eight from Maryland, four from D.C. and one from Northern Virginia. The Terps added three players each from Baltimore power St. Frances and the WCAC’s St. John’s. And while Locksley’s program only signed one of the state’s top-10 prospects (four-star defensive end Demeioun Robinson was No. 3 on the list), securing four of the top 20 and seven of the top 31 is a strong step.
“I knew that relationship building is about a two-year cycle,” Locksley said, “and when we took over in ‘19, and knowing how great a class this area had locally … we put a lot of emphasis on this one.”
Maryland also did plenty of work in the state of Florida, adding four players from the Sunshine State. That number was eight last year when the local options disappeared rather quickly. Locksley has a history of success recruiting this state as well, tracing in large part to his time as an assistant at Florida. But there’s plenty of ties to the state across Maryland’s staff — defensive line coach Brian Williams and special teams coordinator George Helow are from the state, and Williams in particular has been an ace in Florida this cycle.
The other main difference between this year and last was how early most of the 2021 class committed. Maryland had 20 commitments by mid-August and needed only to fill select spots; last year, the Terps had just 14 pledges at the end of the season and added 13 members to the class in December alone. This switch is partly due to having more time to build those relationships, and partly because the COVID-19 pandemic prevented recruits from visiting new places in the summer and fall. That resulted in less drama down the stretch, but it didn’t mean the staff slowed down.
The Terps made a splash signing-day addition in Branden Jennings.
Jennings, a four-star outside linebacker ranked No. 7 nationally at the position, had been committed to Michigan since October and was previously a Florida State pledge. But the Jacksonville, Fla., native flipped to Maryland Dec. 16, giving the Terps a massive boost and adding to the impressive haul on defense.
Maryland had been in touch with Jennings since much earlier in his recruitment; he had been to campus before the pandemic shut things down in March. Defensive line coach Brian Williams also grew up with Jennings’ father Bradley, a former All-American lineman at Florida State. Combine those ties with promising on-field defensive results, and the Terps were able to sway the blue-chipper late.
“It’s a relationship business in recruiting,” Locksley said. “Obviously B-Dub had a great relationship with Bradley, having grown up together. There were some connections there in Tallahassee, George Helow being from Jacksonville — it was almost like the perfect storm.”
Flipping a blue-chip prospect on signing day is always an energy boost to a fan base. There’s an extra jolt when that player was previously committed to an elite program. It’s another level up when that program is a divisional rival. Michigan losing a prized commit to Maryland is a sign of a potential power shift; the Wolverines have been in decline and Jim Harbaugh’s future is uncertain, while Maryland has shown in 2020 that it’s a program on the rise. Michigan’s class is still ranked 10th nationally, but the Terps are moving closer to that neighborhood — Maryland’s class jumped from 27th straight to 18th after Jennings’ commitment.
There are still a few moving pieces.
Maryland will continue to seek further reinforcements at certain positions, and the Terps will happily make room if a big-name prospect decides he wants in. Five-star Florida linebacker Terrence Lewis has Maryland in his top two alongside Tennessee, to whom he was committed earlier in the cycle. Lewis was widely expected to pledge to Auburn as recently as last week, but the Tigers firing head coach Gus Malzahn opened the door for the Terps. This race could be decided this week or in January — Lewis intends to make his choice public Jan. 2 at the All-America Game. If it’s Maryland, he’d be the Terps’ highest-rated signee since Stefon Diggs in 2012.
There will also be some roster attrition between now and next fall. The Terps have just seven scholarship seniors on the roster, and even those players have the option to stay due to NCAA pandemic-driven rule changes. Combine that with a signing class that’s already 21 deep — plus one unsigned commit and presumably a few late signees and offseason transfers — and Maryland’s well heavy on scholarships for 2021. That type of attrition doesn’t usually involve starting-caliber players, but it’ll be worth watching what happens going forward.
FULL LIST OF SIGNEES
Stars and ratings are according to the 247Sports Composite.
While this could change by February, Maryland is looking at a second straight cycle without signing a high school quarterback. The Terps took some big swings in this class — they were most notably in the mix for local five-star Caleb Williams, who committed to Oklahoma. As it stands, though, Taulia Tagovailoa and Lance LeGendre are the only scholarship players here. Walk-on Eric Najarian impressed in relief against Rutgers Dec. 12, but Maryland will hope to bring more scholarship depth into next season, either via transfer or a late JuCo or high-school signee.
Antwain Littleton (3 stars, 0.8664) — Washington, D.C. (St. John’s)
Colby McDonald (3 stars, 0.8464) — Washington, D.C. (St. John’s)
Roman Hemby (3 stars, 0.8194) — Bel Air, Md. (John Carroll)
It’s a three-back class for the Terps, who aren’t sure if they’ll have third-team All-Big Ten selection Jake Funk or fellow senior Tayon Fleet-Davis in the fold next season. Maryland’s current backfield has a pair of true freshmen in Isaiah Jacobs and Peny Boone, so there could be playing time available for this group.
Littleton is massive for the position — he’s 6-foot, 265 pounds. Pair him with 245-pound Boone and you’ve got one of the heftiest backfield duos in the country. McDonald and Hemby have more “traditional” size, but both are physical runners in their own right.
Tai Felton (3 stars, 0.8527) — Ashburn, Va. (Stone Bridge)
Maryland has been loading up at this position for years, so it wasn’t much of a focus in this cycle. Assuming junior Dontay Demus Jr. doesn’t turn pro, it’ll be a receiving corps of Demus, Jeshaun Jones, 2020 five-star Rakim Jarrett, fellow rising seniors Brian Cobbs and Darryl Jones and a handful of redshirt freshmen and sophomores. Felton committed to the Terps back in November 2019 — before Jarrett and the rest of last year’s class even signed — and plans to enroll early after seeing his junior season shortened by injury and senior year canceled amid the pandemic.
Weston Wolff (3 stars, 0.8572) — Venice, Fl. (Venice)
CJ Dippre (3 stars, 0.8572) — Jermyn, Pa. (Lakeland)
Leron Husbands (3 stars, 0.8464) — Washington, D.C. (Charles Herbert Flowers)
Joseph Bearns III (3 stars, 0.8377) — Baltimore, Md. (St. Frances)
Maryland needed depth at this spot after not signing any tight ends in 2020. Established talent Chigoziem Okonkwo missed this season for medical reasons, leaving redshirt freshman Malik Jackson and converted defenders Tyler Baylor and Kameron Blount as the only scholarship options at the position.
Wolff and Husbands are listed at 210 and 207 pounds, respectively, and figure to make more of an impact as pass-catchers. Dippre is the bulkiest of the bunch at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds. Locksley actually mentioned using Bearns primarily as a fullback, which would be a similarly blocking-centric role.
Kyle Long, tackle (3 stars, 0.8086) — Florissant, Mo. (Hazelwood Central)
Locksley and the staff are still hoping to add at this position later in the cycle, but the Terps have good numbers up front — 13 of their 14 scholarship linemen are underclassmen, with center Johnny Jordan the lone senior. Maryland also added six offensive linemen in the 2020 cycle. Long is seen as more of a long-term project, but this position has a longer development curve in general.
Demeioun Robinson (4 stars, 0.9701) — Gaithersburg, Md. (Quince Orchard)
ZionAngelo Shockley (3 stars, 0.8696) — Baltimore, Md. (St. Frances)
Darrell Jackson (3 stars, 0.8647) — Havana, Fla. (Gadsden County)
Terrance Butler Jr. (3 stars, 0.8540) — Baltimore, Md. (St. Frances)
Robinson is the highest-rated member of this class and Maryland’s third-highest rated signee in the last seven cycles (behind Jarrett last year and Nick Cross in 2019). After a long line of edge-rushing talent leaving the state for blue bloods — Chase Young, Eyabi Anoma and Bryan Bresee come to mind — Maryland got Robinson to stay home. He pledged in April and never wavered.
Shockley and Butler played together up front at St. Frances, adding to the local core of the class. Jackson, who flipped from Tennessee last week, is part of the contingent from Florida. Williams was his lead recruiter as well.
Taizse Johnson (4 stars, 0.9075) — Washington, D.C. (St. John’s)
Tommy Akingbesote (4 stars, 0.9064) — Upper Marlboro, Md. (Charles Herbert Flowers)
Andre Porter (3 stars, 0.8777) — Washington, Pa. (Washington)
This trio makes seven defensive line additions out of 21 early signees. Johnson and Akingbesote are the local headliners in the class alongside Robinson. There was a fourth blue-chip defensive line commit, but Quince Orchard’s Marcus Bradley decommitted in October and ultimately signed with Vanderbilt. In his place, Maryland flipped Porter from Boston College in December.
Branden Jennings (4 stars, 0.9507) — Jacksonville, Fla. (Sandalwood)
Gereme Spraggins (3 stars, 0.8615) — Gambrills, Md. (Hutchinson C.C.)
Committed but unsigned: Bam Booker (3 stars, 0.8635) — Cincinnati, Oh. (Winton Woods)
Maryland will return plenty of depth at this position, but Jennings has the talent to be an immediate impact player in his own right. Spraggins, meanwhile, is perhaps the biggest sleeper in the class, if only because JuCo products naturally receive less buzz. He pledged to Maryland in January, and might have seen more suitors appear had he played a fall season. “We would’ve had to fight off just about everybody in the country for him,” Locksley said.
Corey Coley Jr. (3 stars, 0.8601) — Jacksonville, Fl. (Trinity Christian)
Jayon Venerable (3 stars, 0.8485) — Severn, Md. (Archbishop Spalding)
These are two more potential sleepers at a position where Maryland has hit on underrated prospects recently. The Terps’ two starting boundary corners right now are Deonte Banks and Tarheeb Still, both middle three-star recruits in 2019 and 2020, respectively — Still leads the country in pass breakups per game as a true freshman. Venerable was the first pledge in this class, committing way back in July 2019.
Dante Trader Jr., (3 stars, 0.8702) — Owings Mills, Md. (McDonogh)
Trader will play more games at Maryland Stadium than anyone else in this class. That’s because he’s the country’s No. 5 lacrosse prospect in the Class of 2021 and will play both sports at Maryland. He’s a true two-way midfielder on the lacrosse field and a ball-hawk at safety on the gridiron. If he can develop into a star for both teams, he’ll be one of the more popular Terrapin athletes in recent memory.
Signing day is usually well after the regular season, but Maryland plays a game this week.
As part of Big Ten Champions Week, the Terps will host Michigan State at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 19. This weekend was initially slated to feature cross-division matchups across the board, highlighted by the league’s title game, but some teams opted to preserve certain rivalries and others shuffled around them. Maryland was forced to cancel its Nov. 21 matchup with Michigan State due to a virus outbreak in the program, but now the Terps get to finish the year with this game.
Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa presumably won’t be available after reportedly testing positive for COVID-19 last week, which means Najarian and Lance LeGendre should see most of the time (Najarian played the whole second half against Rutgers). The Terps also missed several defensive players — and defensive coordinator Jon Hoke — last week, and it remains to be seen who else is and isn’t available.
Michigan State enters with a 2-5 record, while Maryland hopes to get back to .500 with a victory. For the seniors, it’s one more chance to get a win on their home turf. For the program, it’s another shot to show it’s headed in the right direction.
“We get another opportunity to play here in the shell,” Locksley said Dec. 15. “It’s almost like a do-over for our seniors — a second chance to send them out the right way.”
Update: Maryland-Michigan State has been canceled due to positive tests in the Terrapin program.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics