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Antoine Brooks Jr. can feel the difference when he steps into the Gossett Football Team House. Beyond the on-field changes and cliché slogan “Maximize It,” the new University of Maryland football coaching staff has brought a relaxed vibe to the program this year.
“I mean, more chill. Chillin’. People used to be uptight or nervous or something like that,” Brooks, a senior defensive back from Lanham, says of himself and his teammates. “But you know, everybody, at the end of the day, everybody is just calm, cool, and collected.”
In hiring Michael Locksley last December, Maryland turned to a familiar face to stabilize its football program about six months after offensive lineman Jordan McNair developed heatstroke during practice and died 15 days later, on June 13, 2018.
A 192-page external report examining McNair’s death and the Maryland football program, commissioned by the school, revealed a culture where players felt afraid to speak out under former head football coach D.J. Durkin. Maryland placed Durkin on administrative leave last August, then reinstated him after the report came out in late October, only to fire him a day later.
The players are ready to put this traumatic chapter behind them.
“We’ve been working hard all summer,” says redshirt sophomore running back Anthony McFarland Jr., who grew up in Hyattsville and graduated from nearby DeMatha Catholic High School. “We’ve been putting in all the work that we need to put in. We’re just ready to go out there and prove what we can do. … This year is just for everything we’ve been through. We hit rock bottom last year and feel like this is the year to make something happen.”
A feeling of normalcy had returned during the team’s media day earlier this month. Most of the questions from reporters focused on the emerging quarterback battle, the switch to a 3-4 defense by new defensive coordinator Jon Hoke, and the high-profile transfer players this season.
The transfers include ex-Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson, former Hokies wide receiver Sean Savoy, linebacker Shaq Smith from Clemson University, and linebacker Keandre Jones, who was recently granted a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately for the Terps after three seasons at The Ohio State University.
When asked how the team plans to move forward while still paying homage to what happened last year, Locksley responded with a common refrain throughout his press conference.
“We will be defined by what we do now,” he said. “What we’ve done in the past doesn’t really matter. It’s about what we do today and that’s always going to be our focus. But moving forward, we move forward the right way and one of the things that our team has embraced and kinda taken on is the way we honor Jordan is by how we compete, how we practice, and how we prepare. And that’s something our team has embraced. Obviously because of what’s happened here, we feel like we’re in the best shape possible to navigate through this and our team has really come together and I like the way we’ve moved forward and we’re going the right way.”
Players may have perceived those words as hollow had it come from any other coach, but Locksley has a deep connection to the D.C. area. The former offensive coordinator for the University of Alabama graduated from Ballou High School in Southeast and served several stints at Maryland, where he compiled a 1-5 record as the interim head coach in 2015.
In January, Locksley hired Elijah Brooks, the former head football coach at DeMatha, to be Maryland’s running backs coach.
“I definitely feel like a home feeling everytime I come here and talk to coaches, coach Locks,” says senior defensive back Tino Ellis. “That’s definitely one of the feelings, a home feeling, because they’re all from the same area.”
“It makes a big difference, it makes me comfortable,” he continues. “A lot of these coaches, I had a pre-existing relationship with them, so I already knew them and they already knew me. They know what I’m good at, what things I need to work on, so I think it helps out a lot.”
Ellis grew up in Reisterstown, Maryland, and is one of a dozen DeMatha alums on the team. Four players on the active roster list their hometown as D.C. This familiarity not just with the coaches, but among local players, has helped foster the family-like atmosphere.
“I just feel like we all can relate to each other,” says Savoy, a Woodrow Wilson High School graduate. “Not saying that I can’t relate to the out-of-state players, but like, mostly a lot of guys from D.C. and Maryland, we know each other, we know the area very well, we got a lot of things that we connect on.”
Before Locksley’s hire, which has generated enthusiasm in the area, the Post published an article detailing the coach’s past controversies. His first head coaching job at the University of New Mexico from 2009 to 2011 ended after a series of incidents. Among them, he was accused of telling an administrative assistant that he wanted younger women in her role (the claim was later withdrawn) and of punching and attacking an assistant coach.
The school fired Locksley four games into his third season and he finished with a 2-26 overall record.
But at Maryland, Locksley sees “great opportunities.” He spoke repeatedly about developing the “right kinds of habits and behaviors” in order to be successful. Brooks, the senior defensive back, says the coaches have “patience,” and allow the players to make mistakes. He adds that it creates a more “relaxed feeling.” McFarland says the “culture has definitely changed as a team. Not even just coaches, but as a team, starting to come together, just getting through everything together.”
Oluwaseun Oluwatimi, a senior defensive lineman who also graduated from DeMatha, describes the vibe in the building as “not as tense.”
“They want us to be free,” he says. “They want us to go out there and play loose and play fast. We’re going to make mistakes but they want us to make them at 100 miles per hour.”
“Jordan will always be remembered,” Oluwatimi continues, “but how we move on, we’re gonna move on by preparing the right way, and playing the game the right way. He will always be in our hearts, he’s forever our brother. But we’re going to move on—we are moving on—and preparing the right way and honoring him the right way.”