Maryland might not be a Big Ten contender quite yet, but head coach DJ Durkin and offensive coordinator Walt Bell have the Terrapins heading in the right direction.
Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson watched intently through the first six games of the 2015 season as the Terrapins ranked last in the Big Ten in total offense. When they dropped to 2-4 following a 21-point loss to No. 1 Ohio State on Oct. 10, Anderson knew he had to make a change.
He stepped into his news conference the following day, hours after firing head coach Randy Edsall, and laid out the plan for his coaching search.
“We want somebody who’s going to come in here and excite the fan base,” Anderson said then. “If you look at football today, fans want an exciting, wide-open offense, and I think it’s part of why we weren’t successful these last six games.”
Maybe Anderson was speaking off-the-cuff and out of frustration. Maybe he just needed more time to reflect. Because eight days prior to that decree, Michigan defensive coordinator DJ Durkin devised a scheme that held Maryland to 105 total yards – its fewest in nearly 11 years – as the Wolverines dominated the Terps, 28-0.
Anderson certainly noticed, and when it came time to make a decision, he did an about-face. He sat in the same room less than two months later and introduced the defensive-minded Durkin as Maryland’s new head coach.
The hire came as a surprise to many, especially considering the other options who were rumored to be available. Anderson, though, went with his gut.
He isn’t expecting Maryland to compete for Big Ten championships right away. He understands the necessity for patience. But it’s tough not to be excited with Durkin’s Terps heading into Saturday’s Big Ten contest against Purdue as 10 1/2-point favorites with a 3-0 record and an opportunity to surpass last year’s win total.
That’s partly because Durkin ultimately gave Anderson his wish for a new-look offense. He hired offensive coordinator Walt Bell away from Arkansas State two and a half weeks after taking the job and just days after Bell declined a chance to become the FBS’ youngest head coach at Louisiana-Monroe.
Only 32 years old, Bell is one of the brightest offensive minds in college football, and speaks confidently with a southern drawl. He helped turn Eric Ebron into an All-American first-round NFL draft pick when he was coaching tight ends at North Carolina, and his offense averaged 457.5 yards and 59 touchdowns from scrimmage over his two seasons at Arkansas State.
Maryland is averaging 456.3 yards through three games under Bell’s guidance, up from the 375 it averaged last season. Perry Hills is completing 61.7 percent of his passes after finishing at a 50 percent rate with 13 interceptions in 2015. The offense stagnated a bit in the first half of Maryland’s 30-24 double-overtime win over UCF two weeks ago, but Hills stayed calm.
“Even when things weren’t looking good, he didn’t do the things he did last year, and that’s turn the ball over,” Bell said at his press conference this week. “He’s a tough, rugged dude. We had a little bit of adversity and he overcame.”
Hills has gotten help from Lorenzo Harrison – one of 14 freshman to see time for the Terps – who has rushed for three touchdowns while splitting carries with Trey Edmunds and Ty Johnson. D.J. Moore’s team-high 12 receptions are nearly half of what he had all of last season.
But what’s most impressive: Maryland is one of only two FBS teams without a single turnover a year after leading the nation with 36.
“It’s the closest stat that relates to wins and losses,” Durkin said during this week’s Big Ten media teleconference. “From Day 1 we talked about it, and we backed it up with how we practice and with what our plan to win is.”
Bell’s plan is to keep opposing defenses off-guard with a fast, yet efficient pace. He likes to have the ball snapped with roughly 30 seconds remaining on the play clock. And although the Terps are still adjusting to the new scheme, they seem to be getting the hang of it.
Hills’ improvement certainly has helped. He injured his throwing shoulder against UCF, but appears ready to face Purdue. Maryland will also be able to utilize running back Wes Brown now that he has served a three-game suspension for a student-conduct violation that occurred before Durkin and Bell arrived.
Since that coaching duo has stepped foot on campus, the Terps have improved in multiple areas. They might be a few years away from competing with the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten East, but Durkin and Bell have them heading in the right direction.
“I am not successful unless those kids are successful,” Bell said. “We’re 100 percent all in this together.”