DJ Durkin had just finished his playing career as a captain at Bowling Green when, in 2001, the Falcons hired an assistant coach from Notre Dame named Urban Meyer to be their new head coach.
Meyer quickly hired Durkin as a graduate assistant at Bowling Green, and their lives have been intermingled ever since. They will meet again Saturday when Durkin’s upstart Maryland Terrapins play Ohio State at Ohio Stadium.
“Urban was the first guy I ever worked for,” Durkin said. “That’s where I learned coaching right from the very get-go.”
Meyer said he intended to hire Durkin, a Youngstown native, as a full-time assistant at Bowling Green until he left for the Utah job. He later hired Durkin when he was head coach at Florida.
“He’s an impact coach, one of the best I ever had,” Meyer said.
Durkin stayed at Florida until 2014, when he moved to Michigan to work under Jim Harbaugh.
“When he was looking at jobs, I kind of helped him because he was ready to be a head coach,” Meyer said.
Meyer was no doubt happy to do whatever he could to hasten Durkin’s departure from Ann Arbor, but Maryland might not have been the landing spot Meyer would have picked for his protégé.
“I remember when they hired DJ,” Meyer said. “I was like, doggone it, I wish he’d have gone somewhere else, because we don’t need another (rising star coach) on this side of the conference. I think we’ve got one.”
Meyer is 9-1 against his former assistants, with the latest win coming in last week’s 56-0 victory over Chris Ash and Rutgers. Though both Rutgers and Maryland have had bumpy rides since joining the Big Ten in 2014, the Terrapins (3-1, 1-0) clearly are well ahead of Rutgers and could pose a Big Ten threat to the Buckeyes (4-1, 2-0) today and in the future.
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Maryland has the benefit of financial backing from Under Armour, whose founder and CEO is Maryland alum Kevin Plank. He reportedly gave $25 million toward the Cole Field House renovation project that includes a newly opened indoor practice facility.
It also has a fertile recruiting base with the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan areas at the center. The Terps’ 2017 class ranked 18th nationally in the 247Sports rankings, as does its 2018 class.
“To me, it’s always about recruiting and what you can sell in your home base,” Meyer said. “That’s strong (with Maryland).”
Maryland was projected by some to be a sleeper team this year, and the Terps opened with a stunning upset of Texas. But the optimism was tempered by the loss of starting quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, and Maryland later lost his replacement, Kasim Hill, in a 38-10 loss to Central Florida. Both are out for the season because of knee injuries.
But the Terrapins showed they might have staying power with a 31-24 victory at Minnesota last week. Third-stringer Max Bortenschlager played efficiently in the win over the Golden Gophers, and the Terrapins have explosive playmakers in running back Ty Johnson and receiver DJ Moore.
The question for Maryland is whether its linemen on both sides can compete with Ohio State’s. The Buckeyes manhandled the Terrapins in the trenches in last year’s 62-3 rout.
Nobody expects that kind of lopsided game this time around.
“Comparing last year to this year, there are so many differences that I don’t even think you can measure,” Durkin said. “Our team is in a different spot. There are a lot of different guys playing. Even the guys who were playing are totally different now that we’ve got a full year in the program together and have continued to learn and grow.”
Maryland’s offensive line didn’t allow Minnesota to sack Bortenschlager, and the Terrapins rushed for 262 yards against a Gophers run defense that was No. 1 nationally at 59.0 yards per game. On defense, the Terps have allowed only Central Florida to run for more than 100 yards.
Maryland will always face a major challenge competing with the Big Three of the Big Ten East — Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State — along with Michigan State, if the Spartans can right their faltering ship. But Meyer believes the Terps are close to emerging as a real threat.
“Real close,” he said.
Durkin hedged, but just a bit.
“We still obviously have a ways to go, but I like where we’re at,” he said.