Here are some things Michael Locksley said Tuesday, all of it sincere, all with a straight face.
“We’re not going to sneak up on anybody. We’re going to get everybody’s best version.”
This, just two games into his tenure as the football coach at the University of Maryland, which spent the previous eight years going 38-61, rarely worthy of an opponent’s best version, too frequently wandering the college football wilderness, irrelevant.
“We’re happy as a team to be able to make our supporters and our fans and our students on campus feel good about our program.”
This, not even a year and a half after the death of freshman offensive lineman Jordan McNair left the athletic department in disarray, making investigations and panels more important than game plans and personnel.
“On Monday, I asked our team, ‘Is anybody surprised with what we’re doing?’ And nobody raised their hand.”
Stop right there. This is me, over here, with my hand in the air. Way up in the air, stretching high.
If Locksley and his Terrapins saw not only this 2-0 start, but a 2-0 start in an attention-getting style — which we’ll get to — then good for them. Nothing of significance about college football is determined in September, but Locksley already has done what seemed nearly impossible even three weeks ago. He has drawn attention — positive attention — to a program that, through mismanagement and eventually tragedy, had long ago lost its way.
Now, let’s be clear: Wins over Howard and Syracuse don’t mean the Terps have reconfigured the College Football Playoff picture, nor do those results even mean they’ll beat Temple on Saturday in Philadelphia.
What those two wins — by the improbable combined score of 142-20 — have done is put the Terps at No. 21 in this week’s Associated Press poll, higher than they have been since 2006. That ranking doesn’t mean much. What does: There is not just optimism, but a freshness around Maryland that probably hasn’t existed since the fall of 2001, when a former Terps lineman named Ralph Friedgen returned to his alma mater and won his first seven games en route to the ACC championship and a berth in the Orange Bowl.
So there is a balancing act here for Locksley: Seize the day, because even a sliver of the spotlight so rarely falls to the Terrapins. But also caution that even a 63-20 lambasting of previously ranked (but perhaps mediocre) Syracuse doesn’t mean this Titanic has turned completely around.
“We’re on a journey right now as a program,” Locksley said Tuesday at Maryland Stadium. “We’re at stop two of a 12-day journey. . . . It’s like driving from California to D.C. You hop in your car, and Day One and Day Two, are we happy we’re in Phoenix? Yeah, we didn’t get a flat tire. We didn’t have an accident. But it’s still only Day Two of a 12-day journey. We’ve got a lot of the trip left.”
That’s what a coach is supposed to say, albeit a little bit more creatively than, say, Nick Saban, Locksley’s old boss at Alabama, may have offered it. (Saban may or may not have been in Phoenix for a College Football Playoff game at some point. He can’t say for certain, what with his blinders blocking the view.)
But with only Temple standing between the Terps and what could be an electric, throwback date for Maryland football — Sept. 27, a Friday night home date against Penn State in what had better be a sold-out stadium — let’s be clear about why there is hope here. It’s not just the wins. It’s how Locksley’s Terps did it. (And, yes, this all comes with the requisite small-sample-size alert.)
Through two games, no team in the country is averaging more points (71.0) or has scored more touchdowns (20) than Maryland. Just three teams are averaging more than the Terps’ 335.5 rushing yards per game. Through two games, Maryland has had 19 first-half possessions. Eleven have ended with touchdowns. That’s not only effective. It’s entertaining, which matters, particularly for Terps fans who endured the nails-on-the-chalkboard tenures of Randy Edsall and DJ Durkin.
“I don’t think we’re surprised,” said quarterback Josh Jackson, the transfer from Virginia Tech who has efficiently operated the offense.
Maybe that’s true about themselves. Everyone else is welcome to be.
Either way, these first two games allow the mind — the fan’s mind, at least — to go places it shouldn’t. Beat Temple, and even a loss to Penn State gets the Terps to 3-1. Of the following four games — at Rutgers, at Purdue, home against Indiana and at Minnesota — when will Maryland be a significant underdog? Is there, gulp, a path to 7-1 and bowl eligibility before the season-ending gantlet of Michigan, at Ohio State, Nebraska and at Michigan State?
Sure, just two weeks in, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The point is that Locksley, his staff and these kids have made Maryland football worthy of such idle speculation. That’s a far cry from the recent arguments, which basically amounted to which coaches and administrators should be allowed to stay and who should be kicked to the curb.
There have to be reasons for how a program that had been defined by the misdeeds and misjudgments that led to McNair’s death is now injected with an energy not seen since Friedgen’s days, and those reasons can’t simply be Locksley and his staff. Yes, they brought in a creative and diverse offensive system and added grad transfers who matter: Jackson, sure, but also linebacker Shaq Smith (Clemson), tight end Tyler Mabry (Buffalo) and linebacker Keandre Jones (Ohio State).
But what Locksley found in College Park was different from what most coaches going through a transition find: players.
“For how people saw our program, it wasn’t as bad as people would have wanted to make it out to be,” Locksley said. “I thought DJ and his staff did a great job of recruiting. They brought in the right kind of kids, for the most part. We haven’t had a bunch of guys that we had to get rid of or run off.”
So here we are in September of Locksley’s Year One, focusing not on the limitations of Maryland’s programs, but on the possibilities. What’s the ceiling for this group?
“I guess we’ll find out,” Jackson said.
For once at Maryland, that journey could be fun.