When Maryland football coach Mike Locksley reflects on the 2021 season, his mind unsurprisingly turns to his team’s victory over Virginia Tech in the pinstripe bowl.
As he replays the Terps’ convincing win in New York, hoping to distill what made the difference for his team played out in the days leading up to the game.
“I really felt the connection of our team,” Locksley said.
Locksley credits much of the team’s success in Maryland’s first bowl victory in 11 years to the shared experience of making the trip up I-95 to Yankee Stadium and passing through the same “pandemic criteria”.
As Locksley dives into the 2022 season with many new faces, the players and coaches who share experiences together strengthen the culture and make Maryland a program unlike many others.
Coaching with humanity
Coach Henry Baker was no stranger to Maryland before joining Locksley’s staff in 2020 as a cornerbacks coach. Baker played for the Terps from 1994 to 1997 and spent time with Ralph Friedgen’s side from 2008 to 2009.
But what’s being built now, he said, is nothing like what he’s ever been a part of at any level of play.
Baker attests that Maryland creates a team of coaches who bring a human element to their work. In the coaching landscape, Baker said, coaches get bogged down in a “do as I say” mindset.
“Football coaches are creatures of habit,” Baker said. “Things like this are rampant in our profession.”
The Terps are trying to break that style of coaching.
“We have an eclectic group of coaches,” Baker said. “Those experiences and some of the things that we’ve been through as men allow us to sit down and understand what these kids are going through.”
The staff’s experiences as coaches, husbands and fathers, Baker said, help create a partnership between them and the players. These days, Baker thinks it’s the best way to help players achieve their goals.
[Season in Review: Maryland football took an important step forward in 2021]
Baker offers a lot of knowledge about the field, but it is often the relationship with its players that brings the unit together.
“To build that brotherhood, you just have to be vulnerable, connect with the person next to you,” cornerback Jakorian Bennett said. “Talking, venting on that person, talking to them about your life, that’s a lot.”
As a former Maryland player, Baker understands the importance of staying connected to your alma mater. The Terps have emphasized reconnecting with their alumni since Locksley became head coach, but building stronger bonds over the course of players’ careers becomes more important to the program.
“It’s really a lifelong brotherhood and friendship that you end up developing while you’re here on campus,” Baker said. “At the end of the day, that’s what people really want to be a part of. We want to go somewhere where it feels like family, and it’s more of a brotherhood than what they do between the lines on the pitch.
An obligation linked to the NFL
If there’s one relationship that shows the byproduct of this coaching strategy, it’s coach Mike Miller and Chigoziem Okonkwo.
Although Miller arrived in College Park a year after Okonkwo, the duo’s rise to national prominence went hand in hand.
Okonkwo is arguably a top 10 tight prospect expected to see his name called in the 2022 NFL Draft, and Miller was promoted to offensive coordinator this offseason. But along the way it was all about mutual respect – another partnership between player and coach.
“It’s not like, ‘Hey shut up, I’m telling you what to do,'” Miller said. “It’s more like, we work together, we show up every day. I say [Okonkwo]match my intensity, match my mentality and then he should say, ‘No coach, you match my intensity, you match my mentality.’
[Photo essay: Maryland football celebrates first bowl win since 2010]
This tactic yielded major results as Okonkwo returned from missing the 2020 season due to medical reasons to be one of the most dynamic tight ends in the Big Ten.
After the season, Okonkwo’s stock continued to rise as he put on a show at the NFL Combine. His 40-yard rush time of 4.52 seconds was the fastest among scouting combine tight ends.
When Maryland hosted its own pro day, Okonkwo showed off more of his skills to the 45 scouts in attendance. Miller was there too, which meant a lot to the Powder Springs, Georgia native.
“It’s kind of like your dad fired you,” Okonkwo said. “It’s a really cool moment to see the guy who helped me get here fire me.”
Miller was very proud of all the young tight ends accomplished putting himself on the map. But Miller had a clear impact on preparing Okonkwo for the next level. And his efforts have not gone unnoticed.
Miller was promoted to co-offensive coordinator just a year after taking over as passing game coordinator. He was also named at the American Football Coaches Association 35 Under 35 Leadership Institute Coaches in December 2021.
According to Locksley, Miller had opportunities during the offseason to leave the program and coach elsewhere.
However, Miller remained with the Terps. The bond he and Okonkwo made is one Maryland will want to replicate even when Okonkwo catches passes on Sunday.
“When I recruit kids, I tell them it’s a life-to-life relationship. I felt like I got that with [Okonkwo]”, Miller said. “I mean, he’s already baby-sat my kids, come over to my house and had dinner. We work together.”
Restructuring of coaches
In his fourth season in charge of Maryland football, Locksley’s staff was again reshaped. New trainers and a plethora of role changes mean Terps’ training unit is different.
Even getting to this group required some hustle and bustle.
In January, Maryland had a verbal agreement with Kevin Steele to become its new defensive coordinator. Steele had started working with the Terps and was in their offices before moving back to join Miami, according to The Washington Post.
Locksley then promoted Brian Williams to take on the role after serving as co-defensive coordinator and becoming the primary defense caller in the final two games of the season.
“As with any part of our program, people who aren’t there don’t concern me. Why they’re not there doesn’t concern me. I’m going to focus on who’s here, and we’re really excited about Brian Williams, the work he’s done to finish the season,” Locksley said.
New additions to the staff include safety coach Wes Neighbors, inside linebackers coach Lance Thompson and wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Gunter Brewer.
If anyone knows the importance of the coach-player relationship, it’s Brewer.
Brewer has a reputation as one of the best receivers coaches in the country. It developed personalities like Dez Bryant and Biletnikoff award winners Randy Moss and Justin Blackmon.
Locksley first attempted to hire Brewer when he took over as head coach of the Terps, however, outside circumstances separated the two.
“Timing is everything,” Brewer said. “We tried to connect a few years ago, and it just didn’t work out that way. I was coming out of the NFL and my wife is a breast cancer survivor and medically and family wise it was a very good fit where I was at that particular time.
But after Brewer’s recent run with Louisville ended, it didn’t take much to get the 30-year-old veteran on the team.
“When the opportunity came I chased it, he didn’t have to chase me,” Brewer said.
Maryland already had a stellar group of receivers, and the addition of Brewer could take the body to another level.
Beyond his background, Brewer brings a mentality that has already spread to Terp receivers: “the weird weather.”
According to Maryland receiver Rakim Jarrett, whenever Brewer walks into a meeting, he walks into a room and says “weird time”, to which his receiver unit responds, “show the time”.
While reiterating that his wide receivers are “monsters” may not sound like the kind of mantra the rest of the team embraces, the players have embraced the idea and appreciate the enthusiasm Brewer brings.
“He treats you like you’re an adult,” said recent transfer receiver Jacob Copeland. “Just being with Coach Brewer every day, he teaches me something new. In the offseason, I was meeting him earlier, playing plays, learn formations and concepts.”
While coaching methods and strategies are key to winning, Maryland coaches agree that it all starts with getting their players on board.
The Terps found tangible success for the first time in the Locksley era in 2021. And even newer coaches can see the players want more.
Building Maryland’s football program over the past few years has been a long process and is far from complete. But building a new expectation around an empathetic coaching staff is proving a major positive so far.
“See the attitude they have, see the twinkle in their eyes, the hunger these guys have. They’re ready to go. They see it,” Neighbors said.