Maryland football signed 21 players Wednesday as part of the 2021 recruiting class’ early signing period, including five ESPN300 talents.

“Hopefully this group will be the catalyst to get us through the growth phase and into the success phase,” coach Mike Locksley said.

Led by linebacker Demeioun Robinson from nearby Quince Orchard High School, Locksley focused heavily on defense after targeting offensive players last year. Tommy Akingbesote, Taizse Johnson and Andre Porter are among the other top players joining the Terps on that side of the ball.

Maryland’s defense had struggled in years past and got off to a rocky start in 2020, allowing at least 43 points to Northwestern and Minnesota. But since then, the unit has looked markedly better every week, forcing turnovers, sacks and limiting downfield progress.

Recruiting procedures changed for much of this class due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many recruits could not visit campuses or play their senior season this fall, but Locksley said early commitments and visits from many of the Terps’ 2021 signees minimized some of the effects of the atypical cycle.

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Maryland has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with Locksley among the at least 30 players and staff members in the program to test positive for COVID-19 over the past six weeks. The team has missed out on three games this season due to the virus.

“I think it has been more difficult to develop the personal relationships with kids,” Locksley said. “Some of the guys from out of state, it may be a little more difficult because they weren’t able to travel and not have an official visit.”

While most players had already announced their intention to sign with the Terps, Locksley pulled out one big surprise. Four-star linebacker Branden Jennings flipped to Maryland from Michigan early in the day, the second consecutive year a top recruit switched to the Terps on signing day after wide receiver Rakim Jarrett did so last December.

Locksley said his staff’s connections to Jennings — particularly defensive line coach Brian Williams, who grew up with Jennings’ father in Florida — helped secure the commitment.

“It’s a relationship business in recruiting,” Locksley said. “[Landing Jennings] was almost like the perfect storm.”

Jennings is one of four players from Florida, the second-most from any state in this class. Eleven players hail from Maryland, while the rest of the group is filled out by recruits from Washington, D.C., Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Missouri. Seven of these signees — including Jennings — will enroll early and participate in spring practice.

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Jennings’ commitment pushed Maryland’s class into the top 20 nationally, a number that could grow further if the Terps’ top remaining target — five-star linebacker Terrence Lewis — joins the program.

It’s part of Locksley’s plan to attract talent, and the 2021 class was his biggest haul yet. He’s been building this group since he took over as head coach in Jan. 2019, and his efforts appear to have paid off.

Now, the coach knows he needs to turn that talent into on-field results.

“Building a winning, successful program is all about putting all the right pieces together,” Locksley said. “We’ve just got to do a good job as coaches of developing these guys and putting great game plans in place, and getting them to go out and play smart.”