In his 30 years being in the business of football, coach Mike Locksley has learned that teams led by their coaches are good ones.
When coaches lead the way, they have to police the team and push them harder, and they can typically get some good output from their players on the field.
But Locksley said great teams are run by the players.
“When that guy next to you looks at you when you’re complaining or making excuses and he says, ‘Look, man, that’s not what we’re about,’ and it’s coming from within — that’s when you know you have the chance to be great,” Locksley said.
At a press conference Friday morning for his third preseason camp at the helm of Maryland football, Locksley said he is seeing the culture he has wanted to build since his arrival come to fruition — his team is player-driven.
As someone who has been around the Maryland program for a few years, Ron Zook, who took on the role of associate head coach in February, said a lot of it comes down to how easily the players have latched onto the culture Locksley has created.
“They’ve bought into it because they know he cares,” Zook said. “He cares about them as people, he cares about their lives. And football is just the part they get to do [together].”
Throughout the spring and summer, it was becoming evident that mentality was running deep in the minds of Terp players. And there’s no better indication of it than the player-run practices his team has been holding this summer.
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“It lays down the foundation for … a player-driven team,” senior defensive lineman Lawtez Rogers said. “You have older guys, leaders on the team, enforcing how practice is going, like coaching up younger players on technique, what they’re doing right or wrong — I feel like that’s better than having coaches.”
In a PRP, Rogers explained that players shoulder the responsibility for operating a disciplined practice.
He said coaches would be there the first five minutes and then head inside while the team gets to work on an hour or two of practice.
After warming up as a team, they’ll move to basic drills, followed by larger team periods where they run through a script of plays. Rogers said the team takes every chance to be more productive.
But the practices go beyond getting better on the field. For the Terps, every moment helps to bring the team closer and hold each other accountable.
“What motivates you to go hard in those practices is you don’t want to let your brother down,” Rogers said. “You have brothers counting on you, I have people counting on me, I’m counting on some of my other teammates. I don’t want to let anybody down while I’m out there.”
For others, such as sophomore defensive back Tarheeb Still, it’s about proving naysayers wrong about a team that’s been labeled with the word “potential” for too long.
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“We got this nice new big building, we’ve got all of this stuff and we have nothing to show for it,” Still said a short distance from the newly established Jones-Hill House. “We’re hungry — we’re hungry to win games.”
And after a breakout freshman year, earning an All-Big Ten honorable mention, Still said the difference from year one to two was immense. He said PRPs are taken seriously and not one player missed them.
If there’s one thing Locksley has never shied away from emphasizing, it’s that hard work, energy and organization from players are key to the success they’re expecting this season.
“We all understand what we want,” senior tight end Chig Okonkwo said. “The players on this team all have goals, and we all understand you can’t reach any of the goals you want without working hard.”
Okonkwo has worked hard on getting back to the team after missing the 2020 season. Due to a condition called myocarditis, often linked to COVID-19 complications, he was forced to sit out the entire year.
Now, he’s ready to make his mark, already garnering attention with a spot on the watch list for the John Mackey Award, given to the top collegiate tight end.
For Okonkwo, if there’s one thing he’s looking forward to this season, just like the rest of his team, it’s being able to help drive results on the field.
And with the team holding each other to the high standards set by Locksley, the Terps seem sure they’ll reach them.
“Winning,” Okonkwo said with a smile. “I can’t wait to start winning again.”