Jesse Aniebonam has worked a solid year to get back onto the field for the Maryland football team, and he hopes to be in form by the time the 2018 season begins Sept. 1 against Texas at FedEx Field in Landover.
The redshirt senior outside linebacker, who broke an ankle in the team’s 51-41 season-opening upset of the then-No. 23 Longhorns and missed the remaining 11 games of 2017, is excited about his last college season.
But he had been looking forward to another season with DJ Durkin as his coach.
That is likely not going to happen, as a result of the 40-year-old Durkin being placed on administrative leave by athletic director Damon Evans last week, with the chances of coaching his third season in College Park beginning to fade.
The decision to put Durkin and three of his staff members on leave came a day after two damning stories by ESPN.
One centered on the struggles of Jordan McNair during the team’s May 29 conditioning drill, where the redshirt freshman offensive lineman suffered heatstroke, leading to his death 15 days later.
The other was about what ESPN labeled a “toxic culture” at Maryland under Durkin and strength and conditioning coach Rick Court — one of the staffers who was placed on administrative leave and has since resigned.
Maryland president Wallace D. Loh said the media coverage prompted the university to take action.
Calling himself “very pro-Durkin,” Aniebonam said his impressions haven’t changed from when Durkin, a former Michigan defensive coordinator, took over after the 2015 season.
“Durkin was one of those guys when I spoke to him, I knew that he was genuine and he was passionate about what he does,” Aniebonam said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “He cares about what he does and he’s serious about what he does. I know it was never his intention to have anybody feel (mistreated) or be treated anyway that was reflected by (the story). I had talks with the man, not just about football, but about life.”
Asked whether the majority of the team believes Durkin was portrayed unfairly and put on leave too quickly, Aniebonam said: “That has been the notion that everyone is rallying around. I believe that a lot of what happened in (the) final ruling should have been done a lot differently.”
Australian punter Wade Lees, who was first recruited by Durkin when the latter worked in Ann Arbor, said the team learned from Durkin after practice Saturday that he was being placed on administrative leave and then heard it again from Evans. Durkin had run the practice before telling his players of the move.
“A lot of players were upset after Damon Evans announced that,” Lees said in a telephone interview Monday. “You can tell by the sheer emotion that they weren’t happy. They were groaning in disbelief.”
Lees said the source of the allegations came “mainly from disgruntled players” and is not “what most of our team is thinking. … There are two sides to every story and we’ve only heard one.”
Lees added: “‘You are going to get disgruntled players because they’re not getting playing time or whatnot. You can go to any program and find disgruntled players, past and present. Some of the past players who were sources (in the ESPN story) were kicked off the team.”
Many of the players who eventually left the program showed disrespect for Durkin and his staff, Lees said.
“Coaches were constantly disrespected, they were laughed at, players were late for meetings,” Lees said. “These guys aren’t children anymore. If you act like a child, you’ll be treated like one. Respect goes two ways in life. If players want to be respected, they’ve got to give it as well.”
Lees said he believes the allegations against Durkin are being used “as leverage to portray Coach Durkin as an awful person.”
The program Durkin ran — even for a punter — was not easy.
“It was hard, but life isn’t easy,” said Lees, who came to the United States at age 27 after a promising Australian Rules football career had fizzled. “He makes us work hard and he makes us work for what we earn. How are you going to become successful without working hard? If you do the little things right, it’s going to carry over into your everyday life. He’s not just teaching us about football. He’s teaching us about life after football.”
Lees said Durkin often praised players for their academic achievements and got involved in their personal lives, encouraging former Terp Melvin Keihn to return to Liberia two summers ago to see his mother and did the same for senior linebacker Nnamdi Egbuaba, who went to Nigeria to see his mother for a similar long-awaited reunion.
“Coach Durkin was the one behind orchestrating that, for them to get back to their families,” Lees said. “People don’t see that. If he was such a bad guy, would he be doing things like that for his players?”
While Aniebonam and Lees are among the first current players to speak on the record about their embattled coach, several former Terps who were part of Durkin’s first two teams have been reaching out to the media on his behalf. After former defensive end Roman Braglio spoke to The Baltimore Sun on Saturday, several current players have since gone on record in support. The program has not made any players available to the media since Big Ten Media Days July 23-24. Interim coach Matt Canada spoke Thursday to the media for the first time since preseason practice began.
Former Terps linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr., who finished his career last season among Maryland’s all-time tacklers, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that Durkin had a difficult job taking over for Randy Edsall, who was fired midway through the 2015 season and was replaced on an interim basis by Mike Locksley.
“Coming in, he was trying to establish a culture, he was trying to make a change,” Carter said. “A lot of the guys were used to being mediocre. They didn’t like to be pushed. In my opinion, we had a lot of guys (who) didn’t have an interest to play football after college. I think that was the biggest problem. The coaching could be pretty hard, but who wants soft coaching? Coaching is going to be hard whatever college you go to.”
Asked whether playing under Durkin helped him become a fifth-round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers, Carter said: “Coach Durkin and his staff definitely pushed me. They helped me as far as football understand the game at another level.”
Aniebonam, who had developed into one of the Big Ten’s best pass rushers in 2016 before getting hurt, is hoping the four-member commission hired by Maryland to look into the football culture will come to a far different conclusion than many now have about Durkin after reading the ESPN article.
“I do feel they should look deeper into it rather than making rash decisions based off (players who) talked (to ESPN),” Aniebonam said. “Durkin has a right to have a better light shining on him as a person and as an individual. People have been attacking him in that way, and that’s not right.”