Intense showdown: ‘Kindred spirits’ Harbaugh, Durkin meet

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
DJ Durkin and Jim Harbaugh are pictured on the Michigan sideline last season, when Durkin was Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator.

Jim Harbaugh and DJ Durkin will be reunited again Saturday, this time on opposite sidelines.

Durkin, who was Michigan’s defensive coordinator last season and had worked for Harbaugh at Stanford, is now Maryland’s head coach. They will face each other for the first time on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

Second-ranked Michigan, No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, is 8-0, 5-0 Big Ten, while Maryland is 5-3, 2-3, one game from bowl eligibility.

Harbaugh has said several times this week that he’s been rooting for Maryland all season except this one week out of the year, and they both made it perfectly clear: This game is not at all about the coaches.

“Our teams are playing each other this weekend, but it’s the players who are playing each other, not he and I,” Durkin, 38, said on the Big Ten conference call this week.

The Terps won their first four games, then got a win over Michigan State on Oct. 22. But they have lost three of their last four, including a 42-36 setback at Indiana last week. To get that sixth victory and become bowl-eligible in Durkin’s first season, the Terps must get a win in the final month that, aside from Saturday’s game against Michigan, includes games against Ohio State, at Nebraska and then at home against Rutgers.

“He’s done a fabulous job,” Harbaugh said. “Always respected DJ as a tremendous competitor at the highest level. I smile when I think about his competitiveness. Always happy for a friend’s success. You see the energy, you see the strength, you see the competitiveness, execution on the field. On the flip side, this will be a championship game, a real test for our club.”

Harbaugh said it’s a thrill to see his assistant coaches move on to bigger roles.

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“I follow all the coaches we worked with and pull for them when they’re not playing us,” Harbaugh said. “Happy for the other guys’ success. Personally, I like it a lot. Professionally, I see guys develop, reach their goals, especially when you know going in what their goals are, you want to see your friends have success. He goes all out, does things at a very high level. A lot of enthusiasm. Kindred spirit. Very happy for him.”

Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison was coaching at Notre Dame when Durkin was hired as a graduate assistant.

“And I went, ‘Who’s that’” Mattison said. “They said, ‘Well, he was a really good player at Bowling Green.’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’ I think he was there for about a week and you knew you got a real one. He did a really good job.”

DJ Durkin

The Michigan defensive players said they are looking forward to seeing Durkin again. Running back Karan Higdon this week said it’s hard to decide who is more intense – Harbaugh or Durkin.

“That’s a close call,” Higdon said. “Coach Harbaugh can be very, very intense and Coach Durkin can be very, very intense. They’re both masterminds of their domain. It’s a hard decision.”

There are some advantages for Durkin. He knows Michigan’s defensive personality and he has a good sense for how offensive coordinator Tim Drevno runs the offense.

“Familiarity definitely helps,” Durkin said. “It’s less time spent on identifying who’s who personnel wise and what they can or can’t do and the strengths and weakness, which is something you go through every week when you’re game planning a team.

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“That process is a little different when you’re playing a team you’re very familiar with their personnel. It’s more about what our players know about their personnel and how they execute. There’s certainly are some benefits to it, but it comes down to the players and their preparation.”

Conversely, Michigan has an idea how the Terps’ defense will look.

“You see the hustle, you see the aggressiveness,” Harbaugh said. “Seen some schemes we recognize. Understand the intensity they have.”

That they both have.