As everything around Maryland football came crashing down, Jeshaun Jones heard nothing.

The then-freshman recalled sitting with his teammates during the fall 2018 meeting as athletic director Damon Evans told them head coach D.J. Durkin was being fired.

The silence lingered. Young players like Jones thought about how the man who’d brought them to Maryland was gone and how they might “never talk to him again.” Veterans reckoned with the tumult that had defined much of their college careers — some had also been on the team when Randy Edsall was fired midseason in 2015.

“These impromptu meetings weren’t anything new,” Ellis McKennie, an offensive lineman for Maryland from 2015 to 2019, said. “… We’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this before.’”

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Former Terps coach Ralph Friedgen says the next step for Mike Locksley's team is to beat one of its powerhouse division rivals: Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Durkin’s firing marked the end of the lowest stretch in the program’s history. It started with the death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair from heatstroke, revealed an ugly culture of bullying and ultimately ended then-school President Wallace Loh’s tenure.

The tarnished reputation showed. As of Dec. 1 that year, Maryland had just eight prospects committed to its 2019 class, according to The Washington Post.

That’s the Maryland program Mike Locksley inherited — he was announced as head coach just five days later. Locksley had recently been named the nation’s best assistant coach as Alabama’s offensive coordinator.

That stint rebuilt his image after he imploded in his first chance as a head coach with New Mexico. He won two games in as many seasons, was suspended for 10 days for reportedly punching an assistant coach and was the subject of an age and sex discrimination complaint that was later withdrawn.

Perhaps because of that turbulence, the Terps passed on Locksley to hire Durkin in 2015 even though the former was the interim coach after Edsall’s dismissal. Locksley applied again for what he called “the one job that I always coveted” at his introductory press conference.

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Locksley begins his fifth season as Maryland’s head coach Saturday, with a home game against Towson, after four years spent scrubbing the traces of the last staff’s decay and clawing the program back to competency.

He salvaged that 2019 class, turning it into the nation’s 41st best, per 247Sports; each of his four classes since has been top 40 in the country. The Terps are coming off back-to-back bowl wins for the first time since the 2002-03 seasons. Five Maryland players were selected in the 2023 NFL draft — the most since 2009.

But Locksley is aiming for more, delivering a steady drumbeat through the spring, summer and fall about how the Terps have turned the corner and have the culture in place to compete for Big Ten championships.

Maryland will need to finish above No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State just to reach the conference title game. Under Locksley, the Terps haven’t beaten the Wolverines or Buckeyes and their lone win over the Nittany Lions came in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.

The last coach to win a conference title at Maryland, Ralph Friedgen, believes beating one of those teams is essential.

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“I think once he wins one of those games then you’re gonna see that team play on a whole different level of confidence, and I think he’s very, very close to that,” Friedgen said. “... Winners know they’re going to win and losers know they’re going to lose, and it’s just a belief that you’re going to get it done when it has to be.”

Maryland had gone 5-6 in 2000, the year before Friedgen took over. The middling record factored into its muted goals for the 2001 season — it wanted to win six games and get bowl eligible.

The Terps surged past that mark, winning their first seven games. After the sixth, an overtime win over Georgia Tech, Friedgen gathered his players and told them their goals had shifted to being conference champions.

Two weeks later, they faced the defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion, Florida State. During warmups, verbal sparring turned into physical encounters as the two teams fought. An upset Friedgen entered the locker room and found current Penn State coach James Franklin and Locksley, two of his offensive assistants, chuckling about it.

“What the hell are you guys laughing about?” Friedgen recalled asking.

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“We didn’t back down,” one of the coaches replied, per Friedgen. “Normally we’d be afraid to get in a fight with those guys. … I think we’re ready to play.”

The two teams were tied entering the fourth quarter, when late Terps turnovers doomed them — one of the few missteps in a season that still ended with a conference title and a goal fulfilled.

The conversations about the 2023 Maryland team are vastly different from what they were in 2018 — back then, conversations about players’ mentalities weren’t centered on confidence but on trust.

When something like McNair’s death occurs, it fractures the relationship between a coach and players. As a team leader, McKennie was asked by Evans after Durkin’s firing what he’d like to see in the team’s next head coach. The lineman said the players needed someone they could trust.

Locksley delivered that. He’d recently lost his son, Meiko, something McKennie said helped him relate to a Maryland team that had lost one of its brothers in McNair.

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McKennie added he felt he could go into Locksley’s office at any time to talk about whatever he needed. He asked the coach if he could miss a practice to take the LSAT and have an adjusted summer schedule to intern on Capitol Hill, two requests Locksley granted.

Jones said something similar. In his first few practices with Locksley, the coach “got on him.” At that point, the two had few one-on-one conversations, but nevertheless the receiver stopped by the head coach’s office and asked to talk.

The two spoke for 30 minutes to an hour, a conversation that started a relationship that’s kept Jones in College Park for a sixth season.

Locksley plans to be around for a while — he signed a contract extension this year that keeps him with the Terps through 2027. After signing a similar extension in 2022, he called this his “dream job” and his home.

That, too, helped him relate to players.

“It didn’t feel like we had some random guy come in and try to make Maryland a Big Ten program,” McKennie said. “It felt like we brought in a guy who was gonna make Maryland the best Maryland it could be.”

That brings us to the question underlying everything — what is the best Maryland can be?

In a conference that has the aforementioned powerhouses and is seemingly adding more by the minute, is there hope for the Terps to be anything more than a team that tops out where it is right now?

Or, with Locksley’s ability to tap into a steady pipeline of talent from the DMV and an expanded playoff coming soon, is there more room for Maryland to grow?

The answers are unclear but, at the least, the last four years were of use. The Terps have taken a major step forward, from embarrassing to respectable.

Saturday begins the next journey.

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