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Rookies make their coach proud

As Maryland football Coach Mike Locksley sat and watched the 2020 NFL Draft, he couldn't have been prouder to have two of his players, Anthony McFarland Jr. and Antoine Brooks Jr. selected.

But what he never expected was that his two players would be going to the same team.

McFarland was drafted by the Steelers in the fourth round, while Brooks was chosen in the sixth round.

"Any time you have players drafted from your program, as the head coach and leader it's very rewarding to see," said Locksley. "When you recruit these guys to your campuses, you recruit them with the hopes that they can extend their careers and take it to the highest level. For me it was even better seeing they are both going to such a classy organization like the Pittsburgh Steelers and playing for a guy like Mike Tomlin, who I have a lot of respect for."

Maryland is a team the Steelers are very familiar with. Coach Mike Tomlin's son, Dino Tomlin, is a receiver for the Terrapins. Quarterbacks coach Matt Canada is the former offensive coordinator at Maryland. And current Maryland offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery was the Steelers' receivers coach from 2010-12.

That familiarity was helpful for the Steelers in selecting the players, especially during a year when pro days were cancelled and in person visits eliminated because of COVID-19.

"The big thing, because we didn't have the pro days or ability to get guys to teams to interview them, the intimate knowledge, getting the real information on both guys, who they are, the type of player they can be, it's Dino being here, but more Scottie Montgomery who is the receivers coach and spent time in Pittsburgh. You have Matt Canada and he was the coordinator during both of their time at Maryland. And the relationship I have with Mike.

"It's what they put on film and what you can get on them and the tight relationship with both programs helped both guys and helped the Steelers."

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McFarland is expected to come in and give the Steelers ground game some depth, bringing a versatile approach to the game.

"He is a speed guy," said Locksley. "Sometimes he gets put into a box of just being a situational player. Having had him a year he has shown over and over that he has more value than that. He proved that to us here. We ran between tackles. He has done short yardage. He has the ability to do both. His size, stature in height at 5-9, might not be elite. But he isn't a small guy. He has tremendous acceleration. He can go from 0-60 fast. He carried the load. Everyone knew the type of player he was, and he lived up to that expectation. He is a big play guy. He is going to make plays for you because of his skillset.

"He also can be a receiver out of the backfield, which so many teams take advantage of that matchup with running backs in the passing game. I have known him since the seventh grade. He always had this skill set as a receiver. He did a lot of that coming from his high school program. Having him in our system, and the way it was installed. The system fit Anthony's skill set and what we do with the running backs in the run and pass game and added value to his game."

McFarland finished his Maryland career with 1,648 rushing yards in just two seasons, ranking 21st overall in school history. He ranks ninth in school history with six 100-yard games. McFarland also has 24 receptions for 199 yards.

His numbers were down last year because of a high ankle sprain he suffered, with just 614 rushing yards, but his ability to fight through the injury was a testament to his toughness.

"That is the part of the game when people ask about his toughness, that is what I was pleased to see," said Locksley. "For a speed guy who relies on that speed, acceleration and change of direction, for his game the worst thing that can happen to a guy like him is a high ankle sprain. It's tough on a guy like that. He fought through it. He practiced with it. He tried to play on it. We shut him down because we wanted to get him to as close to 100 percent as we could to get the production. I was proud to see him fight through it in practice. We gave him a chance to heal, because time is all that helps. But I was pleased to see him fight through it. He had over 100 yards rushing his final game. He got right back to his production once healthy.

"You just see it in him. He loves football. There is no doubt. Football has been a big part of his life and given him so many opportunities. When he is on the field, he has a passion for it and loves to play it."

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Brooks, who was voted MVP for the Terrapins last year, finished the season as the school's leading tackler with 87 stops, including 69 solo stops, and also had eight and a half tackles for a loss and five pass defenses.

"That is one of the tremendous strengths of his," said Locksley. "He is a sure, open-field tackler. A guy that gets the ball carrier on the ground. He is able to finish things because of his physicality and his unique short area quickness where he can close the distance on an opposing player and still come to balance and be able to strike through his hips. He is really explosive from that standpoint."

Brooks is a player who has admitted to hating to lose any one-on-ones, something that comes from his competitive nature that was always on display at Maryland.

"He is really competitive," said Locksley. "Both of those guys, Anthony and Antoine, are super, uber competitive guys that want to win everything they do, every drill. There is no doubt Antoine takes great pride in being a winner. Last year we struggled through a 3-9 season, but I saw tremendous leadership from him. It never affected the way he played the game, up or down. That is what NFL teams look for and I think they really liked that about him."

He also has a knack for being around the ball, something that was aided by playing quarterback and defensive back at DuVal High School

"He is unique in that," said Locksley. "He is used to having his hands on the ball. He is able to make plays when the ball is in the air. Go up and get interceptions or breakups. The biggest part of his game is his energy he brings and the passion he plays with. You talk about a guy who loves the game. Practice, games, it didn't matter. This is a guy where you never had to question his effort.

"And there is so much versatility in his game. He can be between 210 and 220 pounds easily, even 225. He has been a hybrid here throughout his career. We showed in our scheme his ability playing in the deep third, the deep half of the field and his range from that standpoint, and his ability to drop down in the box and be a run support guy and blitzer, which is one of the unique parts of his game, plus his ability as a pass rusher off the edge. He has a high football intelligence in that he can anticipate things. He studies. He is very instinctual. He is a guy who will be a great fit and benefit from being in the Steelers organization."

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