The familiar faces are gone: Joe Vellano, A.J. Francis, Demetrius Hartsfield, Kenneth Tate, Darin Drakeford. On and on the list goes, each name a reminder that Maryland’s defense simply won’t be the same. A unit that began the 2012 season with much promise, ranked nationally in several categories, ended things on a sour note, much like the entire Terps team. Now, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart faces the unenviable task of replacing his biggest playmakers and most stable forces along the front seven in his 3-4 scheme.
Of last season’s regular starters, only nose tackle Darius Kilgo will be healthy for spring practices, which begin with a closed session Saturday at 10:35 a.m. Vellano, Francis, Hartsfield, Tate and Drakeford all graduated, each leaving behind a decorated college career and plenty more tackles, sacks and fumble recoveries that need replacing. Add on linebacker Cole Farrand, recovering from a left ankle fracture that will keep him sidelined for spring practices, and Stewart has some serious readjusting on his hands.
“As a defense, we have some big shoes to fill,” Kilgo said. “I definitely believe we have some young guys who can step up and take that role. We’re definitely excited. Coming back, second year in Coach Stew’s playbook, we’re definitely confident in all our positions. We should be pretty good.”
Just how good were the Terps last season? Entering ACC play on Oct. 6, 2012, the Terps ranked eighth nationally in total defense and 11th in rushing defense. By the end of the season, those numbers dropped to 21st and 26th, respectively, coinciding with a tumultuous six-game losing streak amid injury-related turmoil at quarterback. Forced to compensate for the offense’s shortcomings, the defense endured similar struggles, allowing more than 40 points in three straight weeks to close the season while suffering comparable injuries to Hartsfield (ACL tear) and others.
But a new year brings more familiarity in Stewart’s system, and new opportunities for younger players to impress. A host of former backups will challenge for starting spots along the defensive line beside Kilgo, including Quentin Jefferson (10 games, 13 tackles), Keith Bowers (nine games, 11 tackles), Justin Anderson (six games, six tackles) and Roman Braglio, who redshirted last season. Andre Monroe, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last August, will do individual work this spring and progress from there.
Nate Clarke, a redshirt sophomore from Washington D.C., will back up Kilgo at nose tackle after Isaiah Ross was suspended for one year after violating team rules.
“We were up here over the winter, worked here every day,” Kilgo said of Clarke. “His work ethic, his attitude. He’s changed completely. That’s one thing I’m not only noticing, but other coaches are noticing too. That’s a good thing for him.”
The official depth chart is expected to be released later Friday, but it’s open season at linebacker. Bradley Johnson and Shawn Petty will compete at Farrand’s inside linebacker position, while both L.A. Goree and Alex Twine return at the other inside slot. As for the outside, the Terps plan to move Matt Robinson (labrum) there from safety once preseason practices roll around, while Marcus Whitfield slots into Drakeford’s old spot.
Gone, however, are 321 total tackles, 47 for losses and 23.5 sacks from Hartsfield, Vellano, Drakeford, defensive back Eric Franklin, Tate and Francis. So yes, the Terps have some work to do.
“It’s going to be very competitive,” Kilgo said. “We have multiple guys at multiple positions who can play. It’s definitely going to be a good competition between the defense. We’ll see how it goes. We’re definitely excited. With the injuries and everything, it’s just bad look. We felt like we were better than that and we’re ready to show that, starting Saturday. We’ll come out with a lot of energy. It definitely will be fun.
“I just want to see how bad some of the players want it. We’ve definitely worked hard during coaching stations and have been pretty excited to compete. I think we’re hungry to compete.”
The secondary, a particular point of contention and weakness in 2012, suddenly becomes the defense’s most experienced group. Even with Robinson switching positions, starting cornerbacks Jeremiah Johnson and Dexter McDougle return, as do safeties Anthony Nixon, Sean Davis and A.J. Hendy. Isaac Goins and freshman Will Likely have also impressed Edsall through early workouts, and could find themselves in some nickel packages.
“I would expect that from the day we go out there, that the players are going to know exactly what to do, they’re going to be playing a little faster and they’re going to know things,” Edsall said. “Anytime you have people familiar with what you’re doing, it gives you a chance to get a lot better, fundamentally technique wise, but also to put a couple more things in to take advantage of our skillset.”