When the clock ticked 2:30 p.m. and Maryland’s defensive linemen lumbered into their cramped position room in the Gossett Team House, squeezing into chairs to study film, meetings transformed into a two-man quiz show. Whenever assistant Greg Gattuso paused the tape and posed a question, even to the younger understudies, two hands shot up.
“The thing that’s been interesting about the defensive line room is — and everybody knows I love Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis — Joe and A.J. were very domineering personalities,” Gattuso said Wednesday. “They answered every question in the meeting room, not in a negative way. Great leaders. They’re incredibly knowledgeable, so what happens is the younger guys in a room don’t get a chance to learn and express themselves.”
Losing Francis and Vellano, two bullish stalwarts capable of leading both vocally in meetings and silently by example, will undoubtedly affect the line. Last season, Francis and Vellano combined for 104 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, five pass breakups (all by Francis) and four fumble recoveries. But their departures – both are hoping the NFL comes calling soon – caused an interesting culture shift within the defensive line meeting room.
“Everyone’s answering questions now,” Gattuso said. “Everyone’s increasing their confidence in the defense, because they’re not overwhelmed with…I’d ask Quinton Jefferson, ‘What do you do here,’ and he’d pause long enough so that Joe or A.J. would answer. And to keep Joe and A.J. from answering is really difficult. I think they were overshadowed, and I’m seeing these guys blossom more. To answer it directly, I think the room has more overall leadership than it did before.”
Rarely can a coach lose one captain and another outspoken presence, only to claim that the aggregate leadership has nonetheless increased. But spring has brought the blossoming of several unheralded underclassmen, each of whom Gattuso hopes can fill the void.
Darius Kilgo, the long returning starter on the line, is “the guy no one wants to mess with in our room,” an oak tree capable of anchoring the front seven. He had more tackles last season (40) than his fellow spring starters — Quinton Jefferson and Justin Anderson at one defensive end slot, Keith Bowers at the other – had combined (30).
Jefferson’s offseason transformation has made the biggest splash. Gattuso said the rising sophomore struggled with off-field distractions such as “being on time, going to class, doing things the right way.” Since spring football began, Jefferson has harnessed those issues and now consistently grades highest among the defensive line. As Vellano’s understudy last season, Jefferson learned from the best. Then, on March 31, he was a monster during the Terps’ open scrimmage at Dunbar High School, finishing with two sacks, one batted pass and, if not for a brief mental lapse, a fumble recovery.
“He’s improved his effort level to the point where I don’t have to yell at him every play,” Gattuso said. “I think last year, if you remember, he’d be in the two-deep and he’d be out. I used to put him down on scout team, because I said you can’t be a great player with these other issues. I think he’s made a great amount of progress in one year, and I think there’s a lot of growth right now.”
Gattuso, a former 4-3 guru who fancies himself a 3-4 convert, wants to establish an eight-man depth chart along the defensive line. Currently, he said, the Terrapins can run seven deep. Once Andre Monroe (knee) fully heals, Gattuso will have his eighth.
Kiglo’s two backups at nose tackle, Alex Walker and Nate Clarke, have also impressed this spring. Gattuso called Walker his “best technician right now, either one or two” and like Jefferson grades higher than most teammates. Clarke entered spring with “probably the most work needed of any kid.” But he’s adjusted well to nose tackle and has inspired confidence among the coaching staff. And that’s without mentioning Justin Anderson, the line’s lone rising senior, who’s battling with Jefferson for that starting spot and appeared in six games last season.
“We’ll see,” Gattuso said. “I’m excited. We have a lot of work to do, but I feel good about replacing those two with some guys who can play.”