Dexter McDougle, Jeremiah Johnson give Maryland’s secondary much-needed experience


Dexter McDougle. (Associated Press)

Each day leading up to preseason camp on Aug. 5, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Maryland football team. First up, the defensive backs.

Returning starters: CB Dexter McDougle (Sr.), CB Jeremiah Johnson (Jr.), S Anthony Nixon (Soph.)

Projected starters: S Sean Davis (Soph.) or S A.J. Hendy (Jr.)

Starters lost: S Eric Franklin

Key backups: CB Alvin Hill (Soph.), S Zach Dancel (Soph.), CB Isaac Goins (Sr.), CB Tony Perry (Sr.), S Undray Clark (Soph.), S Rashid Conteh (Jr.)

Incoming freshmen: CB Will Likely, S Milan Collins, S Elvis Dennah, S J.T. Ventura, CB Jarrett Ross

Competition: McDougle and Johnson have logged 36 combined starts and didn’t miss a game last season. The starting cornerback jobs are theirs, barring injury. Nixon also figures to have the strong safety spot locked down; he received five spot starts there in 2012 while Matt Robinson dealt with various injuries. Really, the only preseason competition comes at free safety, where Sean Davis and A.J. Hendy will compete. Davis, who started the first two games last season and once conceded that “my downfall is experience,” possesses more athleticism but can be wild flocking to the ball, his  aggressiveness turning into a negative at times. Hendy, even Davis admitted, is the sounder technician with better fundamentals. Fuse Davis’s nose for the ball with Hendy’s consistency and everything would be just fine.

“It’s a great ongoing battle,” defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said in April. “It’s good to have. Both are doing the best they can to do the best. Whoever’s the starter, I know he’s ready to go. Whoever’s the backup, I know he’ll be ready to go.”

Stewart projected this battle might persist heading into the season opener against Florida International. It’ll be among the most-watched competitions in camp.

Questions:

1) Can McDougle and Johnson take the next step? Maryland’s pass defense finished with rather confusing statistics last season: third in the ACC in pass defense (yards allowed per game) but 10th in pass efficiency defense. Simply put, teams were dumping the ball underneath or taking advantage of blitz packages by throwing across the middle. (No wonder Cole Farrand and Demetrius Hartsfield combined for 156 tackles.) Maryland rarely got burned deep, and if it did it was usually because of some miscommunication within the zone coverage. McDougle and Johnson view themselves as potential shutdown corners of all-ACC caliber, but can they make that leap this season?

If nothing else, they have experience. Johnson, a junior, started all 12 games last season and played nine as a redshirt freshman. McDougle has started every game of the Edsall era, one of just two players (Joe Vellano) to have done so. On a defense that lost so many front-seven playmakers – Hartsfield, Vellano, A.J. Francis, Kenneth Tate and Darin Drakeford – the secondary suddenly becomes the anchor and, by extension, Johnson and McDougle. “Ultimately, it’ll come down a lot on us, because we’re the starting corners,” McDougle said at ACC media day. “That’s like my little bro I never had.”

2) How will the safety battle shape up? As a true freshman, thrust into the lineup by Robinson’s injuries, Davis appeared in all 12 games but saw his playing time taper off after two straight starts to open the fall. Hendy missed the first four games with an ankle injury but played in the final eight. Both have experience, but neither has enough – or has even proved enough — to warrant being named the starter outright. Ideally, both will report to camp with the holes filled in their respective games – Davis, his fundamentals; Hendy, added aggression – but at worst they’ll form a one-two punch, showcasing different looks at different times, that can only get become more well-rounded as the year progresses. Both have plenty to prove this summer, but unless one emerges, both should split playing time this season.

(Side note: Dancel sat out last fall after transferring from New Mexico, but the Good Counsel alum had a solid spring and should back up Nixon at strong safety. He could be an important depth piece in the secondary)

3) What role will Will Likely likely play? Sorry. Couldn’t resist. Edsall loves the true freshman cornerback, whom he plucked out of the muck in Belle Glade, Fla., and persuaded to commit over offers from LSU and Florida State. When asked about spring standouts, Edsall inevitably mentions Likely.

An early enrollee this spring, Likely drilled mostly with the second and third teams, where he’ll theoretically start this season as the fourth cornerback on dime packages, behind Isaac Goins, but could easily surpass senior and set himself up to start in 2014. The 5-foot-7, 171-pound Likely should also see more time on special teams, spelling Stefon Diggs in the punt game. He’s got the speed to do it.

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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