Despite losses, Maryland football hopes defensive line can reload

Each day leading up to preseason camp on Aug. 5, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Maryland football team. So far, we’ve reviewed the defensive backs and linebackers. Next up, the defensive line. 

Returning starters: Darius Kilgo.

Projected starters: Quinton Jefferson, Keith Bowers.

Starters lost: A.J. Francis, Joe Vellano.

Key backups: Zeke Riser (transfer), Andre Monroe, Nate Clarke, Alex Walker, Roman Braglio, Ty Tucker, Azubuike Ukandu

Incoming freshmen: Kingsley Opara, Chandler Burkett, Michael Minter

Competition: Maryland Coach Randy Edsall told reporters at ACC media day that the Terrapins would aim for a six-man defensive line rotation, shuffled interchangeably along the three-man front. Darius Kilgo will start the season at nose tackle, with Quinton Jefferson on one edge. Keith Bowers is currently listed as first string opposite Jefferson, and though a healthy Andre Monroe might challenge him for playing time, recovering from his knee injury won’t happen until camp. Transfer Zeke Riser (more on him later) is basically guaranteed a rotation slot, too, and his presence might turn this August into a three-way competition.

Any further intrigue will be served by the backup nose tackle spot, where Nate Clarke and Alex Walker battle for the rotation’s sixth spot. Clarke, a 300-pounder from Archbishop Carroll (via Fork Union Military Academy), is still listed as an offensive lineman in Maryland’s media guide, the position he played during his freshman season. Last year, the Terps switched Clarke to defense. He spent 2012 on the scout team, but a change of scenery has evidently done Clarke well; Edsall consistently mentions his name among the defensive standouts from this spring.

As for Walker, the 5-foot-11, 290-pound junior traveled to every road game last season as a safety net but never played. He recorded no stats from his one game in 2011 and he redshirted 2010. With three years of program experience, Walker might be a valuable on-field asset, even if his game experience is almost as little as any on the team. Ultimately, Edsall and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart may find that a seven-man group suits them better, leaving the door open for both Clarke and Walker to walk through.

Questions

1) After a strong spring, how will Jefferson fare? If any defensive lineman received more praise from Edsall than Clarke this spring, it was Jefferson. He played nine games last season and recovered two fumbles — weird side stat: Maryland tied for fifth nationally with 16 fumble recoveries — but also received two DNP-CDs. Any absence was based primarily off need; the team had workhorses in Vellano and Francis eating up snaps and space. He consistently burned Maryland’s offensive line during spring drills, and Justin Anderson’s transfer to U-Mass. paved the way for Jefferson to earn the starter’s gig outright.

A jump in productivity (Jefferson made just 13 tackles playing sparingly) from the relatively agile Jefferson would help the defense replace the success of Francis and Vellano — at least, it would be a start.

2) What impact will Riser have? A win-win situation for everyone involved. Riser, formerly of the University of Houston, gets one more season in a familiar system under defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, his former position coach with the Cougars. Stewart and Maryland get an experienced, knowledgeable veteran with 27 career starts, confident enough to assert himself because of the aforementioned familiarity. He’s interchangeable between the two end positions, Edsall said, so that means he’ll share time with Bowers, Jefferson and Monroe. That’s four capable defensive ends right there. The unit had no seniors before Riser signed on. Chances are he’ll begin the summer in a backup role, and those four defensive ends will all see substantial field time, but it’s easy to see Riser quickly impressing himself up the depth chart.

3) Can Kilgo anchor the line? The line’s only returning starter, Kilgo appeared in all 12 last season at nose tackle in, both literally and figuratively, Francis and Vellano’s shadow. Now, he steps out into a veteran role — a relative term given his 11 career starts — but will be asked to anchor the line. Not much has been written about Kilgo, but he’s a fourth-year junior who knows the system and will play a lot this fall. Clarke and Walker are merely competing for a backup spot. The spotlight is all his.

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

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Alex Prewitt · July 24, 2013