With no turnover on coaching staff, Maryland football at last enjoys stability

Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

There were certain moments last season when Brian Stewart seriously challenged the adage, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.” In meetings with his players, the Maryland football team’s defensive coordinator would wonder whether some players even watched film or studied the playbook, at least based off the inquiries he received.

Now?

“Now you don’t get those questions,” Stewart said Monday afternoon at Maryland’s media day. “At least not from the guys last year. Now you get the intelligent questions, the little things they know can help execute the defense.”

As the only ACC team with no coaching turnover, the Terrapins are enjoying, for the first time in years, stability among the coaching staff and the systems they employ. For the defense, this means another chances to master Stewart’s 3-4 scheme. The offense, meanwhile, gets another crack at Mike Locksley’s pro-style offense, heavy on spread and read-option principles.

“Football is as much mental as it is physical,” Locksley said. “From a concept standpoint, when you say a play, they should be able to mentally visualize that play. Last year, a guy like [wide receiver] Stefon Diggs would learn what his position does on a given specific play. Now he understands the concept of how his route corresponds with the routes around him. What that’ll allow us to do is move guys around, put guys at different positions, put them in the best possible position to make plays.”

For Diggs, this means moving him outside the slot, his natural position. Locksley considers his offense a “personnel-driven system” that doesn’t lock players like Diggs into specific slots. Rather, “we’re going to figure out who our best five skill guys are, and we’re going to figure out a way to get those guys the ball as much as we can,” Locksley said.

For others, like on Stewart’s defense, stability means advanced discussions in the meeting rooms and a heightened understanding of the surrounding positions, and not just your own.

“Just understanding where everyone is, and understanding the defense,” Stewart said. “When you first learn something, you make sure you know what you’re supposed to do, then you start learning the lay of the land, and how everyone else affects what you do.”

In three previous seasons at Maryland, cornerback Dexter McDougle played for three different coordinators. He transitioned to boundary cornerback last season and felt overwhelmed by the information he needed to pick up. He almost couldn’t keep up. Today, the senior feels the defense slowing down which, ironically enough, helps him play even faster.

“It helps a lot,” McDougle said. “You have a coach, he leaves then you get another one in and you have to learn everything all over again. Having him again will be more beneficial for us. You’re more comfortable, and you play better when you’re more comfortable.”

On a defense that lost staples like Joe Vellano (all-American), Demetrius Hartsfield (all-ACC), A.J. Francis (all-ACC), Darin Drakeford (now with the Kansas City Chiefs) and Kenneth Tate (tried out for the Philadelphia Eagles), Stewart hopes this edition might surprise. It’s not about replacing those players, he said. It’s about replacing their production, something certainly attainable with a knowledgeable – albeit relatively inexperienced – group that knows the system.

“I trust the system,” Stewart said. “This is a system that’s been in place since 1974. I trust the system, through knowing the system and the players and the coaches knowing the system, we have to use the different defenses to put people in the best spot. The way to do that is go out to practice and see who’s a better rusher from the left, who’s better from the right, from there we’ll come up with what we’re going to call in the games. That’s what’s so exciting about training camp. It’s like Christmas. See what you got.”

Early Monday morning, before reporters began peppering the Terps with questions about the upcoming season, leaving the ACC and driving campus buses, the offensive staff sat in a meeting room and marveled at how different things are this season. Locksley’s quarterback sessions have just one new face – freshman Shane Cockerille – to get up to speed. The questions have changed. Instead of “who,” they begin with “how.”

And they’re never dumb.

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