Wednesday was third-down day at Maryland football practice, so the underclassmen tasked with simulating Old Dominion’s high-wattage offense worked even harder. Yeah,” cornerback Dexter McDougle said that afternoon. “They’re going to be moving fast on us today.”
The secondary received minimal work last Saturday against a young Florida International team still adjusting to a new system, new coaching staff and 10 new starters on offense. Despite a no-huddle offense, the Panthers moved slow, disrupted by Maryland’s front seven, and unsure hands made even short passes a dubious proposition.
But the Monarchs can pile up yardage in powerful spurts or wear down a defense with fast routes and quick snaps. Sixty-nine percent of their plays during their opener against East Carolina resulted in quarterback Taylor Heinicke slinging the ball somewhere (he completed 74.5 percent of his passes) and then scurrying back to the line of scrimmage, ready for another round.
This means plenty of work for Maryland’s secondary on Saturday, a prospect that has the group licking its chops.
“We’re excited this week, because we really feel like this week is a chance to show what we really can do,” safety Sean Davis said. “This is a great week to watch film, learn the passing concepts, route exchanges, different stuff. This week is definitely going to test the DBs in seeing how we attack them, how we play them.
“That’s the memo we’re getting through the DB room, that we do have a challenge, but nobody’s backing down. We’re going to play together, come together and do our thing.”
The Terrapins may be working short-handed if cornerback Jeremiah Johnson cannot play. The junior hobbled off the field Saturday and left Byrd Stadium in a preventive, protective walking boot. Maryland has not disclosed any information about Johnson’s injury. Upon hearing about the mystery of Johnson’s injury, and that reporters had not received any information, McDougle replied, “Yeah, me neither.” Because Maryland is not required to release an injury report for nonconference games, Johnson’s status is likely to be unknown until pregame warmups Saturday.
If Johnson, the starting cornerback opposite McDougle, cannot go, then Isaac Goins slots into the second spot. A senior from California who transferred to College Park from junior college last season, Goins was recently named to Maryland’s leadership council, a nod to his off-the-field direction. He missed two games last season with mononucleosis but started against Wake Forest and Clemson, and appeared extensively against Florida International on Saturday with Johnson out.
“He’s consistent,” Terps defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said. “That’s one thing the way we practice, the way Coach Edsall has us practice, it’s hard for a guy to hide. If he knows what he’s doing, he’s going to get an opportunity to play. If he doesn’t know what he’s doing, we’ll know and he won’t get opportunities. He went out there, knew what he was doing, understands his role and did a great job out there.”
But say Johnson could not go. Would the Terps feel comfortable starting Goins?
“Yeah,” Stewart said. “I think he knows exactly what he’s supposed to be doing.”
Still, depth would suddenly become a problem in the dime and quarter packages, if Stewart chooses to go that route. Freshman Will Likely slides into the No. 3 cornerback role, but the fourth remains unknown. Alvin Hill would be the obvious choice, but he missed practice leading up to the Florida International game and was expected to return just this week. Further down the depth chart sits freshman Jarrett Ross and former walk-on Tony Perry, who was awarded a scholarship just before the season began.
Last season, Maryland cornerbacks intercepted zero passes. Its four picks came from linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield, defensive lineman Joe Vellano, and safeties Anthony Nixon and Matt Robinson. McDougle already snagged one during the second half Saturday, and sees an opportunity for more against Heinicke.
“It’s definitely on us,” McDougle said. “This is our game. It’s one of the biggest games of the season for us. We definitely want to prove to everybody who we are. It’s another game. We want to take it as just another game. But this team passes 80 percent of the time so …we’re definitely going to be battle-tested out there this Saturday.”
Not quite 80 percent, but close enough. The defensive backs will have their opportunities to boost the interception total, but Heinicke’s accuracy ensures that the secondary’s success will hinge on the second level. If the linebackers disrupt Heinicke’s rhythm with timed blitzes, forcing him into a decision before the receivers complete their routes, then the secondary will be waiting.
“If we get some pressure, maybe he’ll throw us up some money balls,” Davis said.
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