College programs may soon come calling for Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, asking him to interview for their head coaching vacancies. How could they not? His contract – like every Terrapins assistant except for offensive coordinator Mike Locksley — ends after this season, and with the way his defense has operated through four games, combined with Stewart’s college and NFL experience, it’s easy to envision teams taking a run at his services.
After Maryland’s 37-0 throttling of West Virginia on Saturday — the team’s first shutout since 2008, the Mountaineers’ first scoreless loss since 2001 and the Terps’ biggest win over their border-state rivals since the 1950s – every defensive player conducting postgame interviews mentioned Stewart in one fashion or another.
Safety A.J. Hendy, who snagged three takeaways, talked about Stewart preaching disruption, and how he demands at least three or four takeaways from his defense during practice. Linebacker Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil, who corralled his first career interception, thought Stewart would have been proud. And linebacker L.A. Goree was asked how much of Maryland’s defensive success he traces back to Stewart.
“Uhh …all of it?” Goree said. “I’m sure he doesn’t take the credit, but he’s an amazing coach. He gets us fired up, he’s the best motivator. Even if you’re feeling down, you can go talk to him in his office, he’ll pick you up, tell you what you need to do.”
Stewart came to College Park after two seasons as defensive coordinator with the University of Houston. Before that, he spent eight years with four NFL teams. He’s coached defensive backs for San Jose State, Missouri, Syracuse, the Houston Texans, San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles and now Maryland Terrapins.
In Stewart’s first season, his unit carried Maryland as long as it could, until the burden became too much to bear. Linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield suffered a season-ending ACL tear. Other injuries, while not critical, left the group a walking bunch of probables and questionables. The defense rarely got breaks because of the Terps’ offensive inefficiencies, wearing down as the year progressed and the competition got harder.
Entering Stewart’s second season, the Terps looked like they lost a lot. Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis are members of the New England Patriots organization. Darin Drakeford almost made the Kansas City Chiefs roster. Hartsfield, linebacker Kenneth Tate and safety Eric Franklin were departed, too. In their place stepped players without much starting experience, but nonetheless players who have easily replaced – if not exceeded – the production of their more decorated predecessors.
“I think first of all, Brian does tremendous job, and also [defensive line coach] Greg Gattuso and [outside linebackers coach] Lyndon Johnson and [inside linebackers coach] Keith Dudzinski are excellent coaches as well,” Coach Randy Edsall said Tuesday. “It’s all part of the team concept we have. Those guys are playing well, and they’re running to the ball, doing the things that Brian as a coordinator is asking them to do. When guys do their job, when they listen to what they’re being taught, then you have a chance for success.”
Linebacker Marcus Whitfield ranks sixth nationally with 5.5 sacks. Cudjoe-Virgil, Whitfield’s backup on the outside, is 19th with three. Before his season-ending shoulder surgery, cornerback Dexter McDougle led the country with three interceptions. Even so, he’s still tied for third.
As a team, Maryland is first nationally in total sacks (17), tied for fifth in interceptions (eight), seventh in fumble recoveries (five), 12th in opponent’s third-down conversion rate (25.4 percent), 17th in allowing plays of 10-plus yards, 18th in both pass and rush defense, and ninth in scoring defense. That’s a mouthful, and a testament to Stewart.
“He preaches it,” Hendy said. “He preaches getting the ball out, running to the ball, attacking the ball, ball disruption. That’s things we preach every day.”
He also preaches the education of old-school rap, and the teaching of touchdown celebrations to Hendy. He learned his base 3-4 defense from longtime NFL coach Wade Phillips, and thrives on mismatching speedy linebackers with slower offensive linemen along the edge. He’s “the best motivator,” according to Goree, and Hendy hopes he doesn’t leave.
“I don’t want too many coaching changes,” said Hendy, who was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week. “He’s a great coach.”