Terps spring football preview: Defense and special teams

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

With spring football practice beginning Saturday, here are some story lines and players to watch as Maryland enters its fourth season under Coach Randy Edsall and its first in the Big Ten. Read about the offense here. Next up, the defense and special teams.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Spring outlook: In terms of lost production, the defensive line enters the spring in fine shape. Ends Quinton Jefferson and Andre Monroe accounted for 89 tackles and 12.5 sacks last season. Co-starting nose tackles Darius Kilgo and Keith Bowers had 69 tackles between them. No one else, gone or still around, had more than 10 tackles. The issue may rest with depth, which we’ll get into more below, but for now the front three can focus on honing their technique and getting stronger for the season ahead. Given the relative lack of injuries and returning production, the defensive line might have the highest expectations out of any position group this spring.

Key question: From where will depth come?

Really, the only question for this group concerns who outside the top four will crack the rotation. Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said Wednesday that he prefers a five-man rotation , which last year at times included Roman Braglio and Zeke Riser. Riser, a one-year transfer option, is gone, but Braglio returns and will begin the spring backing up Monroe. At a comparatively speedy 6 feet 2 and 260 pounds, Braglio was best last season in sub-packages and one-third of his six tackles were sacks. If he can make the jump to becoming a consistent producer, then the defensive line will be set heading into preseason camp.

One to watch: Monroe. A bona fide candidate both for comeback player of the year and defensive MVP, in our imaginary world where those honors exist, Monroe wound up leading the Terps with 9.5 sacks, most since Kris Jenkins in 2000, despite starting only four games. That shouldn’t be an issue this season, but after another healthy offseason, how can Monroe improve on his monster 2013?

Injuries: Kingsley Opara (labrum) and Ty Tucker (ACL) are both out.

LINEBACKERS

Spring outlook: Injuries to outside linebackers Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil have this unit heading into spring a shadow of its anticipated regular season self, but plenty of production returns for assistants Keith Dudzinski and Lyndon Johnson. Matt Robinson, arguably the most valuable defensive player last season, will man the “Sam” spot. Cole Farrand, who has accrued 162 tackles over the past two seasons, is a lock to start at the “Mike” and L.A. Goree (76 tackles in 2013) should be at the “Mo” with little imposition. A host of youngsters like Cavon Walker, Jermaine Carter Jr., Abner Logan, Jalen Brooks, Avery Thompson and Brock Dean will try to crack the rotation any way they can.

“When the program gets to the level you want, you want guys looking over their shoulder, knowing there are guys who want their job,” Johnson said. “That’s what keeps you sharp. That’s what keeps you working hard.”

Key question: Who becomes the new sack man?

Missing from the above breakdown was the blitz-happy “Will” spot, previously manned by Marcus Whitfield, who rang up nine sacks last season by basically rushing off the edge every snap. Cudjoe-Virgil would likely have entered spring as the starter here, having made three sacks in six games last season, but a torn pectoralis muscle will sideline him for now. That leaves an opportunity for sophomore Yannick Ngakoue, who appeared in all 13 games as a freshman. We’ll have more on this duo later in the spring, but Johnson likes balancing Cudjoe-Virgil’s intelligence with Ngakoue’s raw motor.

“This time last year, at the Will position, we were talking about Marcus Whitfield who was extremely experienced and had Cudjoe behind him who was still learning his way around,” Johnson said. “Now Cudjoe’s become the fundamental guy and young Yannick is still learning his way.”

One to watch: Cavon Walker. No one is supplanting Matt Robinson at the starting strong-side spot, but Walker could become a serviceable second fiddle. He, like classmate Ngakoue, appeared in all 13 games last season, and was only one of three freshmen to do so. The former second-team All-Met at Friendship Collegiate was solid contributor on special teams, making nine tackles for the season, but enters spring as Robinson’s backup, with a clear path towards cracking the rotation.

Injuries: Twine (labrum) and Cudjoe-Virgil (pectoralis) are both out.

SECONDARY

Spring outlook: The secondary took its lumps last season, primarily getting gashed by injuries to starting cornerbacks Jeremiah Johnson and Dexter McDougle, but safeties Sean Davis and Anthony Nixon also struggled against top-tier passing attacks. A.J. Hendy returns to safety after spending some time at corner in the nickel and dime packages, where he will back up Davis, while Zach Dancel has been highlighted by coaches as a potential breakout candidate this spring. At cornerback, McDougle has moved onto the NFL combine and Johnson won’t participate fully in practices, so the stage is set for rising sophomore Will Likely to improve on his stellar maiden campaign and for someone else to step up.

Key question: Will depth be an issue at cornerback?

“For spring, absolutely,” Stewart said “But you know what? There’s 15 practices. I would like to think a guy would want to be out there for all those 15. If I’m a backup who has an opportunity because of injury, I’m going to learn all I can learn and play as fast as I can play so I can steal those reps and get better.”

This seems a direct shoutout to backups like Alvin Hill, Undray Clark and even Michael Washington, who starts the spring as the backup field corner behind Likely because rising sophomore Jarrett Ross recently had surgery. Once Johnson returns, he will presumably overtake the starting boundary job, but behind him and likely it is currently dicey.

One to watch: Hill. With 18 games and 25 career tackles to his name, Hill has enough experience to blossom into a valuable backup, but spring offers him the chance to become more. As a freshman, he served mostly on special teams, but the injuries last fall forced him into a more prominent role. In 12 games, Hill made 24 tackles and broke up two passes. Johnson’s limitations means Hill will get plenty of looks against first-team receivers – granted, those receivers probably won’t be the same first-teamers competing during camp – to prove himself.

Injuries: Johnson (toe) is limited. Safeties Elvis Dennah (toe) and Milan Collins (toe) are both out, as is cornerback Jarrett Ross (labrum).

SPECIAL TEAMS

Spring outlook: Place kicker Brad Craddock was better by every measure this fall. He made more field goals (21 of 25 vs. 10 of 16 during his freshman season), missed one extra point in 38 tries and had seven more touchbacks. Craddock hopes to make another big leap, developing into a kicker who can hit from 40-plus yards consistently (9 for 14 in his career). Punter Nathan Renfro also returns after two starting seasons and improved his yards-per-punt average by one yard between 2012 and 2013.

Key question: How much can reasonably be gleaned from the spring?

Probably not much. After a markedly more consistent sophomore season, Craddock isn’t going anywhere barring injury. Neither are Renfro nor holder Michael Tart. When long snapper Nate Adams arrives in June, he will presumably overtake the starting job from Christian Carpenter, but it should be a quiet spring on this unit, unless something unforeseen happens.

One to watch: Nathan Renfro. Renfro cracked the 40-yard average barrier last season (39.7 in 2012 vs. 40.8 in 2013) but could afford to make a bigger improvement to give the Terps some greater assurance on punts.

Injuries: None.

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