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. Next up, the linebackers.
Returning starters: Cole Farrand, Matt Robinson.
Projected starters: L.A. Goree, Marcus Whitfield.
Starters lost: Darin Drakeford, Kenneth Tate, Demetrius Hartsfield
Key backups: Alex Twine, Avery Thompson, Bradley Johnson, Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil, Shawn Petty, Abner Logan, Brock Dean, Clarence Murphy.
Incoming freshmen: Yannick Ngakoue, Jalen Brooks, Marc Rodriguez, Jermaine Carter, Derrick Hayward, Cavon Walker.
Competition: The starting spots appear to be set at this point — Robinson at the Sam, Farrand at the Mike, Goree at the Mo and Whitfield at the Will — but the backup spots are less certain. Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart will shuttle fresh bodies in to shake things up for disguised blitz packages, so having a strong second-team corps will be instrumental. Barring injury, Twine won’t unseat Robinson along the outside, but because he appeared in all 12 games last season (18 tackles, two for a loss), has four more career starts than Goree and Whitfield combined, and Thompson had some offseason clean-up surgery that could slow him entering preseason camp, Twine might have a leg up on the competition there. Logan and Dean both had strong springs, as did Petty, the spring game’s leading tackler who should finally work his way onto the field at his rightful position after being pressed into quarterback duty last season.
1) Who will replace all those sacks? Last season, the Terrapins sacked opposing quarterbacks 28 times, sixth in the ACC. Just 16 percent of those sacks (4.5) return this season, with 13.5 sacks gone from the linebackers alone. Now with the Kansas City Chiefs, Darin Drakeford was lethal off the edge, drawing double- and triple-teams and tying for a team-high six sacks. Kenneth Tate (four sacks) and Demetrius Hartsfield (3.5) were equally talented blitzers who must now be replaced. Whitfield, a senior, has made just two career starts but will be counted upon to fill Drakeford’s void, while Goree impressed in three games after Hartsfield suffered his season-ending injury. If nothing else, Stewart’s defense strives for an aggressive identity and the unit just lost some of its biggest playmakers. Replacing them is the big question.
2) How will Matt Robinson handle the transition? Robinson spent spring practice wearing a yellow jersey, hands locked behind his back during drills so as not to overextend his right shoulder. Recovering from a torn labrum was challenging enough, but Robinson had to balance learning a new position, too. He received the Tate Treatment, making a late-career switch from safety to outside linebacker, but is smart and studious enough to make the transition without trouble. As of March, Robinson was on track to begin hitting by preseason camp anyway, so perhaps a limited spring was mentally beneficial, focusing his attention on moving to the second level. So long as he can stay healthy — he’s missed substantial time in 2011 and 2012 since playing in all 13 games as a true freshman — Robinson is built like an athletic linebacker (6 feet 4, 230 pounds) and was clearly anxious to prove something come fall.
3) What will the Yannicks contribute? Fan expectations are high for Ngakoue, the Under Armour all-American and Washington D.C.’s top-ranked high school player. The Friendship Collegiate alumnus committed on National Signing Day, choosing to stay home over Florida State, and many anticipate him having the biggest impact of any incoming freshman. Listed at 6-2 and 242 pounds and currently the fourth-string Will linebacker, Ngakoue could easily rocket up the depth chart with a strong camp, because he seems to be physically prepared for the next level already.
Two spots ahead of Ngakoue is another Yannick, the redshirt junior Cudjoe-Virgil. At this time last season, Cudjoe-Virgil was off scholarship and preparing for a season-long stint on the scout team after transferring from Seton Hill University. But at a position with mainstays Farrand and Robinson, it was Cudjoe-Virgil whom the coaching staff deemed worthy of representing the linebackers on Maryland’s leadership council. Coach Randy Edsall put Cudjoe-Virgil on scholarship shortly before the season began, and consistently raves about his offseason gains. Both Yannicks could be dark horses for playing-time boosts this season, forming arguably the league’s best-named blitzing tandem.