Maryland vs. Wake Forest: When Brian Stewart talks (or raps), the Terrapins listen


Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart has the Terps ranked eighth nationally in yards allowed per game. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
October 5, 2012

The music thumps before meetings. West Coast hip-hop mostly, like Snoop Dogg or Nate Dogg. Sometimes, his players say, Brian Stewart raps along; Maryland’s first-year defensive coordinator knows most of the words. The younger Terps are often rendered clueless, wondering what old-school beat Stewart is fist-pumping to now.

A seasoned motivator whom Maryland senior defensive end A.J. Francis called the best coordinator he’s ever had, Stewart brought a 3-4 scheme to the Terrapins this season and promptly engineered one of the nation’s biggest defensive turnarounds. Maryland enters Saturday’s game against Wake Forest ranked eighth nationally in yards allowed per game. He’s full-speed full-time, bringing a defensive attitude spawned from years on NFL staffs, with a coaching style as intense as the blitzes he calls from the sidelines.

“That’s the attitude he brought from the spring, and guys gradually picked up on it,” defensive end Joe Vellano said. “We know what to expect. Each week in the hotel, everything like that, working up to the game, let alone the game. It catches like wildfire. Once someone gets it, everyone thrives off it.”

Whether it’s to the rap songs that let everyone know it’s meeting time, or to Stewart’s words, the Terrapins are listening. A Maryland defense that allowed 457.2 yards and 34.3 points per game in 2011 is at 261.25 and 22, respectively, this season. Geno Smith, West Virginia’s standout quarterback, has been sacked four times this season. Half came against Maryland on Sept 22.

In the defensive meeting room, hung on a wall inside Gossett Team House, is a poster-size collage of pictures. Before the season, Stewart asked players to bring in images of family, friends and loved ones. Whomever it is, he said, that you play for. Francis brought pictures of his niece, nephew and little sister. Vellano brought in a photo of his entire family. Coaches did the same.

“Every day, you come in, look at the collage, and you know who you’re playing for,” Francis said. “No one’s playing for yourself. Things could be worse, so practice and get better. It’s just a state of mind.”

A former defensive back at Northern Arizona, Stewart broke in as an assistant coach with Cal Poly in 1992. After making stops at five Division I programs, mostly as a defensive backs coach, Stewart latched on as the Houston Texans’ defensive backs assistant in 2002. The San Diego Chargers made him their defensive backs coach for three seasons before he spent two seasons under Wade Phillips as the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive coordinator.

From Phillips, a mentor figure of sorts, Stewart learned to keep players moving, that there’s simplicity in speed. Become a players’ coach, Phillips said, speak their language and they’ll listen. Apparently “their language” includes Snoop and Nate and some recent hits, too.

Stewart and Phillips still talk frequently. Stewart asks questions, everything from simple inquiries about defending specific offensive sets to ideas about game management. His 3-4 defense is a duplicate of Phillips’s system with the Texans, for whom he’s now the defensive coordinator. From experience, the scheme doesn’t truly click until the second year. Players adjust to opposing blockers and coverage sets. Former down linemen move to upright blitzes. The defensive backs trust one another for help.

“It really wasn’t too complicated,” Maryland senior linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield said. “His system isn’t hard. It’s like he puts the basis of the system in, then he goes from there. Once you get the base of his defensive scheme, you have everything. Then he goes from there and puts his inputs along the way.”

Disguised blitzes kept West Virginia’s Smith at bay, save a missed tackle and two instances of blown coverage that led to big-play touchdown receptions by Tavon Austin. The Terrapins swatted and scraped at Smith all afternoon, a testament to Stewart’s scheming abilities, and penchant for the pressure.

“On the field, off the field, great guy to get along with,” Vellano said. “The way he motivates, his intensity is very high. A lot of guys love it. I love it, I don’t think anyone doesn’t. The way guys take to him, he keeps it alive and changes it up every day.”

When Stewart was hired in mid-January, Hartsfield trekked through the cold to meet him at Gossett Team House. They sat and talked about Stewart’s scheme. Stewart shared his ideas. He wanted to move Hartsfield from the “Mike” inside linebacker position to the “Mo.” So far, so good. Then Stewart told Hartsfield that he’s not the type to sit back. He wants to bring the pressure.

Hartsfield, now the team leader in tackles, was sold.

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