Terps Adjust Defense, Showcase Linebackers

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008

In the days and weeks following Maryland's loss in the Emerald Bowl last December, members of the defensive unit that surrendered 275 rushing yards to Oregon State began whispering to each other about possible changes. Their traditional base scheme with four linemen and three linebackers had been rendered ineffective against the run.

When defensive coordinator Chris Cosh and the rest of the coaching staff broke down film from a 2007 season in which the Terrapins lost five of their last seven games, two things became clear: This season's depth would lie in the linebacker corps, and the unit's base formation needed to adjust accordingly.

Thus, Maryland's defensive players showed up to spring practice and were introduced to a scheme that had been used only sparingly the season before, one structured around the "Leo" linebacker, a hybrid position with a blend of responsibilities. The new front-seven alignment would consist of three linemen and four linebackers, and the Leo would play a vital role in its success.

"Really, [the new formation] is designed for that position," Cosh said of the Leo. "You want to have a three-down system that allows your linebackers to do multiple things. That's really what you do instead of fixing them in different spots. Now they're able to utilize different talents and different spaces on the field."

The Leo serves as a catalyst to provide the defense's coaches with flexibility. The Leo can line up either in a three-point stance on the line of scrimmage as a defensive end or four yards behind the line as a linebacker. Sometimes, the Leo will break the huddle and go to one spot, only to shift moments later.

Maryland used the 3-4 defensive scheme -- called "Terp" -- occasionally last season, but only to throw off the opposing offense. The more the coaches analyzed the results each formation produced, the more appealing the 3-4 became.

"After the season, there were rumors about it becoming more, like 70 percent of our defense," said senior Trey Covington, who has played the Leo position the past three seasons. "No one really knew until the spring and then all of the sudden, because last season we used Terp but it wasn't as developed, but they came to us and said they wanted to base the whole defense on Terp."

In years past, Covington said, the Leo mainly lined up outside the opposing tackle or tight end and then became the "designated dropper" during passing situations. The Leo did not become a truly hybrid position until coaches installed the new formation.

Covington likes the change. He prefers to operate from an upright position. He likes to be able to step back and survey the field before the snap. He savors the high impact -- yet less frequent -- collisions of the linebacker position. Though listed at 6 feet 3 and 240 pounds, Covington described himself as "not that big," another reason why he appreciates the range his new role allows.

"One of the biggest things is with the Leo position, sometimes it's tough to find guys who can play it because in one sense you have to pass rush and take on tight ends that are generally going to weigh more than you do and are pretty strong," said senior Rick Costa, who checks in at 6-1, 225 pounds, and just took up the Leo position this month. "In another sense, you need someone quick enough to drop 10 yards back into the curl route and run 15 yards to the sideline to cover the flat."

Cosh said Covington's size and natural strength combined with Costa's quickness and agility should provide the Maryland defense with an effective combination at the Leo position. The key will be to keep the tandem healthy.

Costa missed the final seven games of the 2007 season after suffering a shoulder injury and a concussion. After sitting out spring practices while recovering from surgery, Costa said his shoulder has completely healed. He also believes his concussion history is no longer an issue.

Covington dealt with what Coach Ralph Friedgen called a minor hamstring injury early in camp but has not missed much practice time. He recorded 43 tackles as the starter at the Leo position last season.

"With the two of those guys coupled together, we might get a good one-two punch, a change-up, because each of them has different things they bring to the table, skill-wise," Cosh said. "I think one's got a little more punch and the other's got a little more slasher-type thing, be able to cut and make them tackles shake in their shoes."

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