By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 12:21 AM
Don Brown says he drew the play in the dirt. Maryland's defensive coordinator told his tackle to line up on the inside shoulder of the guard and his middle linebacker to leap over the top. But it was the free safety who knew exactly where Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs would go.
"I am going to stay right here and he is going to come right to me," Kenny Tate recalled thinking before the fourth-and-goal play from the Terrapins 1 in the final minute of Monday's game. "And he did. I knew we were going to stop him."
Tate's game-saving collision with Dobbs, which stopped the quarterback 12 inches shy of the end zone, secured a significant victory for a program looking for a fresh start. One hit, one defensive play out of 82, also changed the perception of the defense.
If Dobbs had sneaked the ball across the goal line, the defense would have been criticized for allowing 485 yards, just 57 fewer than the Terrapins surrendered in their season-opening 52-13 loss at California in 2009, and for failing once again to close out a game. Instead, the hit is viewed as an example of how the Maryland defense has begun to take the next step in its evolution under second-year coordinator Brown, who employs a blitz-heavy, aggressive scheme that he deems "organized chaos."
Last season, inexperienced players struggled, especially early, as they learned the complexities. Tate was among those who lined up incorrectly at times in the California blowout. On Oct. 10, Maryland blitzed and blitzed, and Wake Forest scored touchdowns on its first five possessions in a 42-32 victory.
"Our guys knew what to do last year, but they didn't know how to ad-lib and disguise," Brown said. "They were still worried about lining up and executing. We are kind of at another point right now, but we have only played one week."
One significant breakthrough was finishing off an opponent. No one has to remind Coach Ralph Friedgen or Brown about the defense allowing late scores against Middle Tennessee and Florida State last season, denying the Terrapins victories.
A blunt New Englander who loathes excuses, Brown would repeatedly point out the inexperience he had all over the field last season but remained optimistic that players were progressing, albeit gradually.
Against Navy on Monday, the Terrapins didn't employ much of what makes Brown's defense unique because they game-planned specifically for the Midshipmen's triple-option attack. Nevertheless, Maryland excelled in the red zone, where the Terrapins stopped Navy from scoring on five of seven opportunities.
There was no shortage of standouts. Middle linebacker Alex Wujciak had 18 tackles despite suffering a scary hit on his knee during a physical contest that kept the defense on the field for nearly two-thirds of the game. Strong-side linebacker Adrian Moten, whose instincts remind Friedgen of a coach, had 12 tackles and forced a fumble on a memorable play when he leapt over the line of scrimmage and knocked the ball from Dobbs's hands.
And Joe Vellano earned ACC defensive lineman of the week honors in his first career start. His 10-tackle performance came just days after Friedgen met with the third-year sophomore to calm his nerves and urge him to play just like he had in camp and spring practice, when he was a surprising star.
"Everybody goes, 'Where did this guy come from?' " Friedgen said. "Last year he was hurt, the year before he was hurt. In spring practice and fall, he has been playing just like that. I think he is for real, I really do."
Vellano, who uses leverage as an asset, may be the slowest defensive starter in a race, but he is one of the quickest on the field. Brown said Vellano is "so cerebral about the play at his position. It is really amazing."
And finally, there's Tate. Blessed with impressive physical attributes, Tate entered training camp last year with coaches buzzing how he would be the X-factor for the defense. It never fully materialized and he missed the last two games with an ankle injury.
In addition to the last-minute stop of Dobbs, Tate also forced two fumbles, one inside the 5-yard line in the third quarter, and collected a career-high 12 tackles. Tate earned Bronko Nagurski National Player of the Week honors. Friedgen has never seen Tate play better, or with more emotion.
"That's the guy we envisioned we would have," Brown said. "Another football-savvy guy. That is kind of what I am liking. A Joe Vellano is football savvy. Adrian Moten is football savvy. We are starting to get a bunch of guys who can really communicate conceptually with you."
The path Tate has taken over the past year has mirrored that of the entire defense: Enter the summer of 2009 amid a lot of hype, underwhelm during the 2009 season and show signs of a breakthrough in the first game this season.
But it's just the first step. During Friedgen's radio show Wednesday, host Johnny Holliday applauded the defensive play, particularly in the red zone. Friedgen roared with laughter and said next time they can defend the rest of the field.
"We have to forget that game and get ready to play the next game," Friedgen told reporters. "That's the next test, can we do that? Are we mature enough, are we hungry enough to do that? I don't know. They have not had people pat them on their backs too much."