The Washington Post

Terps’ defense: ‘Just great players making great plays’

Maryland’s defense has improved tremendously from last season. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

Maryland’s eighth-ranked defense, according to defensive lineman A.J. Francis, follows a simple formula, the product of something absent throughout 2011:

Great players making great plays.

Preseason all-ACC selection Joe Vellano has been a rock on the defensive front, with a team-high 6.5 tackles for a loss. Linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield and Francis are tied for the team lead with two sacks apiece, and Hartsfield has an interception and two fumble recoveries. Kenneth Tate had four tackles, one for a loss, in his season debut against West Virginia.

“All great players making great plays,” said Francis, humbly counting himself as a “decent” player. “Then we’ve got additions, it’s a whole different scheme with guys like [Darius] Kilgo, who didn’t even play last year. I didn’t really play last year either, but we’re out there with three down linemen able to stop the run. It’s hard to play against a defense that can stop the run with three down linemen. Wake Forest will try to come out and win the game, and they’ll do that by trying to run the ball.”

With Kilgo, Francis and Vellano up front, averaging 297 pounds between them, the Terps rank 11th nationally in rushing defense. They held West Virginia to 25 yards on 25 carries.

The week after, the Mountaineers put up 70 points against Baylor. Francis was not among those particularly impressed.

“I feel like it made other people appreciate our performance against West Virginia,” Francis said. “All three of their touchdowns could have been taken away, if we just did our job. One was a missed tackle. The other two were blown coverages. At no point were they just running by guys making plays downfield.

“It is disheartening, because you look at it, see Baylor giving up 70 points. That’s unbelievable. We were a terrible defense last year, and the most we gave up 56 to Clemson.”

The Terrapins finished 2011 ranked 108th nationally in total defense, and gave up 30 points eight times. The rush defense was 111st, allowing 219.75 yards per game.

Enter Brian Stewart, an NFL-caliber defensive coordinator who brought along a 3-4, pressure-heavy scheme that — while forcing just six turnovers, second-worst in the conference — has kept possession times down and supported a young offense.

Francis is confident the turnovers will come with time, citing multiple occasions against West Virginia when the Terps came within inches of stripping quarterback Geno Smith. Watching college football games on Thursday nights, Francis remembers seeing quarterbacks throw “terrible passes and it’ll be an interception,” leaving the senior to wonder, “Why don’t we get any of those?”

“Turnovers you can’t really anticipate, so you just have to be in the right spot and when the opportunity presents itself you take advantage,” he said.

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