With Maryland’s senior-laden front seven depleted by graduation, the secondary has suddenly become the most experienced positional group of defensive coordinator Brian Stewart’s unit. Even without Matt Robinson, who received the Kenneth Tate treatment and moved to outside linebacker, the defensive backfield still returns corners Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson, two rising upperclassmen looking to become anchors within a stable system.
“We just try to get guys to know what we’re doing before we go out on the field,” said Johnson, a rising junior with a team-high eight pass breakups last fall. “That’s the biggest thing. In the meetings, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s good that we have the same defense coming back. That’s definitely a plus. Coach Stewart has kept a lot of things the same. We’re fortunate for that to happen. But in the film room, knowing exactly where we need to be, knowing how each other will play certain routes and communicating.”
Those youngsters include rising sophomore Anthony Nixon, a wizard in the film room according to Johnson, and a two-man battle at the other safety position between Sean Davis and A.J. Hendy. Tack on Alvin Hill, Will Likely and Zach Dancel, who impressed with an interception during Tuesday’s spring practice at Byrd Stadium, and there’s plenty of reason to expect even more improvement from last season, when the Terps finished 30th nationally in pass defense and 65th in pass efficiency defense.
The secondary certainly receives enough work during practice, going up against a receiving corps that should rival any in the ACC.
“I’m going to go out here and say it: I think we have the best skill guys in the conference,” said McDougle, third on the team with 71 tackles and five pass breakups. “We’re definitely making each other better every day. Deon [Long], he’s already made a huge impact, another guy who can get some defenders off [Stefon Diggs] and make the big play. Nigel [King], he’s using his body right now. He’s a big receiver, actually using it now, he’s become a big threat on our team. You know Stef. Stef’s always been an explosive player, but we’ve got guys around him now. Definitely getting better it’s real competitive during the one-on-ones, there’s a lot of talking, but it’s all positive, just to get us better.”
Likely and Hill have made sizable strides during spring workouts, presenting a formidable challenge for Maryland’s incumbent starters.
“I think it’s always good with any position,” Johnson said. “We have guys coming back and more confident because just being confident in what you’re doing naturally makes you more vocal and able to lead. It’s good that Dex and I are returning, but we have to understand that we can’t sit on the fact that just because we’re coming back, that we’re going to play, because we have young guys who are very talented as well”