Along the defensive line, Quinton Jefferson has big cleats to fill

Quinton Jefferson approached the fumble bent over, with one hand grasping at the football, nothing but daylight and pay dirt ahead. A failed pitch caused the loose ball near the 20-yard line during Saturday’s Maryland football open scrimmage at Dunbar High School. The defensive lineman saw his opportunity and took off.

Except the ball stayed behind. Rather than jump on the fumble and secure the turnover, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive lineman attempted a fancy move. It backfired. Jefferson whiffed on the pickup and instead received a thorough rebuke from his coaches.

“My momentum was going forward, so I just tried to grab it,” the sophomore said. “Next time I have to jump on it. Mental mistake. I just have to pick it up with two hands.”

It was a rare error on an otherwise ideal day for Jefferson, who finished the scrimmage with two sacks and a batted pass. He’s impressed ever since moving up to first string, replacing Walter Camp all-American Joe Vellano.

Jefferson played in 10 games last season, sitting out against Virginia and North Carolina State as a DNP-CD. He finished the season with 13 tackles and two fumble recoveries. Jefferson’s freshman season, however, mostly served as a learning opportunity, working as Vellano’s understudy.

“It helped a lot,” Jefferson said. “I got to sit back and watch him and he talks to me and everything, showing me techniques here and there.”

With Darius Kilgo as the only healthy returning starter along Maryland’s front seven, Jefferson has some big cleats to fill. Vellano and A.J. Francis both graduated. Isaiah Ross was hit with a career-ending suspension. That leaves Jefferson, Keith Bowers and Justin Anderson to shoulder the burden.

“Definitely reloaded,” Anderson said. “I was behind Joe, watching what he does, everyone was just watching the guy in front of us, trying to emulate them and maybe even be better. I don’t think there was a dropoff.

“It helped a lot. I got to sit back and watch him and he talks to me and everything, showing me techniques here and there.”

Jefferson and Anderson were listed as co-starters on the March 1 spring depth chart, but Jefferson has stood out the most through nine practices. He was quick off the snap Saturday and displayed some increased strength against Maryland’s offensive line.

“We’ve got to get Quinton in a little better shape, he kind of died at the end, but early on he made some plays,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “Again, he’s another guy that’s worked hard and has gotten better. Now what he’s got to do is take the next step, because we weren’t having any kind of rotation today, so we’ve got to get his conditioning a little better. But Quinton has that ability to make plays, so that was good to see.”

Jefferson mentioned his conditioning as a continued point of emphasis, but for a first scrimmage without television timeouts, some exhaustion is expected. He’s more worried about improving technique, but says he’s already come plenty far from last season.

“Just got way stronger, faster, technique, my hands,” Jefferson said. “Overall I’m a better player than last year.”

One of Jefferson’s sacks and the batted pass – ultimately irrelevant because of a pass-interference penalty on the secondary – came against the first-team offense and quarterback Ricardo Young. His other sack, a 10-yard loss on third-and-three in the red zone, helped stymie a drive and force a field goal.

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

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Alex Prewitt · March 31, 2013

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