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Maryland summer football preview: Defense and special teams

Maryland’s defense will be ready for opposing offenses after chasing Stefon Diggs around during practice. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Players won’t report to preseason camp into early August, but with Maryland spring football wrapped up and a 13-13 spring-game tie in the books, here’s a positional breakdown heading into summer.

Yesterday, we looked at the offense. Next up, the defense and special teams.

POSITION: Defensive line

Spring recap: With linchpins A.J. Francis and Joe Vellano preparing for the NFL, a new crop of defensive linemen stepped into the spotlight. Quinton Jefferson had a monster spring, making the “biggest transformation,” according to defensive line coach Greg Gattuso. Nate Clarke also willed himself into the conversation alongside Alex Walker, and both enter summer as the backup nose tackles behind Darius Kilgo. Kilgo, the only returning starter among the front three, has stepped into a leadership role and now must anchor a unit soldering on without its two rocks.

Summer watch: No positional battles are expected – Kilgo, Jefferson and Keith Bowers are firmly planted within the starting unit – but Gattuso still wants to build depth, a suddenly tough task given Justin Anderson’s departure from the program due to personal reasons. With another installment period of the 3-4 scheme completed, Gattuso hopes the summer can bring consistency and continued development from a group that, in his mind, already made big strides this spring.

“I think it’s critical,” Gattuso said. “We watch film today, and it’s funny, you sit there watching the practice tape, and the conversations we’re having are totally different. … For me, I was a 4-3 guy who’s been converted, and happily converted to this defense because I think it’s a great defense. And the kids, they understand what the words are, the verbs are, the actions are, what we’re trying to get done. I think it’s huge. I think it makes a huge difference. We’re blending a lot of youth into this defense, but the knowledge is something that makes it work. That’s the single most important thing for the defense right now. Everyone understands what we’re trying to get done.”

POSITION: Linebacker

Spring recap: Facing a similar situation as the defensive line, forced to replace Darin Drakeford, Kenneth Tate and Demetrius Hartsfield, the linebacking corps looks revamped for another solid season. Cole Farrand, who tied for the team lead in tackles last season, will be fully healthy come summer, as will safety convert Matt Robinson, now listed as a starter at outside linebacker, in front of Alex Twine and Avery Thompson. L.A. Goree and Marcus Whitfield drew the first-string nods at the other positions, but there’s plenty of depth within the unit. Twine, Thompson, Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil, Bradley Johnson, Abner Logan, Brock Dean and even ex-quarterback Shawn Petty, the spring game’s leading tackler, all had strong springs.

“They have their moments, but the older guys have done a great job,” inside linebackers Coach Keith Dudzinski said. “Lorne Goree has been really consistent all spring. I think he’s done a really good job playing the Mo. I think he’s really taken that on, and with Demetrius [Hartsfield] leaving, he seized the opportunity and I think he’s been very good. He’s gotten better and better.”

Summer watch: Keep an eye on Farrand (ankle fracture) and Robinson (labrum) as they heal from their respective injuries. Both are expected to provide veteran leadership at the second level, though neither participated in full this spring. Robinson’s change from safety to secondary will also be interesting to watch. Tate had his conversion derailed by injury last season, but if the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Robinson can stay healthy, he will be a strong addition. Also keep watch over the second unit, and whether those aforementioned backups can challenge for extended playing time.

“I don’t think Yannick is a surprise,” outside linebackers Coach Lyndon Johnson said. “Since the moment he’s gotten here, he wasn’t in our two-deep last year because of his transfer status, his work ethic is off the charts, he’s got a non-stop motor, he’s one of the stronger guys on the team. I expected him to do the things he did this spring.”

POSITION: Secondary

Spring recap: Entering summer with perhaps the most stability of any unit might be a virtue, but Maryland’s secondary still has remaining work to improve upon last season. Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson can develop into shutdown corners, and going against Stefon Diggs, Nigel King and Deon Long can only help come summer. The battle between Sean Davis and A.J. Hendy for the second starting safety spot could continue through game week as the Terrapins prepare for their season opener against Florida International, but Anthony Nixon seems to have the other starting safety job locked down. Still, youngsters like Zach Dancel, Isaac Goins and Will Likely all had strong springs and are expected to see playing time too.

Summer watch: The Davis-Hendy competition might get buried when compared with, say, the three-way tie for the starting running back job, but this one will still be fiery. Davis is slightly more athletic with a quick first step toward the ball, while Hendy is the better technician and more fundamentally sound defensive back.

“It’s a great ongoing battle,” defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said. “It’s good to have. Both are doing the best they can to do the best. Whoever’s the starter, I know he’s ready to go. Whoever’s the backup, I know he’ll be ready to go.”

Keeping tabs on Likely would be wise, too. Coach Randy Edsall and his staff are very high on the freshman, who enrolled early this spring. He’ll be a presence in nickel packages and could make waves with his speed.

POSITION: Special teams

Spring recap: Not much competition here in the kicking game, just two rising sophomores trying to avoid the inconsistencies that marked their freshman campaigns. Brad Craddock spent the offseason working with former Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover, and seems more focused and attuned to American football than he did immediately after immigrating from Australia. Nathan Renfro boomed a few solid punts during the spring game but still teeters on the edge between a top-tier punter capable of averaging 45 yards and the one whose production dropped steeply after exiting the first week last season as the nation’s leading punter.

As for the return game, Maryland barely dipped into those waters this spring. Edsall occasionally simulated kickoffs by chucking passes at Diggs, Likely and Long, but they held out on live returns during the spring game and live scrimmages.

Summer watch: Craddock got benched on short-yardage field goals last season in favor of Brendan Magistro, whose consistency from close will always be there in a pinch. Craddock clearly possesses the leg to strike from 45 yards, but can he clear up the fundamental errors that made him a 62.5 percent kicker last fall? The same goes for Renfro. With Diggs, Likely and Long anchoring the return game, that’s as safe a bet as there is on this team.

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