At nights after practice, Maryland’s defensive backs crowd into Anthony Nixon’s dorm room and trash-talk their way through another game of spades. The cards fly quick. The jabs fly quicker. For as much as these players hate getting burned by receivers, losing at spades just might be worse.
“Oh yes,” Nixon said. “Lots of trash-talking. Somebody beats somebody, then it’s trash-talking until the next game.”
As Maryland’s starting strong safety and the game’s nightly host, Nixon counts himself among the best. Backup safety Zach Dancel is pretty good, too. Starting cornerbacks Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson regularly nip at their heels. As for third-string safety Undray Clark and backup cornerback Alvin Hill? Let’s just say they’re learning, according to Nixon.
Nixon came to Maryland last summer expecting to redshirt. Instead, he became the defense’s utility man. He appeared in all 12 games, starting five. He led all freshmen with 41 total tackles, thrust into a starting role after Matt Robinson’s groin injury. Before that, he served as Nathan Renfro’s personal protector, shoring up the punt wall when fullback Tyler Cierski suffered a concussion in the second game.
Nixon made a fast impression on Maryland’s coaching staff with his attentive note-taking and insightful questions during positional meetings. He, like most freshmen, was thrust into a new world, and sometimes had to fake his way through the uncertainty.
“There was a lot thrown at me,” Nixon said. “I was trying to digest everything. I was trying to understand things during camp last year. I really wasn’t. But I will always ask a whole bunch of questions during meetings, trying to understand.”
During one particular game, after defensive coordinator Brian Stewart signaled for a particular man-to-man coverage scheme, Nixon balked at the call. As the play clock wound down and the offense approached the ball, he wheeled towards fellow safety Eric Franklin.
“Eric, what’s the play?” Nixon asked. “I don’t know what that means.”
Franklin relayed the call just before the snap. Nixon bolted toward the line of scrimmage. The running back busted through a gap, with nothing but Nixon and open field ahead. He was stuffed after three yards. “It would have been a big play had I not ran to man coverage,” Nixon said Thursday.
Sometime last season, the mental light bulb stopped flickering and began shining. Calls became second nature. Against Virginia, he lead the team with nine tackles and snatched his first career interception. The game Robinson returned, Nixon recovered a fumble at Clemson. He had nine tackles that game, too, matching his career high.
Before long, Nixon became the mentor for those younger, less experienced safeties behind him, the same safeties who become mincemeat at the card table. He teaches them on the field and during meetings, paying forward what Franklin once did to him. Anywhere except when the cards get dealt and they get crushed.
“They’ll learn on their own,” Nixon said.