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With J.C. Jackson on board, Maryland ‘could be the best secondary in the Big Ten’

Maryland defensive back J.C. Jackson is expected to give the Terrapins one of the most intriguing cornerback duos in the Big Ten. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Maryland Coach DJ Durkin and his staff have earned rave reviews for their work on the high school recruiting trail over the first seven months on the job, including a late push to sign 25 players in February and the ongoing construction of one of the country’s top classes in 2017. But the staff also mined the transfer market just as hard to upgrade a number of positions on the roster.

Virginia Tech transfer Trey Edmunds is expected to be a key asset at running back, especially with senior Wes Brown suspended for the first three games. New Mexico State transfer Teldrick Morgan (Meade High), one of the Sun Belt’s most improved players over the past two seasons, should bolster the wide receiver corps.  And former Florida defensive back J.C. Jackson, perhaps the most important transfer for the football program in recent memory, has drastically strengthened a secondary that lost three starters in the offseason and is facing depth issues.

J.C. Jackson, once sidetracked by legal issues, is an instant hit with Maryland football

Jackson’s arrival has certainly inspired confidence in his new teammates, including junior Josh Woods, who is expected to have an expanded role this season himself. Woods took reps with the first team defense for much of the first week of camp, which also offered an up-close look at his new teammate.

“J.C. is a playmaker. That is the one way I could describe him. I remember the first couple days out here, he had a couple of picks, a couple forced fumbles, a couple fumble recoveries. He’s been making a lot of plays. He’s a great addition to our defense,” Woods said.

“Coach made an emphasis that everything was a clean slate. Anybody could go. So if you wanted the job, you have to step up and you have to bring it every day. By doing that, we’re all getting each other better,” Woods added. “I feel like we could be the best secondary in the Big Ten, the best secondary in the nation, the way we’re going right now.”

With a steep learning curve, Maryland’s defense begins sorting out depth chart

The Big Ten is loaded with talent-rich defensive backfields. Iowa returns Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King and standout safety Miles Taylor (Gonzaga). Michigan State returns one of the best safety tandems in the league in Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson, not to mention senior cornerback Darian Hicks. And Michigan has a potential first-round pick in Jourdan Lewis back for a secondary that ranked first in the league in pass defense a year ago. Wisconsin also returns three starters who accounted for eight of the team’s 12 interceptions in 2015.

But Maryland, which gave up 258.4 passing yards per game last season, the fourth worst in the league, now has one of the most intriguing cornerback duos in the conference in Jackson and Will Likely, who has garnered all-Big Ten honors at the position each of the last two seasons.

The more pressing issue for Maryland is sorting out the depth behind Likely and Jackson, not to mention establishing two reliable starters at safety. With the variation in schemes – Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh has said that his team will play a 3-4 base with the option of transitioning to a 4-3 – defensive back depth will be key.  Senior Alvin Hill looks like the clear option as the team’s third cornerback in nickel packages, and sophomore Darnell Savage Jr. has embraced a move from cornerback – where he backed up Likely and gained valuable experience as a freshman – to safety, where he’s proven his versatility early in camp. Woods, an ultra-athletic former three-star prospect whose career has yet to take off in College Park,  has made plays with the first team unit at the other safety spot, which is also fortified by journeyman senior Denzel Conyers.

The group has been galvanized by the energy of first-year defensive backs coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, the former Friendship Collegiate coach who has established a reputation as a fearsome recruiter over the past three years – the first two at Alabama. But he’s also a tenacious position coach, breaking into the same mold as Durkin and the rest of the staff, and the players have gravitated toward the hard-line instruction. Off the field, the group is clustered near each other in the dorms and has an ongoing group chat, which keeps the ideas flowing as each tries to win a job in August.

“They had the whole spring to learn the defense…we’re just ready to get back onto the field together. We’ve been working on it all summer,” Likely said. “Those guys, they look very good.”