Maryland trotted out four defensive players this week to speak with members of the media: two co-captains, an emerging sophomore and a fifth-year converted offensive lineman who has never started a game on the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive tackle Maurice Hampton, overlooked for most of his career, will make his second career start (the other was on the offensive line) Saturday against Towson, a tribute to his perseverance and a testimony to the beleaguered state of the defense.
The Terrapins (1-2) have faced a mixed bag of offenses: a backup Miami quarterback playing without his best wide receiver, a pass-happy West Virginia team that also shredded Louisiana State’s stout defense and a powerful Temple back running behind four large senior linemen.
The composite result has been a defense that ranks 103rd out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring and total defense.
A steady trickle of injuries — most notably to lineman Isaiah Ross (out for most of the season) and safety Matt Robinson (out for the season) — has diminished what little depth the Terrapins had defensively. In addition, a slow start by safety-turned-linebacker Kenny Tate, who acknowledges that he has not played up to his potential, has made for a rocky start for the defense.
When asked about the most significant defensive issues, Coach Randy Edsall cited the unit’s lack of size along the defensive line compared with the opposition, the overall quality of tackling that Edsall characterized as “awful” against Temple and a slow adjustment to a new system.
Edsall and defensive tackle Joe Vellano, a junior co-captain, talked about coaches now trying to play to what Maryland’s personnel does well to mask some deficiencies and also the need to simplify some of the schemes they hone in practice.
Vellano said coaches have “narrowed it down a little and took out the thinking a little” and that they have slowed the defense’s practice tempo somewhat and are stopping action to correct plays more often.
Edsall said players are still getting comfortable with the schemes, adding that, “As head coach, you sit down and say, ‘Okay, because we do have some young guys at certain positions, are you doing too much? Do you cut back on things?’ ”
Defensive coordinator Todd Bradford could not comment because the program does not allow reporters to speak to assistant coaches during the regular season.
Bradford, who spent the last three seasons as the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Southern Mississippi, was initially hired as Maryland’s inside linebackers coach before being promoted after Don Brown abruptly left for the defensive coordinator position at Connecticut.
“These guys were not used to playing the techniques we are playing,” Edsall said. “It’s a whole different style of defense. Some have got to just continue to trust us.”
Under Brown last season, Maryland’s defense was defined by organized chaos, blitzing nearly 85 percent of the time. The defense finished the season ranked ninth nationally in pass efficiency defense and 21st in rushing defense.
The Terrapins lost four starters, most notably three-time all-ACC selection Alex Wujciak and fellow linebacker Adrian Moten.
Among the biggest questions this season is why Tate, a first-team all-ACC pick as a junior, has struggled to shine in his new position. He said his sluggish start has had nothing to do with converting to a new position and that he is not yet frustrated.
“I wouldn’t say frustrating,” Tate said. “I know a lot of people are looking for me to make plays. I try to keep that pressure off me. If I get that in my head, that I have to make a play, as a team player I don’t want to risk making a play and it hurts my team.
“When you go out [thinking], ‘I gotta make a play,’ if it’s not in the framework of the team, it could lead to a blown coverage.”
Vellano also cautioned that players shouldn’t try to do too much.
“Everybody wants to make a play, but if you jump a gap, you’re really hurting us,” Vellano said. “You can’t just get it all back in one play. You look over there; we have freshmen and stuff.
“Guys have to get some games under their belts.”
Seven freshmen are on the two-deep depth chart this week, including starting defensive end Keith Bowers and starting safety Titus Till. And then there is the senior Hampton, who will get his first defensive start because he frequently knocked back the Temple center and because of an ankle injury to Andre Monroe.
“This is what I have been asking for,” Hampton said. “I want to help this team get a certain goal. The only way I can do it is to be in some form of power, some leadership.
“If I have to make a dozen tackles out there to get through to everybody, to have everybody look at me and say this guy is doing it, the quiet guy, which is me, by doing it, it will spread.”