Guest Post By Patrick Guthrie
In recent years, Maryland has been more known on the national scene for its defense than its offense. Players that have made it on the pro level from the Maryland offense are few and far between, with Vernon Davis being the rare example of a success story, as well as Jared Gaither and Stephon Heyer to an extent.
Conversely, I’ve made an argument out of the fact that you could create a pretty solid NFL defense from NFL players produced by Maryland in the past 10 years. Shawne Merriman, E.J. Henderson, and Moises Fokou are all starting NFL linebackers. Kevin Barnes and Josh Wilson both play in Washington.
This year for the Terps, there is realistically one player that could end up on that list, and he’s playing a position that he probably wouldn’t play in the pros. But there are plenty of starters returning to this defense, and
Maryland ranked a very respectable 21st in the country against the run last year, and the defensive line deserves the lions share of the praise for that. While Don Brown’s exotic blitz schemes were what made the Terps defense stand out, the exceptional play of the defensive line is what forced teams to drop back and pass in the first place.
The unit is lead by DT, and second team All-ACC selection, Joe Vellano. At this time last year, Vellano was better known as a famous Terp legacy (dad Paul was a former All-American at DT) than for his own play. After 5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss a year ago, it’s safe to say that ACC opponents have taken notice. Vellano isn’t the biggest (6’2” 285 lbs) or the fastest, but he doesn’t give up on plays, and was an impressively disruptive force in the middle of Maryland defense in 2010.
The only real caveat with Vellano is that his success was somewhat frontloaded last year (8 of his tackles for loss and all of his 5 sacks came in the first 5 games). After shedding some weight to get quicker in the offseason, Vellano may be in better shape to make a bigger impact in the bigger games.
The other tackle spot is somewhat shrouded in mystery. A.J. Francis was the leader heading into spring practice to start aside Vellano, but the depth chart lists freshman Andre Monroe as the starter. Francis is the bigger of the two at 6’4” 295, but still fleet of foot enough to hurry the quarterback. He is great at closing gaps in the middle of the defense and stout against the run.
However, there have been whispers that redshirt freshman Monroe will be in the middle against Miami. There’s no getting around the fact that he’s short (only 6’0”) for a defensive tackle, and he wasn’t really a highly touted recruit. Bottom line, if he’s starting over Francis, I can only assume that Francis performed so poorly that it forced Edsall’s hand.
On the outside, Maryland will start converted linebacker David Mackall at left end, and redshirt freshman Clarence Murphy on the right. Mackall’s biggest impact last year came on a kick off return, when he sent an FIU kick returner into orbit. Mackall was a DE coming out of high school, but switched to linebacker his first year, and picked up three sacks. As former linebacker, it’s clear that he has the speed to get to the edge against most tackles, but opening day will show whether he has added enough size in the offseason to absorb the nightly beating a DE takes.
I do not know much about Clarence Murphy, he’s a freshman from Florida, and he’s currently atop the depth chart at right end for the Terps. What I can see is that Murphy needs to add some weight to his 6’3” 235 lb. frame. The right end spot could be in flux early in the season, since there is no proven commodity there. Edsall could just be looking for the hot hand with Murphy.
With two talented big (althought not huge) guys in the middle taking up space, and hopefully blockers, the risk of playing lighter ends could pay off. The true test will be if the DE’s have enough strength to hold up against larger tackles in running situations. If they do, this could be an upgrade over last year’s solid unit in their ability to get to the QB.
This team lost a lot at linebacker from last year, especially when you consider that sparkplug Mackall now resides on the defensive line. Although they weren’t Shawne Merriman or E.J. Henderson, Alex Wujciak and Adrian Moten will certainly be missed.
Wujciak was average at best against the pass, but among the best linebackers in the country when it came to run support, and a flawless tackler. Moten was a better athlete, and occasionally capable of the spectacular as he showed in the Navy game.
Despite those two big losses, there’s reason for optimism at linebacker due to some very solid backups getting a chance to see live bullets, and the fact that the unit is now the home of the best defensive player on the team.
Every Maryland fan at this point should know about Kenny Tate. After being Maryland’s top recruit in 2008 as a wide receiver, he redshirted for a year before switching to safety. When I heard about the position switch, I immediately assumed that Tate’s career as a starter was over before it started. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In past two years have, Tate developed into a spectacular safety. Although not necessarily the most fluid technically, his athleticism and knowledge of offenses from his time as a wide receiver allowed him to diagnose routes more effectively than almost anyone at his position.
And when you see Kenny Tate tackle, you wonder why he wasn’t a safety all along. His form on routine tackles is exceptional, and when he has the opportunity to lay the big hit, he flat out detonates people (I’m looking at you, Taiwan Easterling).
Tate will start at the STAR position, alongside Demetrius Hartsfield at the MIKE and Darin Drakeford at the WILL. Hartsfield has moved inside after spending his first two years flanking Wujciak, and received a somewhat unfair third billing in the linebacker group last year. He is a legitimate tackling machine, and possesses ideal size and speed for a middle linebacker at 6’2” 235 lbs.
Drakeford was the top reserve linebacker last year, and judging by his productivity when called upon (3 tackles for loss and 1 sack at West Virginia), he should slot in just fine on the weak side.
On paper, I believe the linebackers are the Terps strongest unit. There are a few concerns (Tate needs to be linebacker-sized by opening day, all three players played different positions last year), but the talent is undeniable. Tate is a borderline unanimous preseason-All ACC selection, Hartsfield made Phil Steele’s 2nd team All-ACC, and Drakeford showed an outstanding motor on special teams last year, as well as in limited action as a linebacker. If healthy, this group has the potential to be one of the better linebacker trios in the ACC, and possibly the country.
I’m an optimist, but it’s difficult not to be skeptical of the Maryland starting secondary in 2011. As I said earlier, football as a whole is shifting more and more towards being a passing sport. There is certainly some experience at the cornerback spots, but the same thing could have been said last year. With the departure of Tate from free safety, two new starters will need to step up, and although they have the potential to surprise, they also have the potential to not.
Maryland was an uninspiring 77th in total pass defense last year, and at times played significantly worse than that ranking would indicate (Geno Smith torching the Terps for 4 TDs comes to mind).
The two starters this year will be Cameron Chism and Dexter McDougle. McDougle beat out incumbent Trenton Hughes for the starting spot, and Hughes has now been relegated to nickel back to start the season.
There aren’t too many positive ways to spin this: neither starting corner intercepted a pass last year. Is it possible that part of the reason was Don Brown’s aggressive scheme? Maybe, but clearly the players need to shoulder some of the blame for that number.
Chism and Hughes are both seniors, and experience can go a long way in terms of being an adequate cornerback in the ACC against the majority of receivers. And McDougle was a highly touted recruit coming into College Park, so the talent is there.
Continuity should help considering all three played together last year, but the numbers and evidence from last year say the ceiling for this group is solid. Unless there is a dramatic improvement from at least 2 of the 3 players, Edsall and Bradford will need to get creative with playmaking receivers like Michael Floyd, and accurate passers like EJ Manuel.
The most exciting player in the secondary may be Tate’s replacement, junior Eric Franklin. Franklin had 3 interceptions last year in the last four games of the season, so it’s clear he has a nose for the ball.
He’ll start opposite sophomore Matt Robinson who takes over for Antwine Perez. Robinson saw even less action last year, but hopefully he and Franklin will be able to hold the lid on the defense against the better quarterbacks in the ACC.
Without getting into gunners and long snappers, there are really only two guys to talk about here.
Nick Ferrara looks like he’ll be working two shifts in the fall as both the kicker and the punter. As a punter, he’s relatively average, especially considering the previous two punters at Maryland have been unheralded major pluses for the team (Baltz and Podlesh).
As a kicker, it really depends on which Nick Ferrara shows up. If it’s the Nick Ferrara from his freshman year who kicked at a 72% clip (18-25) and nailed a few clutch kicks, maybe the Terps will have their first 80% kicker since Dan Ennis in 2006. If he’ still banged up from last year, or regresses, Edsall doesn’t seem like the type of guy who will hesitate to pull the plug.
On a more exciting note concerning punt and kickoff returns, Maryland always seems to have a guy that was a former track star that can strike fear into punters and place kickers. It used to be Torrey Smith, and now it’s Tony Logan.
Logan is the most likely to be Smith’s successor on kick returns, mainly because of his resume as a punt returner. He’s electric, and took two punt returns back to the house last year before he started getting taken out of the game via rugby kicks and teams booting it short out of bounds.
But more than likely, one team will forget this year, and Logan will be able to show off that 4.3 speed again. And kicking it out of bounds on kickoffs is ridiculous. I predict two punt returns and a kickoff return for a TD for Logan this year.
Patrick Guthrie is a University of Maryland alumnus and contributor to BaltimoreSportsReport.com. He’s a champion 9 innings Baseball player who blogs about all things sports on his personal weblog, “Two Years Too Late.”