Star in the making? (image via http://www.umterps.com/sports/m-footbl/recaps/090610aaa.html)
When one of your teammates goes all Superman and another is named National Defensive Player of the Week, it can be tough to always get the recognition you deserve. Such is the case of Joe Vellano, Maryland's quiet breakout star last Saturday against Navy.
All spring, we heard about how Vellano was going to be a defensive force. Against Navy, he just so happened to validate it: Vellano had ten total tackles, two sacks, and another tackle for loss, which is a pretty fantastic statline for a defensive tackle, usually the least stat-happy position on the field. The effort he gave on each play was obvious, and he even ran down Ricky Dobbs once.
Patrick Stevens demonstrated just how good of a performance it was: since Ralph Friedgen took over as HC, only two defensive tackles have had more tackles than Vellano in a single game: Charles Hill, who was drafted in the third round in 2002 and had 81 tackles his senior year, and Randy Starks, who was also a third-rounder and a two-time All-ACC selection. As Stevens said, "That's not bad company."
His rise was meteoric and unexpected; a lightly-recruited two-star DT from upstate New York, little was expected of the redshirt sophomore this year. Sure, he's the son of former Maryland defensive lineman and All-American Paul Vellano, but a greyshirt season, then a redshirt season, and then a lengthy knee injury that kept him sidelined for the first half of last season didn't really do a lot to invigorate the imagination.
But in spring, he made an unbelievable leap. Out of nowhere, he was showing up on lists of the best players of the spring and was outplaying entrenched starter A.J. Francis early on. There were some doubts about how his game would translate to real-time, but it clearly made the move pretty well.
Keep in mind that Vellano is neither particularly big nor fast. He's listed at 285, which would make him Maryland's lightest DT, but looks even smaller. And his 40 was clocked at 5.0 coming out of high school, which was slower than even the then-330 pound Zach Kerr.
But it's been Vellano that's been the star so far. It's clear that he's quick off the snap, which is more important than any "raw speed" measurement for a lineman anyway. And it's also clear that he has no problem giving an inordinate amount of effort on the field, as he ran down a few plays from behind (no small feat for a lineman). Damned if he didn't remind me of Chris Long, right down to the number.
Like Tate before him, it's a little early to say he's definitively here, but a game that performance that good is tough to bet against, especially with all that positive practice backing him up. If all these new "breakout" performances hold true, we may be looking at a defense more stacked than we thought.