Sure, we gave Maryland defensive coordinator Todd Bradford and his unit a shout-out in the Stock Report for his unit's strong game against Georgia Tech, but that doesn't really fully do it justice. After taking a slightly deeper look at the situation, I thought an entire post was necessary.
After all, the guy has been Maryland football's biggest punching bag since ... well, probably since the day he was hired as defensive coordinator. After fleeing Southern Miss and the Terps whiffing on the Randy Shannon lottery, Bradford was promoted from his linebackers spot to coordinator, and the reaction was one of immediate "meh." I was less than enthused when Bradford got the gig, but Joe Q. Terp was downright enraged, starting a #VetoBradford movement to oust the new DC. (Unsurprisingly, it failed.)
And, really, it's not as if they didn't have good reason. Bradford was, in some respects, a literal example of failing upwards. When he left Southern Miss, their fans were happy, calling him "a failed experiment." He led the C-USA school to mid-60s marks in total defense and mid-80s marks in scoring defense, all while recruiting at an uninspiring level. And yet despite more or less failing at the C-USA level, he got the same job at an ACC level. Do you remember Chris Cosh? This hire would be like Cosh getting hired at Georgia.
Accordingly, with his lack of a track record and poor first impression, Bradford became Maryland's biggest, easiest scapegoat, with exactly zero wiggle room. His first three games went as you might've expected: poorly. Miami put up 24 points in the opener, followed by 37 from West Virginia and then 38 - plus five Bernard Pierce touchdowns - from Temple, of all teams. Unsurprisingly, he's been consistently singled out as a poor performer. Then there's the Kenny Tate Experiment, which draws more ire each and every week. Four games into the season and fans were about ready to throw in the towel on the Bradford Era and just hire Mike Stoops or Randy Shannon already.
And then Maryland took a trip to Georgia Tech, a team with the best, most explosive, most efficient offense in the country, one that put up 45 points and 413 yards on N.C. State, that had nearly 500 yards of total offense against UNC, that steamrolled Kansas to the tune of 66 points and nearly 800 yards. No one would've been surprised, or even particularly outraged, if Maryland's defense rolled over and allowed the Yellow Jackets' scoreboard lighting to commence, as was expected. But that's when something a little shocking happened: Maryland's much-maligned defense actually stopped them.
Georgia Tech's 21 points was their lowest mark of the year, a full four touchdowns below their season average to that point. Their 386 yards was bottoms as well, and a little over half of what they were used to getting. It's even more impressive when you realize that, after a long opening touchdown drive (the triple-option is notorious for starting out hot as teams adjust to its game speed), the Yellow Jackets' only two subsequent scoring drives came on short fields, going only 33 and 17 yards, respectively. And then throw on top the fact that Maryland was out a full six defensive starters, lost another mid-way through the game, and had an all-freshman linebacker corps and ... well, it's darn-near miraculous that this group did what UNC's defense - the one that's #2 in the ACC in scoring defense and has two sure-fire first rounders on it - couldn't come close to.
(Specifically, the defense was helped out by a host of strong individual performances, from Joe Vellano's 20 tackles to David Mackall's critical role in disrupting the triple option. Some (Vellano's in particular) has more to do with the player than the coach, but Mackall's consistent fake-commitment smells of coaching instruction.)
Sure, there are dozens of caveats to this. Like, for instance, that the triple-option is so unique that sometimes a bad defense can have success against it, so long as they're athletic and disciplined enough (both of which, I believe, Maryland is), and success there may not scale well to normal offenses. Or that Tevin Washington and the Jackets' passing game had beaten Maryland several times over the top, only for the Terrapins to be bailed out by some timely drops.
But fie on all that, I say. Plenty of defenses have seen Tech's offense and struggled - or sometimes done worse than struggled - so even if it doesn't scale well, I'm not going to ignore a good performance just because they may not be like everyone else's playbook. And as far as the passing game goes, that's part of game-planning: Bradford knows his secondary isn't up to snuff, but had to take the chance that Tech's passing game would fail, as it has in recent years, to sell out against (and stop) the run. He took the gamble, and it worked.
I'm not prepared to say Bradford is good just yet, particularly after so many poor performances early in the year and the aforementioned scaling problem. But with all the negativity surrounding Terps football recently, especially in the coaching realm, a good - nay, great - job deserves some measure of recognition. And whereas before I was ready to pen in 30 points for Clemson in this Saturday's upcoming matchup, I'm no longer quite so sold.
And while we're here on the Bradford train, perhaps it's a good time to point out a few things related to his job performance. Like the fact that, injury- and depth-wise, Bradford is almost certainly working with as little as any coordinator in the conference. Presently, he's missing five players who held a starting job at the time of their injury, and that could skyrocket to seven if Kenny Tate and Demetrius Hartsfield aren't good to go by Saturday.
That'd be crippling for almost any defense, but it's just about fatal for Maryland, given that they already lacked so much depth, through no fault of Bradford's. Key reserves Ben Pooler, Ryan Donohue, and Zach Kerr all left the program in the offseason, leaving behind nought but inexperience in their wake, particularly at linebacker. Now they're starting a reformed guard at defensive tackle, occasionally playing three freshmen at linebacker, starting a true freshman defensive end whose only other BCS offer was Kansas, and boast a transfer from Lackawanna College and a former squad team offensive guard as their defensive end backups. C'mon: given what they're working with, it's almost a wonder the defense has done as well as they have.
Which, by the way, is a little better than you might think. Maryland's defensive stats are ugly, but look better if you make certain considerations or look at the right stats. Remember that Maryland's defense has been on the field a lot due to their poor offense, which means they face more snaps and more opportunities for the other team to gain yards. Account for that, and Maryland's ugly 84th in total defense nationally (10th in the ACC) looks like a much rosier 64th (7th) when you switch from total yards to yards per play. Their scoring defense is 54th nationally - that's top-half in the country. And those stats look even better when you remember that Maryland's defense is perpetually tired: they're on the field more than anyone in the country, save Oregon and Tulsa.
And it's not like the offenses they've faced so far haven't been slouches: Georgia Tech is, again, the best in the country, while West Virginia is #11 in total offense (#14 in ypp). Both are in the top 15 in scoring offense. Miami, who was more or less intact for the Maryland game, scored 24 - the same amount Maryland allowed - against Kansas State, a top 20 defense in the nation statistically, and put up more points against Virginia Tech in Lane (35) than they did on Maryland in Byrd. (As far as Temple goes: it was a bad, pretty defenseless game on all fronts. The only thing I have to say: hey, at least they're #11 in rushing offense - and that stays in the 20s even if you subtract the Terps game.)
By my count, the only teams to face two top-12 scoring offenses in the opening six weeks are Arizona, UCLA, Kansas, Texas A&M, N.C. State, Tulsa, and LSU. Maryland is the second-best of those teams in scoring defense, trailing only LSU. And at least in this point of Maryland's football program timeline, "second to LSU" is probably going to be okay. (Note: yes, there's probably some causation-correlation stuff going on here; with such a small sample size, there's a question of whether the offenses look good because they've faced two bad defenses, or whether the defenses look bad because they've faced two good offenses. There's no real answer to that - this is just an extra thing to take into consideration.)
And don't forget that Don Brown struggled even worse than Bradford in his first year, before turning things around in a big way in his second. In Brown's first season, Maryland was 100th in scoring defense; in year two, they were 38th. Those who miss Brown - and I do as much as anyone - would probably do well to remember that.
Of course, sometimes statistics are misleading, and the human eye can occasionally be more effective. And I won't argue that in that sense, Bradford has looked pretty miserable. I have no idea what his scheme is even still, and he seems to consistently blitz when he shouldn't, and hold off when he should blitz. He doesn't pass the eyeball test, but perhaps the lack of tools defensively and the quality of the offenses he's faced have something to do with that.
I didn't mean for this to turn into a long-winded defense of Bradford, a coach who I disliked rather vehemently just days ago. But I started to dig around, and it just kind of happened. Let's be honest: it was easy and fun to hate the Todd. In fact, it was so easy that perhaps we indulged in it a bit too much.
To repeat what I've said above: I don't necessarily think Bradford is a good defensive coordinator, at least not yet. But after delving into it a little more, I'm officially off the "Fire Bradford" train, and will wait to see what happens the rest of the year before making a decision on him. He's earned that much.
Now hopefully Clemson doesn't go for 50 points on Saturday and make me look like an idiot.