Compared to the offensive coordinator search, this baby moved at light speed: only four days after officially letting Todd Bradford go, it looks like Maryland's tabbed his replacement as Brian Stewart, who occupied the same post for two years with the Houston Cougars and, before that, the Dallas Cowboys.
The hiring of Stewart comes after months of speculation on the defensive coordinator spot in College Park, but only a matter of hours after the official buyout of Bradford. Names like Randy Shannon, Larry Johnson, and even Tom Bradley were bandied about at various times, but the end result is a much more unknown commodity. So, let's introduce the newest member of the Terrapins coaching staff.
Stewart was at Houston for the last two seasons under Kevin Sumlin, where last year he led one of the better units in the country. Sumlin ended up at Texas A&M and went a different direction, leaving Stewart without a job and interviewing for other spots - like West Virginia, whose coaches were telling recruits that Stewart was the new defensive coordinator there. Awk-ward.
If stealing West Virginia's preferred choice isn't enough, Stewart actually has quite the resumé. Before his time in Houston, Stewart spent a year as a "defensive assistant" with the Eagles, which followed a two-year tenure as defensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys under Wade Phillips. Yep, he has NFL experience - and it's good NFL experience. Don't get me wrong, he wasn't some guru in the lig, because if he was he'd still have a job there. But his defense was top ten in total offense both of his years in Dallas, forced a lot of turnovers, and was a sack machine. (Check the stats here.) He was fired by Jerry Jones - not, for what it's worth, Wade Phillips - after two years in Big D, sort of as a scapegoat and possibly to anger Phillips and get him to quit. (Didn't work, obviously.)
Before that, he bounced around the NFL as a defensive backs coach for a few years, and before that bounced around the NCAA as a defensive backs coach. So if nothing else he should be able to handle the DBs, and he does have some experience doing recruiting, fundraising, and the like.
Speaking of recruiting, it's not exactly his strong suit. He wasn't the main guy on just about anyone in his time at Houston, and before that was obviously an NFL assistant for a long stretch. So his track record here isn't really stellar. Shame, but more on this later.
Statistically, he was just fine at Houston; much like Don Brown, Mike Locksley, and many other coordinators, it did take him a year to get going: his first season Houston's defense was nearly abject. But the important thing to remember here is that they were even worse before he took over - he was inheriting a mess. After a year getting the scheme down, they did just fine.
In fact, all things considered, I think it's reasonable to say that Houston's defense was good, perhaps bordering on great, last season. They were 35th in scoring D and 62nd in total defense, both of which are respectable numbers. But remember that Houston was 114th in time of possesion, nearly as bad as Maryland's 119th mark. His defense was on the field all the time, and still put up solid numbers. In fact, if there was a "points per possession" or "points per play" or even "points per minute" metric - I haven't seen one yet, but I'm sure someone keeps track of that stuff - I'm sure his defense would rank even higher. In the same vein, if you're frightened by that 62nd mark in total defense, keep in mind that it rises to 36th when adjusted for yards/play. Really, it's actually quite the impressive feat.
He's also fairly aggressive, forcing turnovers and sacks at a high rate. Houston was 10th in the country in turnovers forced last year, and 25th in sacks. Those are really good numbers, especially turnovers, and we saw them anchor a great defense a few years ago here under Don Brown.
I have to wonder, though, how immediate his impact will be. First there's the possible defensive transition, which may or may not happen (more below). But he also didn't exactly set the world on fire his first year at Houston, either, and many coordinators do struggle in their opening seasons - Don Brown, for example, looked pretty rough. This usually has more to do with the players and grasping the schemes, instead of strange playcalls (which is why I don't feel bad about cutting Bradford and Crowton) but the problem is there nonetheless. Both his scoring D and total D were in the 90s or 100s his first year in Houston, and I don't think I can take another year of awful defenses.
Here's perhaps the most interesting part of it: he's a 3-4 lifer, it seems. He came up under Wade Phillips, who ran the 3-4, so that's what Stewart ran at Dallas. Then he ran it again in Houston, which was running the 4-3 before he made the switch. He seems to be all about speed - cue the James Franklin "more speed than the Green Bay Packers!" quote - and aggressiveness, and less so about size, but that's sort of overlooking the fact that size is critical in 3-4, especially in the front three. The 3-4 is an inherently faster and more athletic scheme, which is great, but it's also one that can be tough to find the right personnel for.
Schematically, I'm guessing he'll run a base look of a one-gap 3-4, which usually allows for smaller players and makes more sense at the collegiate level. It'll probably resemble much of what Wade Phillips did at Dallas and is doing now with the Texans, given that that's his pedigree. Phillips' schemes historically have allowed for smaller players.
The big question, of course, becomes this: does he run the 3-4 in College Park? Is that a possible transition? Or does he stick with what's here, the 4-3? I guess we'll find out during his first interview. I'll have another post on this today or tomorrow.
First opinion? Okay. Works for me.
Stewart isn't a flashy name like Shannon or Bradley would've been, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's a bad candidate. He's as experienced as you could possibly expect a DC at Maryland to be, has been pretty successful, and is without a doubt a significant improvement upon Todd Bradford.
The real problem here has to do with the 3-4 transition. I'm working on a post looking at the potential transition, but I still have no idea whether they can pull it off or if it's just going to be Gary Crowton on the other side of the ball. Of course, we don't even know if that's something he'll do yet. So let's wait it out, and instead of speculating wildly on it, analyze what we can analyze.
Which is: Maryland has a defensive coordinator with fairly solid success at the collegiate level, seemingly strong Xs and Os ability, and high-level NFL coaching experience. I find it difficult to be anything other than optimistic regarding the hire, at least as it stands right now.
I know the likely arguments against him, and right now I just don't buy them. No, the NFL success may not be his baby entirely; Phillips is a defensive coach and for all we know he was the de facto DC with Stewart just handling things like player development and practice quality control. I don't care. Fact of the matter is that he was operating closely with and under one of the best defensive minds in football at the highest level the sport has to offer. That's a very nice pedigree. The success is nice, but I'm more happy about the fact that he can probably take the things he learned there and become a much better DC at this level.
And no, he's not a great recruiter. Thing is, neither is Randy Shannon, or Tom Bradley. Not in the ways you're thinking, at least. And the real kicker: they don't need to be, and he doesn't need to be.
Recruiting is part relationships and part sales job. Maryland doesn't really need help with relationships; Mike Locksley in D.C. and Greg Gattuso in Western Pennsylvania will probably suffice for that. What's important now is to get the other half of the equation: the sales job. Prospects have to be comfortable with the coaching staff, but they also need to be convinced that College X is the best place for them. They need to know they fit into the scheme and will be a part of a successful unit. That's an area where Stewart should be just fine.
When Maryland does an in-home visit with Korren Kirven or Dorian O'Daniel, it would be a huge asset to have a former NFL defensive coordinator telling him how he'd be utilized in this defense, how he'll best maximize his talent. It's the type of thing that commands respect, much like Shannon would've, and that will only grow if/as he has success here. A competent coordinator is just as much a part of the sales job as anything else. And for that, Stewart will do just fine. Sell developing DeMarcus Ware or Terence Newman or whatever he wants to do; there's stuff to be mined, and that's very important to elite recruits.
Maryland could've gone after a big and flashy name, and I would've been just fine with that. But big and flashy doesn't always equate to competency, and that was always going to be the more important matter in this search. Stewart seems to check that box. We'll see how he and Maryland's defense develop forward, but all things told I'm perfectly satisfied.
Now get out there and land Korren Kirven, D.J. Ready, Ronald Darby, or Eddie Goldman. We only have two weeks.