We knew, coming into the year, that Maryland's defense was likely to be solid. Stalwarts Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis manned the line. Darin Drakeford, Demetrius Hartsfield, and Kenny Tate all returned at linebacker, meaning there was plenty of experience and plenty of talent spread throughout the front seven.
The only question, really, was going to be how the secondary handled. They were losing senior fixture Cam Chism and several transfers, including safety Titus Till, leaving the Terrapins with little experience and just as little proven quality. Matt Robinson was coming back from injury and was sidelined often during the season, leaving only Dexter McDougle at cornerback and Eric Franklin at safety as proven and healthy options. The transfers wreaked havoc on the secondary's depth, too - and it hurt even more once Robinson and A.J. Hendy suffered long-term injuries.
So with youngsters and unproven options manning many of the spots, how would Maryland's secondary handle? Turns out preseason expectations were right: if the defense had a weak link, this was unfortunately it.
What Went Right: Arguably the secondary's biggest question coming into the year was whether or not they'd find a number two cornerback to partner with Dexter McDougle. They did that and then some, with Jeremiah Johnson emerging arguably as the top corner on the roster, with a stellar first half of the season climaxing with an absurdly good game against N.C. State in which he looked an all-out star. He finished with eight pass break-ups on the year, easily tops among Maryland's defensive backs. In late October, there were Post features written about him referencing him as a "shutdown cornerback." He ended up the season rather less than that, but for a sophomore seeing his first major action, he acquitted himself quite well. If he sees consistent improvement, he could end up as an all-ACC type by the time he's a senior.
McDougle next to him had some bright spots, too, especially toward the end of the season when he looked more like the McDougle of old. He continues to be a physical corner and a bit of a riverboat gambler, but once the secondary came together in terms of health, he was more consistent. But more on him later.
As for safey, well, I guess people are more likely to value Matt Robinson now, after seeing how the secondary handled without him. True freshman Anthony Nixon received valuable playing time at safety, too. Nixon, in fact, is probably the favorite to start in Franklin's vacated place.
And hey, they turned in some very good performances on the whole, even if sometimes you needed to look past one or two plays to get there. Tanner Price and Wake Forest completed only 35% of their passes in that game, with Maryland's defense holding Price to a laughable 89.16 passer rating. The complete dominance in that game (aside from one play) was a big reason Maryland won it. They had similar outings against Virginia and N.C. State, where a few plays cost them dearly but the performance taken in totality had some really encouraging aspects; both teams were held under 50% completions and seriously subpar passer ratings.
That showed up in the season's final stats, where Maryland was third in the ACC in pass defense. That's hugely misleading given that they faced the second-fewest attempts in the conference, but a few other stats show that this unit wasn't bad: 8th in passer rating, 4th in yards/attempt, and 3rd in completion percentage are all respectable numbers. The line and linebackers helped out by pressuring the quarterback and forcing third-and-long situations, but Maryland's secondary often looked the part themselves.
What Went Wrong: Like everywhere else, injuries was a big one. Robinson missed seven games and his absence was really felt, and Hendy - who likely would've backed him up - missed the first four games himself, fighting injury in the next several as well and derailing what was a potential breakout year. That left Maryland giving newcomers like Nixon, Sean Davis, Isaac Goins, and Alvin Hill real playing time, and it made matters difficult.
Perhaps that played into their biggest shortcoming: consistency, both individually and as a unit. In terms of personnel, Johnson had shutdown games and then games where he looked decidedly pedestrian; McDougle would do something big and then get burnt the next play. Actually, McDougle's entire first half of the season was one big head-scratcher, often and easily getting beat down the field. I wonder if he struggled with the pressure of being the #1 corner, especially as it meant he was more often on the field side and couldn't use the sideline to help him cover. The emergence of Johnson seemed to steady him, as did Robinson's presence over the top when he was in. But I don't know if he has the technique or straight-line speed to be a shutdown guy, if anyone on Maryland's roster does at all.
As a unit, though, they were prone to making one or two big mishaps that would come back to bite them. Indeed, their tendency to give up big passing plays was probably Maryland's biggest flaw on defense. They could play a solid game in large part for 57 minutes, but they'd make a big mistake or fold at a bad time and the opposing offense would hit paydirt. Few teams could sustain drives against the defense consistently, but if they aired it out, they could count on big plays.
N.C. State's two touchdowns? They came on pass plays of 25 and 68 yards. Virginia's two touchdowns? Both 20+ yard passes. Wake Forest hit a 73-yarder in the first quarter. West Virginia's three offensive touchdowns: pass plays of 24, 34, and 44 yards. Temple hit a 62-yard touchdown that put them back in the game. And when they needed a stop against Boston College to seal a win, Chase Rettig threw it all over them, driving 85 yards for the win. (That, though, can partially be explained by Maryland's inability to pressure him.)
Part of that problem was due to safety coverage over the top and miscommunications with the cornerbacks, but everyone shares blame in it. Much like you could say that Maryland's lackluster special teams played a big role in why the Terrapins aren't bowling, you could say the same about the secondary's problems with big plays. If nothing else, it hurt Maryland immensely in their loss against State.
And, of course, like much of the rest of the team, they looked quite mediocre in the final four games. Part of that has to do with the difficultly of keeping mentally dialed-in given everything else that was happening; another, perhaps larger, part is that the quality of the offenses was much higher. E.J. Manuel, Tajh Boyd, and Bryn Renner each ate the secondary up, completing 70% of their attempts over Maryland's final three games.
That said, it's worth noting that those were the ACC's three most accurate quarterbacks all year anyway, so it's not necessarily quite as bad as it looks - actually, each of the three had bigger games against other ACC opponents. How the secondary finished the year wasn't necessarily encouraging, but it also wasn't as giant a red flag as it might appear at first glance given that the quarterbacks who lit them up lit up most of the rest of the conference, too.
The Future: Only Eric Franklin graduates, and while having a senior safety is nice, he was hardly irreplaceable and made some mistakes of his own. Everyone else is back, with Robinson and Hendy (hopefully) healthy and Anthony Nixon and Sean Davis a year more experienced. There's very little, if any, star power in this unit, but McDougle, Robinson, and Johnson are comfortable starters and would start on several conference opponents. That next safety spot is a concern, but you'd imagine Nixon is the front-runner given the way coaches raved about him.
There should also be more depth, with Isaac Goins heading into his senior year with a season of experience at this level, plus Alvin Hill and Sean Davis a year improved themselves. Hendy's return, too, should give the unit a more solid nickel back, and don't forget that Zach Dancel, who received major playing as a freshman at New Mexico at safety, is coming eligible himself. Between Hendy, Dancel, and Nixon, there should be a really interesting battle for that second safety spot next to Robinson, and that can only be a good thing. (I would expect the incoming recruits - Elvis Dennah, Milan Collins, Jarrett Ross - to all redshirt. None, on the surface, seem immediately ready to make an impact.)
Of course, I'd feel a lot better about getting so many players back if they had looked better this season; given that major reinforcements aren't on their way in, Maryland's going to be counting largely on natural improvement, which is never a certainty. Still, a healthy Robinson, a year more experience for everyone, and perhaps the addition of Dancel and revival of Hendy should mean that this unit is at least middle-of-the-ACC-pack level, potentially higher. If they're not, some probing questions will be asked of the coaching staff.
Final Words: It bears repeating that Maryland's secondary was not objectively bad, all things considered. Thing is, they weren't objectively good, either, and when the rest of the defense is, that means they were still a weak link. Their tendency to give up big plays over the first half of the year, in particular, proved to be the defense's Achilles heel, perhaps what kept it from dragging the offense into the postseason.
There's little reason to expect them to do anything other than improve to next year, when they will hopefully be healthier and certainly more experienced, provided there's not another offseason exodus. But without heavy reinforcements on the way, expecting the improvement to be drastic may be a stretch. Given that the rest of the defense will undergo major changes, the secondary is going to be leaned upon next year, and that might be a little frightening.