When Brian Stewart came to Maryland from Houston as a defensive coordinator, Stewart brought his 3-4 scheme with him. That was a change for the Terrapins, who had suffered through non-sensical hybrid schemes under Chris Cosh and most recently Todd Bradford, with a short 4-3 respite in the form of Don Brown. It was a brave new world.
Of course, the biggest difference between a 3-4 and almost every other alignment is the extra linebacker, who replaces either a safety (in a 3-3-5) or a defensive tackle (in a 4-3). So if a team's going to pull it off, they need both quality and depth at that second level. The scheme emphasizes linebackers too much to have success without them.
Luckily for Stewart and Maryland, his scheme worked with the Terrapins' personnel: they had plenty of linebackers, and experienced good ones at that. Kenny Tate received a medical redshirt and would return at outside linebacker; Darin Drakeford and Demetrius Hartsfield, both starters the previous season, were back, too, giving Stewart three seniors to play with. Throw in youngsters like Alex Twine and Cole Farrand, who had been thrown into the fire in the Bradford season, and there was the makings of a unit to build around.
And build around the 'backers Stewart did, to much success: the defense did, after all, finish as one of the ACC's best, second in the conference in total yardage. And while much of that success can be attributed to good performances from guys like Joe Vellano and Jeremiah Johnson, the linebackers were at the center of it.
What Went Right: Despite a little bit of fiddling and putting some round pegs in square holes, Maryland's linebackers were experienced and played exactly how you'd want a unit this experienced to play. Darin Drakeford and Demetrius Hartsfield did their work every day, consistently and steadily; very rarely did you ever have to worry about them.
Hartsfield, when healthy, was a tackle machine, just as his position required. He read plays well, reacted quickly, and was almost always a sure tackler. That he missed three games and still was able to be tied for the team lead in tackles is quite something, and his presence will be missed.
Drakeford, meanwhile, had more question marks around him coming into the year. A middle 'backer by trade, Drake was moved to WILL, also known as the scheme's designated pass-rusher. The move didn't seem intuitive at first glance, but Drakeford took to it well, racking up a team-leading six sacks plus 9.5 tackles for loss. He was a true playmaker, constantly getting his name called and finding himself in the opposition backfield. The scheme requires a pass-rushing WILL almost as much as a competent nose tackle, and Drakeford's emergence was a huge factor in their success. He didn't necessarily possess the freak athleticism that the best WILLs do - think Shawne Merriman, DeMarcus Ware - but he did turn out to have that relentless pass-rushing mentality, which not everyone possesses and which is perhaps even more important.
Moving back to the middle, I really liked Cole Farrand's performance all season. He was quiet in the early weeks, but as the season moved on he got more and more comfortable; by the end of the year he looked like a natural replacement for Hartsfield as the team's resident tackle machine. He'll always draw comparisons to Alex Wujciak, right down to the long hair and New Jersey roots, but he looks a step quicker than Wuj was. He probably doesn't have the same ability to read the game - few do - but proved very active and quietly finished as the second-most productive tackler on the team behind Hartsfield. He had a penchant for making strong open-field tackles.
And hey, Alex Twine was once again promising. He didn't end up a starter, as many had expected, but he backed up Kenny Tate at SAM and made his presence known at least once a game with a big play. He wasn't the most consistent, necessarily, but you could always count on him to make things happen. He'll be an interesting player moving forward, though there are some concerns about his ability to drop back in coverage.
As a unit, you had to love how they looked against the run. With only three down linemen in Brian Stewart's scheme, a lackluster linebacking corps will get seriously exposed against the run. Playing behind Joe Vellano is always a bonus, but each guy had to be responsible for cleaning up anything that came their way, since there's always a good chance the three linemen won't be able to handle things on their own. That's exactly what happened, with Hartsfield and Farrand in particular being active but Twine, Tate, and L.A. Goree pitching in, too. They were a huge factor in Maryland's success against the rush, where they finished second in the ACC and 27th nationally, with a substantial drop in their numbers after Hartsfield went down to injury over the final few games. They were doing something right.
What Went Wrong: Maryland was one superstar away from an elite unit, and it just so happened that that superstar was injured and hobbled all year. After missing so much of last season, the hope was that Kenneth Tate would be healthy, start at SAM, and look like the Kenny Tate of yore. If he did, the presence of an athletic force like that on the strong-side probably would've taken what was already a very good unit and made it even better, one of the ACC's elite. (Tate at his best, actually, would be a very good fit for SAM in Stewart's scheme, aside from being a dozen pounds too light.) Of course, that didn't happen: injuries struck again, causing Tate to miss the first three games and appearing a step slow even after that. The old explosive, playmaking Kenny Tate never really appeared; he just didn't seem to have the physical ability to be that any more. He was still a good, ACC-level player, mind you, but not the all-around star that would've really transformed the unit. As I've often said about Tate, he's a cautionary tale about not going pro when you can, especially in football; he got screwed by a host of lower-body injuries that stole a step off him, and as a result went from a third-round pick at safety to a likely undrafted free agent two years later. You have to feel for him.
I also think it's probably fair to say that this wasn't a particularly athletic linebacker group, as far as 3-4 sets go. The whole idea of the 3-4 is to get an extra athlete on the field, something that Stewart has talked about in the past, but this group was headier than they were athletic. Farrand and Hartsfield were more about their ability to read the game and make sure tackles than their sideline-to-sideline quickness; Drakeford is athletic by most standards, but not the type of athlete that so often populates WILL linebacker spots in the 3-4; Tate's injuries mitigated his explosiveness. They've definitely looked for more athleticism and explosiveness in recruiting when it comes to linebackers, which makes sense, but they didn't have the personnel for that this season. That's not a big deal, given that this group was so experienced and savvy, but it did hurt them in rushing the passer (seventh in the ACC in sacks, with little threat outside of Drakeford) and in pass coverage.
In fact, speaking to that latter point, it was one of the few real concerns I had about the unit. Only Tate seemed genuinely comfortable dropping back in coverage (Hartsfield was next closest) and no one had the speed to stay with a running back or a quick tight end. That put the corners and safeties, who already had their hands full, under extra duress. It was something that N.C. State and Boston College, in particular, exploited to quite a lot of success. (Linebackers lost their man on a touchdown in both games.)
The Future: Three starters are leaving, which means this unit is undergoing drastic renovation. Replacing Drakeford, Hartsfield, and Tate will be no easy task, particularly Drakeford, who was one of the underrated stars of the team this season. It's made somewhat easier by Tate's and Hartsfield's absences during the year, which gave Alex Twine and L.A. Goree extra time in the scheme to prepare for the future.
Expect the unit to be built around Farrand at MIKE, where he'll be asked to do more of what he did this year: clean up messes all over the field. He showcased enough in the second half of the season to feel comfortable with that going forward, and he might be expected to be the centerpiece of the defense along with Darius Kilgo at nose tackle. But the other three spots are still to be determined. The frontrunners are, you'd have to think, Twine at SAM, Goree next to Farrand at MO, and Marcus Whitfield at WILL.
Whitfield's spot will be the most heavily contested, as it's more about raw pass-rushing ability than anything else. Whitfield didn't do much in his time this season to put it on lockdown, registering only a half-sack despite being used often as a situational pass-rusher. His primary competition is probably going to be Roman Braglio, who doesn't have the traditional athleticism for the position but had an uncanny knack for getting sacks in high school, and Clarence Murphy, a converted defensive end who was behind Whitfield for the much of the year.
The x-factor in it all? Yannick Ngakoue, the highly-regarded recruit from Friendship Collegiate. If he ends up recommitting to Maryland - still a possibility - he'll be in the mix to get immediate playing time at WILL, potentially even starting after a few games. He's tailor-made for the spot, with exactly the size, athleticism, and relentless mentality you want from someone in that position. You'd expect other incoming recruits to redshirt, especially with Brock Dean and Abner Logan taking off their redshirts and adding quality depth in the interior.
All in all, though, I am a bit worried about the unit next year. There are three ACC level starters going out that need to be replaced. Replacing one can be a difficult task, given the uncertainty inherent in bedding in a new starter; replacing three is almost certainly not going to go entirely smoothly. The upside is that Whitfield, Twine, and Goree have all seen major playing in the past, Twine and Goree especially. But we've also seen enough of them to know that, at least immediately, it's probably going to be asking too much to improve upon this season's experienced and assured performance. But there's still a good chance they're a serviceable unit next season, and potentially a very good unit two years from when they enter the Big Ten, when Farrand, Twine, and Goree will all be seniors themselves.
Final Words: Like I said earlier, the 3-4 is about getting an extra athlete on the field at linebacker, so if a team's going to pull it off they better have depth and quality at that second level. Maryland definitely had both, and the scheme fit instantly. The personnel didn't fit as perfectly as you'd like, but guys learned their new roles quickly and took to them well - especially Drakeford, who was a question mark at WILL before showing out the way he did. Linebackers are emphasized in the scheme and you can't have success without them; that Maryland's defense was one of the better ones in the ACC is a testament to the quality of this group.
(To answer the question in the intro, though, I still think the defensive line outperformed them slightly.)
But they lose most of that proven, experienced quality in the offseason. It'll be tough to improve upon this season's unit, at least immediately, but it can still be good enough to be the center of a good defense. Will it be? That's going to be one of Brian Stewart's first great tests.