Mitch Stringer-US PRESSWIRE
How good was Maryland's defensive line this season? So good that they lost a starter before the year and still managed to be perhaps the team's best unit.
But that's what happens, I suppose, when two-thirds of the line is manned by fifth-year seniors, including maybe the team's best player - and best lineman in recent memory - in Joe Vellano. The rolling ball of butcher knives that was Vellano as a senior never slowed down, and he terrorized offensive lines all season long, despite often playing on a gimpy knee. With A.J. Francis next to him and a promising youngster in the middle, Brian Stewart hardly could've asked for a better defensive line in his first year.
What Went Right: A whole heck of a lot. For starters, Joe Vellano was everything we had hoped he'd be as a senior, moving outside to the weakside end spot and absolutely bossing things out there. The scheme can have success without superstar ends, but really good ones take it to another level, and that's exactly what Vellano did. His numbers dropped from last year - they had to given the change in scheme and position - but he still finished with 62 tackles, five sacks, and a ridiculous 14 tackles for loss. This defense was not built around Vellano, but he was its best player by a comfortable margin. Arguably the play of the year? When Vellano, despite being held, had a strip-sack on Chase Rettig that very nearly - should've, really - won the BC game. Replacing him will not be a fun task.
A.J. Francis, too, did about as well as you could've asked. Like Vellano, he was asked to move positions and play as the strongside end. He lacked Vellano's disruptiveness - partially due to the fact that the position called for him to be a lit less disruptive anyway - but consistently held down his spot on the strong side with aplomb. And in classic A.J. Francis form, he finished with five broken up passes that he batted down at the line of scrimmage - third on the team, behind only Eric Franklin and Jeremiah Johnson.
And in a roundabout way, it's not such a bad thing that Andre Monroe missed the entire year with injury. That gave Darius Kilgo the starting job at nose tackle, and he got to grow into the spot with coverage on both sides of him. By the end of the year, I thought he looked like someone Maryland would build their front seven around, along with Cole Farrand. He's a huge space-eater, exactly what the position would call for, but he showcased some nimble feet and the ability to occasionally get into the backfield and disrupt things.
The backups rarely got a lot of burn, but a few did establish themselves in limited playing time - in particular Quinton Jefferson, who finished with six tackles over the last four games and both forced and recovered a fumble. He'll make a strong run at Vellano's vacated spot next season.
All in all, it was a very strong year from this bunch. The line is a very different animal when there are three down linemen, more about holding the line than making the play themselves. If they don't, it leaves the linebackers out to dry. Instead, Maryland finished as the second or third best defense in the conference, and the line is a huge reason for it.
What Went Wrong: The biggest complaint you can reasonably have was that it wasn't a very penetrative bunch. That's secondary to being solid and holding the line, but the best 3-4 schemes have a line that can also make plays in the backfield themselves. Outside of Vellano, there wasn't too much of that coming from the line. That can be partially explained away by Andre Monroe's absence, though; he was hugely penetrative as a freshman and likely would've been again as a sophomore. Monroe would've played across from Vellano and allowed Francis, a more disruptive player than Darius Kilgo, to stay at nose tackle. That would've given the Terrapins three dynamic linemen instead of two plus a space-eater, so Monroe's absence was somewhat unfortunate.
And it also bears mentioning that this group sometimes struggled at the point of attack, even in a few wins. They got gashed by Virginia, for example, and struggled at times against Wake Forest as well. Big, strong, and good offensive lines could definitely carve out holes and push the line back, as we saw late in the year as well. I'm not hugely concerned by it, given that they more often won than lost those point-of-attack battles in the trenches, but it is worth mentioning that they were far from consistently dominant.
The Future: I'm not sure who has a tougher job: the linebackers, who are replacing three of their four starters, or the line, who has to find two new guys - including a replacement, in name only surely, for Joe Vellano. That's not an enviable task.
The good news is that two names should be penciled in as starters right away: Kilgo at nose tackle, who looked very good at times, and Andre Monroe at one of the defensive end spots (probably weakside). That's not a Vellano-Francis pairing, but it's a serviceable one with quite a lot of potential.
The big question is that second defensive end. There's really not a ready-made option you feel comfortable throwing into the fire. Isaiah Ross, who has been sidelined by injuries for much of the past two seasons? Quinton Jefferson, who has a handful of snaps? Justin Anderson, who, like Ross, hasn't seen meaningful snaps in seemingly forever? It may end up being Keith Bowers, but using two ends who go 265 (Monroe) and 270 (Bowers) is pretty light for this scheme. Just like at linebacker, this is going to be a real test for Brian Stewart and Greg Gattuso.
Final Words: I'm really, really going to miss Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis. They embodied so much of what you want Maryland football to be. They were hard workers, amiable, affable, and, of course, very, very good at what they did. Replacing their production will be difficult enough; replacing their presence, too, is going to be asking a whole heck of a lot. They were a big reason of why Maryland's defense was as good as it was this season.
But replace them they must. Kilgo's return is massive, literally and figuratively, as it means that perhaps the most important position in the entire defense - nose tackle - isn't a question mark. And Monroe coming back should help to fill at least some of the Vellano gap, as an undersized, smart, high-motor player with a penchant for making things happen.
That last spot is a big question, though, and there's no certainty there at all. Whoever fills it, I have doubts that the unit in totality will be as good as the line was this year. And there's no shame in that - this had to have been Maryland's best line for years, probably since the Gary Blackney era. Replacing it is going to be quite a project.