COLLEGE PARK, MD - SEPTEMBER 24: Matt Brown #22 of the Temple Owls is tackled by Demetrius Hartsfield #9 of the Maryland Terrapins during the first half at Byrd Stadium on September 24, 2011 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
The Prospectus: I'm quite not as confident in the linebackers as I am the defensive line, but it's close. Just like on the line, Maryland returns nearly everyone; only reserves Mario Rowson, Desmond Kearse, and Avery Graham have departed, with a whole host of reinforcements having joined up in the meantime . There's plenty of depth and experience here, and even a bit of top-level talent, but perhaps a few questions as well.
Just like the line, again, we have to note that Maryland's linebackers weren't exactly great last year. They weren't provided much cover by the line, but they had just as much to do with the one-of-the-worst-in-the-country rushing defenses and lacked anyone who could change a game. In fairness, though, they were crushed by injuries: Demetrius Hartsfield missed three games, Darin Drakeford missed four, and Tate missed damn near the whole season. True freshmen were thrown into the fire in their absences, and while Maryland will be better off with their experience, the staff will be hoping they won't have to do it again.
Ever Kenny Tate moved down a spot and Maryland's staff became mildly obsessed with recruiting linebackers, this has been a relative strength. Brian Stewart's new 3-4 will take advantage of that, switching out a lineman for a 'backer, taking the line from a question mark (who's the fourth starter?) to an undeniable strength and shifting the burden to a linebacking corps that can handle it. This isn't a proper 3-4 corps just yet - that won't happen for another year or two - but it is one of the stronger areas of the team, and I'm interested to see how things shake out with the transitions.
Starting up top, yes, that's Kenny Tate. And yes, it's a bit disheartening to see him there instead of back home at safety. I still contend that he's better playing a bit farther from the line of scrimmage, but he isn't moving there - under any circumstances. That said, I'm not totally upset to see him at SAM. It's the most well-rounded, all-encompassing position in the 3-4, requiring him to be competent at rushing the passer, covering a tight end or back, and standing up against the rush. It's a tough position to fill, and Maryland doesn't have anyone who can really fill it, save Kenny. And while he didn't impress at linebacker last year, we also don't know exactly how long he was playing injured. If it was something he was dealing with for the majority of the season, it might explain some of the lackluster performances. My only concern is seeing him with even less cover in front of him, but otherwise it's a good fit for his diverse skillset. One way or the other, Tate will be in the thick of things this year.
Moving down a spot, MIKE looks a fight between Goree and Farrand; I'd expect the more experience and proven Goree to win out. Farrand is actually probably the better fit for the spot - he's more of the traditional, Wujciakian type that the 3-4 needs - and there's a good shot they platoon based on the situation, but it's tough to turn down a guy who notched 60 tackles as a freshman. Goree rarely made a play that shocked you, but he was solid and steady and that's what you want here.
The final two positions are the really secure ones, the ones I'm really not worrying about at all. Hartsfield played as the tackling machine in the middle of the field last year - 108 tackles in only nine games - and he'll do the same again this year. He's instinctive, tough, and athletic, and he should take the spot without any issue. Meanwhile, Drakeford is moves to the WILL, which is where most of the pass rush pressure comes from in this defense. I do question that a bit - it's not really utilizing his entire skill set, and I wouldn't classify him as a traditional pass-rusher. But Maryland didn't have anyone ready-made for the spot anyway, unless they were willing to throw Marcus Whitfield into the fire (and leave out Goree and Farrand). I can understand the logic.
You'll notice one name we've been conspicuously quiet on: Alex Twine. He was the real freshman breakout star of last season, but he finds himself a backup to Kenny Tate at SAM for the moment. It'll be interesting to see what type of game time he gets this year, because I can't imagine him stealing too many snaps unless the staff's worried about Tate's health and they want to keep him as fit as possible for as long as possible. Otherwise, Twine will be getting spot duty at SAM, when I think he could probably challenge for playing time at MIKE or be used as a standard-issue back-up across the board. But then maybe they're preparing for life without Kenny, and feel that Twine presents the best long-term option - he does, by the way - and would prefer him to understudy for the time being. That might be prudent in the long run, but Twine's talented enough to see the field now.
Like the line, this should be a fairly fluid group with a lot of interchanging and new faces. Isaiah Ross could move back from end to WILL or SAM to add extra menace in a pass-rushing situation, or Tate can be shifted back into a safety hybrid role (no matter how much they say they won't, I suspect they will). I don't expect much out of the freshmen just yet, but they do have the talent to see the field immediately if they're needed, with especially Brock Dean making a run up the depth chart. That doesn't surprise me, actually; Dean won't replace Hartsfield, but Bradley Johnson's a poor fit for inside linebacker in this scheme and Dean's a good one. He'll probably see the field right away. While I still think Abner Logan's the better prospect, there's more cover at MIKE and could see that extra year of eligibility reserved.
The Future: Three of Maryland's starters are graduating next year, so it's sketchy. Tate, Hartsfield, and Drakeford are all scheduled to leave the program this season, and there aren't really ready-made replacements for any of them, save perhaps Twine for Tate. The rest ... well, we'll see.
It isn't like there's no one there to take up the reins. Quite the opposite, Maryland's completely stocked up on linebackers, with more than they could ever need. Thing is, we have no idea which ones will emerge, if any do, before Hart and Drake are gone. Abner Logan? Brock Dean? Avery Thompson? Roman Braglio? Who knows.
One thing is clear, though: Maryland has a potential superstar coming in with Yannick Ngakoue. Most analysts look at him as a middle linebacker, but he'll be a WILL in Maryland's scheme, which will allow him significant freedom in rushing the passer. That's his biggest strength, and you can expect him to be an athletic monster right away. If he keeps his head down and takes well to college, he could push for a starting spot there next year, especially without any proven competition at WILL.
Optimism: Experience and depth across the board, with competent 'backers manning the weak side and Kenny Tate stepping into a critical spot at SAM. No one's getting thrown into the fire for their first time, and there's no lack fo bodies either. It's not tough to see this group doing quite well.
Pessimism: Tate still needs to prove he can be an effective linebacker, let alone in a scheme that requires bigger guys near the line of scrimmage. If he struggles again, the LB corps becomes much weaker all-around. And that's not including any issues guys like Hartsfield and Drakeford could have transitioning to the 3-4, especially given that they're not great fits for the new positions.
Random, Baseless Prediction: It sort of all hinges on Tate, doesn't it? Well, the season hasn't start yet so I'll be the optimist: he takes to the scheme like a duck to water, making 70-odd tackles and 6 or 7 sacks. Hartsfield once again leads Maryland in tackles, though Drakeford doesn't get quite as much pressure on the QB as you'd want from a WILL. Goree and Farrand platoon, with Farrand coming in for run situations, and they combine for upwards of 100 tackles together.
Final Words: Other than a few question marks about new positions, I'm cautiously confident that things will work out fine at linebacker. Tate's health and his adaptability to linebacker is somewhat of a concern, to be sure, but there's no real truly weak position here and there's sufficient depth for anything other than a full-blown injury crisis. They should be at the very worst steady and their best potentially quite good. Expect the linebackers to combine with the line for one of the better front sevens in the ACC. Maryland might struggle at quite a bit next year, but their defense should be way better than they showed last year, especially against the run.