COLLEGE PARK, MD - SEPTEMBER 05: Matt Robinson #40 of the Maryland Terrapins celebrates during the closing moments of the Terrapins 32-24 win over the Miami Hurricanes at Byrd Stadium on September 5, 2011 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
1 - Matt Robinson* (So., 6-3, 225)
2 - Clarence Claiborne (Sr., 6-0, 210)
3 - Sean Davis (Fr., 6-1, 185)
4 - Zach Dancel (So., 6-0, 185)
1 - Eric Franklin (Sr., 6-2, 215)
2 - Undray Clark (rFr., 6-0, 190)
3 - Anthony Nixon (Fr., 6-1, 200)
The Prospectus: Here's where the questions return for Maryland. Having lost two primary cornerbacks and a bunch of depth from a team that struggled to defend the pass already, some real concerns in the secondary.
For starters, there's not much in the way of depth to begin with, and we've already seen injuries starting to take their toll. Matt Robinson - the World's Most Experienced Sophomore™ - is slated to miss the opener, and given his injury record, who knows if he'll make a quick return. In his stead, A.J. Hendy and his head-hunting ways will be moved over to safety, where he played last year - but then he walked off shaken up after Saturday's scrimmage. Odds are good that Hendy will be ready by Sept. 1, but the possibility of starting a true freshman at safety is a good indicator that this isn't a very deep bunch.
And there are concerns up top, too. Let's start with the obvious one: who's the second starter across from Dexter McDougle? Johnson, an untested sophomore, and Goins, a JuCo transfer, are listed atop the depth chart and one of them are nailed on to start against W&M; but if Robinson can get back quickly and he isn't indisposed himself, I wouldn't be surprised to see Hendy make a run at it. He's probably the most athletic and dynamic player in Maryland's back four, and is actually the most proven of the three as well. I have my concerns about him as a cover guy, but physicality would combine with the other three to at least solidify the secondary with an identity: physicality. No matter which way this cuts, I'll be nervous: none of the three have ever started a game at cornerback, and we've seen very little of them at the position.
The good news is that the #1 corner spot is completely locked down. I'm a huge Dexter McDougle fan; he's a good, probably not great, cover guy, but he's a big-time playmaker and really physical. The guy just plain makes things happen, and while he can be beaten by a good receiver, he's far from a liability. I'd feel more comfortable if he was the ol' Dominique Foxworth-esque lockdown corner, but with the state of Maryland's secondary elsewhere, I'm not going to complain. That side of the field is settled, thankfully.
As far as the safeties go, though, how good Maryland looks will depend on who you ask. Franklin was Maryland's second-leading tackler last season, and for good reason; he's a bigger safety and has traditionally played nearer the line of scrimmage, and after Matt Robinson went down with injury he was asked to do most everything in the secondary. He was a bit underrated given the huge amount of responsibility he was given, and I'm not significantly worried about him as a senior. That doesn't mean he's necessarily an asset, but there are more pressing concerns.
Like the other safety spot. Robinson's returning from a season-ending injury, which forced him out of action after only three games last year; now he's out again. With any luck, it'll only be for the opener and he'll be back ticking within no time. He was Maryland's leading tackler throughout the first three games and could be consistently counted upon to make tackles downfield - which meant he had a fair amount to do, given Maryland's inconsistent front seven. Hendy filled in toward the latter half of the year in this spot, and while you could see some problems with discipline, you could also see an explosive, playmaking safety in the making. But this should be Robinson's gig if he's fit to play.
The thing is, neither Franklin nor Robinson are really effective against the pass. Neither has the speed to be a center fielder covering the top, nor the technique or athleticism to cover receivers man-to-man. Normally I wouldn't be too concerned, but with some questions at cornerback and an aggressive defense that won't leave too many extras back in coverage, I'd feel a lot better with a safety who could be relied upon to cover deep routes. If an offense tries to stretch the field against Maryland, they might find some success.
That said, I do like the physicality that Maryland's secondary brings, which they lacked at times last year. Even if they won't be technically or athletically as good as some of their opponents, I don't think you can get tougher, rougher, stronger, and more confident than a back four including McDougle, Hendy, Franklin, and Robinson.
The Future: Eric Franklin is the only departing senior from this bunch, and with Sean Davis and Zach Dancel behind him, there's a good chance Maryland already has an adequate replacement on the roster. Next year, with a senior McDougle and more settled corner across from him, Maryland should be steadier. And by the time McDougle graduates, Hendy, Robinson, and Johnson will all be seniors with plenty of experience.
There's no difference-maker in the pipeline, which may concern some who are desperate for a shutdown corner. But if Maryland can finally seal the deal with Michael Parker, they'll add a safety who can take over for Robinson (or maybe even challenge him, or step in for Franklin) and not really miss a beat. Through with depth in the form of Milan Collins and last year's recent additions, and there's a decent base here moving forward regardless.
Optimism: Dexter McDougle has the potential to be an all-ACC corner, while Eric Franklin and Matt Robinson will make running the ball very difficult when they both get up-and-running. And there's more toughness and - forgive me for using the term - swagger here than Maryland's had in years, which should scar some offenses.
Pessimism: McDougle aside, I'm not sold on the secondary's ability to defend the pass. Unfortunately, that is their primary goal.
Random, Baseless Prediction: The starting four, when all healthy, is McDougle, Hendy, Robinson and Franklin, but I doubt they'll all stay healthy for very long - especially the safeties. Hendy often rotates back, with Isaac Goins coming in as the #3 corner. McDougle is the star we all hope he can be, but the other pieces aren't settled and Maryland has a bottom-40 passing defense.
Final Words: Unfortunately, I can't help but feel Maryland's biggest weakness defensively comes in the secondary. It's not necessarily a bad unit - they should be very good against the run and will ate least rough their opposition up - but there are enough scare points that I'm genuinely concerned heading into the year. They were fairly bad last year against the pass, and while I don't necessarily think they got worse, it's a tough sell that they actually got better through losing Cam Chism, Titus Till, and Trenton Hughes.
Maybe Robinson was more influential than any of us assumed, and his eventual return will be a catalyst toward bigger things this season. Who knows. I'm not really expecting a porous secondary to give up tons of yards, but unless they can find a #2 corner and get some overachieving performances, I fear that they can be exploited.