Spring practice storylines: Maryland's revamped defense

Bob DeChiara-US PRESSWIRE

Our preview of what to watch for in Maryland's spring practice starts off with an overview of Brian Stewart's big task: replacing six defensive starters and turning a new-look, inexperienced unit into a cohesive defense.

We're still in the throes of an intense rollercoaster of a basketball season, but football, and the ever-present optimism of its blank slate, isn't far off. Maryland just released its full schedule yesterday, and spring practice is right around the corner - the Terps will officially return to action on Saturday, getting healthy, blooding in youngsters, learning schemes, and resolving position battles. To get you ready - and provide a nice breather from the hectic world that is basketball right now - we'll preview a few of the big storylines we'll be following throughout the spring, starting at something of an unexpected place.

The obvious and most prominent focus in spring practice seems to be Maryland's offense and, in particular, quarterback situation, and with good reason. The Terps are loaded with talent in the skill positions and have the potential to be a major force offensively, and of course their quarterbacks have a ... notable, let's say, history. That's the glamorous side of the ball to start with, and it'll certainly prove to be the more intriguing one for most Maryland fans.

But today we look to the other side: to the Terps' unassuming and largely overhauled defense.

Brian Stewart was a revelation in his first year in College Park, overseeing a stout unit that was a huge factor in Maryland's four wins last season and was statistically amongst the best in the conference. His 3-4 scheme, while shoehorned in a bit to the Terps' personnel, proved largely successful, and his own playcalling nous was plenty promising itself. The Terps finished 3rd in the ACC in total defense and 6th in scoring defense, despite very little backup from an offense that struggled to score or even possess the ball for long periods.

The real work for Stewart, though, begins now.

It's a stretch to say that any new coordinator in his first year should enjoy the success that Stewart did, regardless of the circumstances, but he certainly did have the deck stacked in his favor. The Terps' defense was stacked with both talent and experience, with a front seven that featured five seniors, including some of the most productive and talented defenders College Park has seen in the past decade. What's more, while Maryland did have to face some pretty high-octane offenses last season, they also faced the dregs of the dregs, with four of their opponents in the bottom 25 nationally in total offense. Suffocating performances against those helped to cover for what happened when the Terps faced elite offenses late in the year, when they gave up 33 to Georgia Tech, 45 to Clemson, 41 to Florida State, and 45 to UNC.

There are a lot of mitigating factors there, to be sure, from injuries to team morale to offensive protection, but either way there's still a question over just how elite Maryland's defense was last year. Regardless of that, though, one thing's clear: this season's defense isn't last season's defense. And that's where Stewart's challenge lies.

Joe Vellano, the rolling ball of butcher knives who made so much of the scheme just work? Gone. A.J. Francis, the charismatic talker who constantly made a nuisance of himself in opposition backfields? Gone. Demetrius Hartsfield, who ran the show at middle linebacker? Gone. Darin Drakeford, who took like a turtle to water at the critical WILL spot? Gone. Kenny Tate, Eric Franklin, Isaiah Ross? Gone, gone, gone.

Some key positions remain intact, especially in the secondary. But elsewhere, the Terps will largely be starting over.

For sure, it helps that key reinforcements are on their way. Yannick Ngakoue has the potential to start, or at least contribute, from Day One; ditto Will Likely, who actually is already on campus and will surely be a topic of spring discussion. But more importantly, they'll also get a few big pieces off the training table and back onto the field: Keith Bowers, Andre Monroe, Justin Anderson, A.J. Hendy, and Matt Robinson, all of whom missed much or all of last year with injuries, are back, and that will give Stewart some flexibility and extra options when it comes to filling the departed seniors' roles.

In fact, there's actually no lack of talented options when it comes to replacing the departed contributors. Andre Monroe had one of the best freshman seasons of any Maryland lineman ever, remember, and Keith Bowers has been a fixture himself when he's been healthy. Cole Farrand came into his own at the back half of last season as a tackling machine; Alex Twine has put together a reputation as a playmaker; Abner Logan is an exciting young prospect. And freshmen like Ngakoue and Jermaine Carter have shown enough as recruits to be possible options.

But raw talent is one thing. Experience is entirely another. None boasts half of the experience of the likes of Vellano, Francis, Tate, Hartsfield, and Drakeford; heck, few are even proven as a starter at all. None, not even Ngakoue, aren't can't-miss types, and that means that there will be plenty of experimentation going on for Brian Stewart and his assistants - especially in these early days, and potentially even (though hopefully not) once the season's started.

What's particularly worrisome is that the players Maryland has to replace aren't just its starters; they're its stars. Stepping up from a reserve to a starter, like Darius Kilgo did last year, happens a lot, but the transition from starter to star is decidedly more difficult. If Maryland were just searching for five or six starters, things wouldn't be too worrisome; problem is, they'll be searching for cornerstones every bit as much as they'll be searching for starters. You can replace Joe Vellano, but it's very difficult to replace the influence he had on the defense. Maryland not only has to do that, but also try to replace the influence that Demetrius Hartsfield and Darin Drakeford and A.J. Francis had, too.

That said, there's reason to be optimistic, too. Departures were thankfully light on the secondary, which was the Terps' most troubled unit last season and should improve substantially. Jeremiah Johnson, Dexter McDougle, Isaac Goins and Alvin Hill all return to cornerback, and one of Maryland's best recruits in Will Likely is ready to contribute immediately, too. Both of last year's nominal starters, Eric Franklin and Matt Robinson, are gone - Franklin to graduation and Robinson to linebacker, where he'll presumably step in as the favorite to replace Kenny Tate at SAM. (Unlike Tate, who excelled at safety, Robinson has always seemed like a better fit at linebacker, so that move is promising.) Anthony Nixon and Sean Davis, who both started multiple games last year, will be back and will be better; Zach Dancel will be eligible, too, and A.J. Hendy healthy. While there are no guarantees, there's little comparison between last year's secondary and next year's - you'd take the current batch every day of the week and twice on Saturday.

There's also the improvement effect of having a second year in Stewart's 3-4 scheme. Generally, the second year under a defensive coordinator is the one in which things really start to click, with Don Brown's second season being the poster child. That may not hold quite so strongly in this case, given that Maryland's blooding in a lot of new talent, but the pieces who are back will be much more familiar with the system. That should increase the efficacy of the scheme and Stewart's tactical decisions, plus give him more freedom to call games as he sees. And it should certainly help make up some of the difference in experience and talent.

But for spring ball, what's more important is the personnel, in particular finding replacements for the Old Guard that departed last year. Stewart's first spring practice in College Park last season was a crucial one, as Maryland learned his system. This one is nearly as important, though obviously for very different reasons; the Terps were trying to figure him out last time around, and this time it's him trying to figure out them. Figure out who'll replace the departed six starters, figure out who'll be the centerpieces of the team, figure out how to find the right balance between size and explosiveness.

Maryland has the talent on offense to score points next year. Stewart's task is to make sure the defense, while unlikely to be as good as last year's, can be stout enough to help those points translate into wins. And that job starts Saturday.

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