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Maryland football debuts 4-3 defense in Richmond opener

For the Terrapin defense, it's a new year – and coordinator, scheme and players.

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Keith Dudzinski has a big job in front of him. It's been more than sixth months since Randy Edsall named him Maryland's defensive coordinator, more than six months since Maryland decided to scrap Edsall's traditional 3-4 alignment for a 4-3 look with an extra down lineman and one fewer linebacker. On Saturday against Richmond, Dudzinski finally gets to use it. Like a new baseball glove, Maryland's new defense might take some breaking-in. To Dudzinski, that's routine.

"There's always going to be adjustment," Dudzinski said. "You're going to have to adjust week to week whether you have experience or not. You're going to see different offenses every week. One week you're against the power run game, the next week you're going to be in spread. There's always going to be tweaks and things you have to do."

Dudzinski's challenge isn't just installing a new system, though. It's installing new starters at eight positions, even though a few of those have extensive experience elsewhere in the lineup. Yannick Ngakoue and Jesse Aniebonam, Maryland's best defensive recruits in the past few seasons, shift full-time to defensive end. Quinton Jefferson, injured last season, shifts from end to tackle. Sean Davis moves from safety to cornerback, and A.J. Hendy fills the gap he leaves.

But nobody on Maryland's defense is due for a bigger helping of fresh responsibility than Jermaine Carter, the junior inside linebacker who effectively replaces two graduated seniors at that spot and will act as Maryland's communicative maestro around the line of scrimmage. The 4-3 formation's lone inside linebacker, Carter will take cues from the Terrapins' sideline and run through pre-snap checks and audibles with the rest of his unit. Last year, he played primarily special teams, while Cole Farrand and L.A. Goree occupied the middle of Maryland's formation.

"I've sat behind them and watched them for two years, and now it's my time to go," Carter said. "Hopefully, I can do as well, or maybe a little bit better. It's no knock on those guys, but you're always trying to get better every year."

In theory, the most neglected player in a shift from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 is the remaining inside linebacker. The two outside backers don't lose any help, and everybody on the line benefits immediately from an extra body. However, Carter said that difficulty can be a misperception, because Maryland doesn't lose a net of any defenders inside the box.

"It's not as much of a difference as people [think]. Just because you say it's 3-4 or 4-3, it's just different numbers. We still have another guy on the inside. He's just not considered an inside linebacker anymore."

In the middle of the field, Carter will get help from Jefferson, tackles David Shaw and Kinglsey Opara, and presumably WILL (or weak-side) linebacker Jefferson Ashiru, a Connecticut transfer. Carter isn't on an island.

"He's starting to become more of a vocal leader," Dudzinski said.

No matter how smooth the transition turns out, it starts with a second-division opponent this weekend. That could allow for experimentation and mistakes, but Dudzinski spoke highly of the Spiders' offense. They've got two well-regarded receivers, Brian Brown and Reggie Diggs, who topped 1,000 yards in an FCS playoff run last year. Running backs Seth Fisher and Jacobi Green each averaged better than 4.6 yards per rush.

"We're trying to plan on seeing what we broke down on tape, getting ready for different formations, run plays," Dudzinski said. "There's a lot of similarities from them to our offense which is good. All summer long we got some different looks on run games and pass concepts."

Maryland struggled to defend the deep pass last season, and the presence of Brown and Diggs (who both had catches longer than 50 yards) means Maryland's secondary probably ought to stay on its toes Saturday. Since a 4-3 defense sacrifices a linebacker who could drop into coverage, that alignment can make teams vulnerable against good quarterbacks. Richmond's Kyle Lauletta has the first crack at it, but Carter dismissed the numbers concern.

"I don't feel like our pass coverage will suffer. Most people already know they're the probably the most experienced group on the team. I think that just gives them a better edge," he said. "We've just got to communicate, and if we communicate, we shouldn't have any problems in pass coverage."

The Terps will benefit from the return of senior safety A.J. Hendy, a long-ago top recruit who missed last season due to suspension. Maryland doesn't distinguish between strong and free safety, but it figures Hendy will help defend balls over the top of the formation and Anthony Nixon will work closer to the defensive box. Diggs, a 6'4 downfield threat, could test Hendy and 5'7 cornerback Will Likely, who's used to covering bigger receivers.

"A.J.'s been very consistent," Dudzinski said. "We're always trying to harp on our guys about fundamentals and technique. It's about having good eyes, good eye discipline, being in good stances, playing low, making sure you have good leverage on your receivers and all those types of things. I think A.J.'s doing a great job, and I've seen a lot of improvement from the whole secondary."