After the 2015 season, Maryland’s secondary was shrouded in uncertainty. The program graduated three starters, and the unit was suddenly lacking experience.
Will Likely, Alvin Hill and Darnell Savage Jr. saw the most playing time out of anyone in the group in 2015, and they all played corner—not safety.
The battle for the second cornerback spot figured to be between Hill and Savage, while the team still needed two new starting safties. When JC Jackson transferred in and grabbed another starting cornerback spot, a change was warranted.
Durkin told Savage privately that he was going to switch from corner to safety, then brought him out in front of the team to announce it. From the beginning of the team’s fall practices, he seemed to have a starting spot locked up.
“As far as the transition, I don’t think it was that hard because wherever you play, you have to know what everyone else is doing, too. Either way, you have to know the whole defense,” Savage told reporters Tuesday. “Playing safety definitely helped me focus more on that because you have to make some of the calls.”
In a Durkin-run defense, Savage is part of a five-man starting secondary, with Jackson and Hill on the outside, Likely at the nickel corner and Denzel Conyers at the other starting safety position.
While Savage (listed at 187 lbs.) brings more of a pass defender’s experience while Conyers (listed at 212) has more of a run-stopper’s mentality, the two have to be able to balance stopping the run with stopping the pass. They’re both first-time starters, but they’ve excelled so far.
“I’ll give credit to us hanging out more,” Conyers said. “We have groupchats and stuff, so outside of football we’re building a bond, so it makes it easier on the field.”
And although it’s been against inferior competition, Maryland’s secondary’s been pretty good so far. In Bill Connelly’s advanced metrics, the team ranks fifth in the country in opponents’ passing explosiveness, and 24th in opponents passing success rate. Those are opponent-adjusted stats, so even though the opposition hasn’t been challenging, the Terps have done their part.
Through two games, Savage has been the team’s third-leading tackler. He hasn’t registered a pass break-up or an interception yet, but he hasn’t been burned either. FIU completed passes of 30 and 32 yards against Maryland last week, but neither came with Savage in coverage.
Durkin’s defense involves a lot of movement in the secondary, and that’s an area where Savage’s experience at corner helps him. He can play deep as Maryland’s last line of defense or he can play up on a receiver similar to how a corner would.
“It gives us a lot of versatility back there; I’m really pleased with Darnell and it really says a lot about him as a person as a teammate that he didn’t even flinch on [moving to safety],” Durkin said after the team’s first fall practice. “He has the ability to play corner for us and that’s a matter of being able to mix and match and move guys around, which I definitely like to do on defense.”
Against UCF, Savage faces the challenge of facing an offense that doesn’t have much of a passing presence. He might be required to make more tackles, but the defense can’t totally sell out to stop the run. When UCF runs a fake, Savage has to be back to account for the middle third of the field.
“Play-action passes can go over your head real quick, so I just try to do my job,” he said. “Coach always talks about us being the roof of the defense, so we gotta keep everything in front of us."