Maryland safety Josh Woods will make his first collegiate start in Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Purdue. It’s the homecoming game, and the junior’s parents and friends from back home in Baltimore will be coming down to see him. Woods says he’ll try to approach it as just another game, but there’s still something more special about it.
Woods is in this position because teammate Denzel Conyers suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the Terps’ most recent game at Central Florida. The two safeties battled for the starting spot all offseason and grew close off the field, which made Conyers’ injury sting that much more.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Woods told reporters Wednesday. “Denzel, I can’t name a DB who worked harder this offseason. I know it means a lot to him. It sucks. I didn’t want it to come this way, but I’m definitely ready to step up. First collegiate start … I’m definitely excited.”
It’s a start years in the making for Woods, who still has memories of his first high school start at McDonogh as a junior wide receiver. He recalls catching his first touchdown and jumping into the arms of current Terps walk-on wideout Michael Cornwell. Woods was a two-way star in high school, earning All-Metro honors as a defensive back.
When he arrived in College Park, he switched to defense full-time, which was a difficult adjustment. Woods played eight games as a freshman and six as a sophomore, although most of that action was on special teams. He recorded four tackles in 2015.
Woods says it wasn’t until this past offseason that he truly learned to play safety. He studied the position by watching tape of Sean Taylor, Ed Reed and Tyrann Mathieu, among others.
“I just tried to see what they did differently,” Woods said, “and how I can make my game like theirs.”
Through spring and fall camps, Woods rotated with Conyers and Darnell Savage; there were two starting spots for the taking among the three. They all took snaps with the ones and twos, and in the end it came down to “critical pluses and minuses,” or plays made versus plays missed. Woods narrowly lost that race, but the battle to some extent spilled over into game weeks, where the trio continued to rotate in practice.
“Josh is no stranger to competition,” senior linebacker Jermaine Carter said. “Him and Denzel competed throughout the summer for the starting job, and obviously Denzel got it, but Josh still came in and made plays, and when we go into different defensive personnel, Josh always comes in the game.”
Despite starting the season opener on the bench, Woods posted a team-high seven tackles against Howard, including one for a loss. He added three tackles at FIU and one at UCF. He didn’t enter that contest until after Conyers went down, but he held his own and was lauded by his teammates and coaches after the game for minimizing the drop-off in play.
“We all saw it [against UCF]. Josh Woods came into the game midway through and we didn’t miss a beat,” defensive coordinator Andy Buh said. “I think that says a lot. It told us a lot. He went in there and was really productive for us, didn’t make any mistakes.”
The severity of Conyers’ injury was realized shortly after the UCF game, and a Week 4 bye allowed Woods to emotionally and physically prepare to be the starter. The bye week allowed him to hone his technique and improve chemistry with the rest of the first unit, so when Saturday’s game kicks off, there won’t be a lot of discomfort in the secondary.
“I definitely feel like I’m ready,” Woods said. “I don’t feel like ‘Oh, this is a huge role.’ It’s football. It’s the same game I’ve been playing since I was a little kid. I’m definitely ready to step up and show everybody what I can do, especially at homecoming.”
Purdue will probably throw more than a few balls his way. The Boilermakers offense is pass-heavy, and it’s common practice to pick on less-experienced defenders. Woods is ready for this.
“They can test me if they want,” Woods said. “It’ll be fun. Maybe not for them, but it’ll be fun.”