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Maryland’s defense continues to grow as program inches toward the “next step”

Defensive coordinator Brian Williams has made timely adjustments as his unit has surprised many in 2022.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Michigan State at Maryland Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Through five games, the third-best total offense in the Big Ten has been Maryland football’s calling card. But make no mistake, its defense has been clutch, steady and imperative to its success.

The Terps’ defense gave them a chance to compete against No. 4 Michigan on the road, but it shined against Michigan State at home. After allowing 13 points and having a surefire pick-six wiped off the board in the first half, the Terps clamped down in the second. Defensive coordinator Brian Williams’ group made the necessary adjustments to blank the Spartans and allow only 75 yards – including only eight in the third quarter – in the second half.

Skepticism whirled around the prospects of Maryland’s defense heading into the season. It wasn’t utter fright, but the Terps entered the season with a front seven that disappointed last year, two new starting safeties and multiple newcomers in the picture. Not only have the Terps dissipated those fears, but their defense has proved it could be the backbone of meaningful Big Ten wins.

For Maryland head coach Mike Locksley, his perception of the unit has remained confident and steadfast.

“It hasn’t changed,” Locksley said. “We knew that we had a veteran front seven. We’ve sprinkled in some really talented young players like [Jaishawn] Barham and Caleb Wheatland and Gavin Gibson has come in and played a lot of snaps for us. And then the two young safeties are both playing pretty well. We’ve still got a lot of room to grow, though.”

With more than half the season remaining, growth could very well be abound for Maryland’s defense. Perhaps the biggest area where this could happen? Playing a complete defensive game.

By points and yards measures, the Terps have been better in basically every second half compared to first halves this season.

Maryland’s 2022 defense, first half vs. second half

Game 1H Points/Yards Allowed 2H Points/Yards Allowed
Game 1H Points/Yards Allowed 2H Points/Yards Allowed
W1 vs. Buffalo 7 pts, 157 yds 3 pts, 111 yds
W2 @ Charlotte 14 pts, 190 yds 7 pts, 198 yds
W3 vs. SMU 20 pts, 336 yds 7 pts, 184 yds
W4 @ Michigan 17 pts, 234 yds 17 pts, 229 yds
W5 vs. Michigan State 13 pts, 246 yds 0 pts, 75 yds

Tons of credit has to be given to Williams for second-half adjustments, but curiosity lingers as to how the unit can be so different in the second half. To Locksley, it’s not too much of a mystery, and he credits it to both his defense being young and the nature of college football.

Locksley noted Tuesday that most coaches script offensive openers to begin the game, stressing defenses with “really exotic” looks and putting pressure on them to “check their oil” to how they adjust their alignments.

“It takes a minute to kind of calm down our defensive guys because we’re still — we started two true freshmen at inside linebacker a week ago,” Locksley said. “... With all the things that people do in these openers where they know where they want to be, it’s before they kind of get settled into what exactly they want to get accomplished during the game. It puts stress on the defense, and so our defensive staff has done a good job after being able to see the things that they’re trying to get accomplished, settling our guys down and then coming up with the necessary adjustments to make sure we’re sound.”

Williams was promoted to defensive coordinator in February after Kevin Steele spurned the Terps for Miami. Williams, who has been on the Terps’ staff since Locksley arrived at Maryland in 2019, was the co-defensive coordinator for the Terps in 2021 and served other previous roles with the program.

“Coach B-Dub” is someone that is loved by his players, and they’ll always make that clear. Senior defensive back Isaiah Hazel, who has been a Terp since 2019, says Williams’ attitude makes the biggest difference compared to the past.

“The way he approach the game, he loves the game. You can tell the way, you can tell he treats it like his life depends on it, like we all do,” Hazel said. “But the way he approach it and the way he come in that main meeting room and talking to the whole defense, it’s just a different feeling, especially on game day. He’s so passionate, like you can almost see him get emotional about it. So it’s like, when you see a coach like that, it’s like why not play for somebody that has that love for the game that you do. Like he shows that you really care … I love it.”

As Locksley mentioned, there are plenty of potential areas of growth for this defense. The Terps already have three interceptions and four forced fumbles, and they won the turnover battle against SMU, one that arguably decided that shootout. Still, they need to show that they can do that frequently in Big Ten play. But the Terps also had 15 crucial penalties, several defensively, in that game that could have hurt them. Maryland showed the other side of that with no defensive penalties at Michigan, but it needs to show consistency in that regard, too.

The Terps are chasing the perfect game in all three phases, with the defensive side being the biggest question mark. Still, many believe the Terps are playing as hard as ever and with an edge that hasn’t been seen in years past.

“Man, I feel like we want it more. I feel like we hungrier. We sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Hazel said. “Like Coach Locks say, and it’s like, we just want to see more, we want to see bigger things coming to University of Maryland. We want to see bigger players coming here, we want to see more fans. We just hungry to see it and we hungry for our own selves to find success into that.”

No one is expecting this defense to give up just 13 points per conference game. That would be special, and the team isn’t necessarily asking for special. They just need to contribute to winning football.

For example, take a look at last Saturday’s game against the Spartans. To start the second half, Maryland’s defense subsequently forced a three-and-out, a four-play drive and another three-and-out. The Spartans only had eight yards in the third quarter as Maryland was able to build a two-possession lead.

With the Terps making timely stops as they did, it allows their offense to dictate both the tempo and outcome of the game. Maryland’s offense has shown it can be methodical, and defensive performances like last Saturday’s adds another unique layer to the team.

“Oh, it’s awesome,” Tagovailoa said of how the defense helps the offense. “I mean, our defense is playing really good right now, and it’s a good feeling knowing that — especially when we have a good kicker in Chad [Ryland] — that we can get the ball past the 40 and we’re gonna come away with points. Knowing that if we continue to get third downs, make third downs and extend drives that it gives our defense rest. Because we know that when they come in the game that they’re gonna do their job.”

If Maryland’s defense can continue to play as hard and as well as it has, it won’t only help its offense, but it will build toward a winning culture.

“But I can tell you as a whole, because of the culture that’s been created down in that locker room, our guys are playing hard,” Locksley said. “We still got a lot of room to grow, and to me, we’re chasing it. We’re trying to chase that ability to play the perfect game, and we’re still a little further away than we want to be. But you know what, we’ll continue to work to get there.”