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Maryland football’s linemen could be the key to its defense

The Terps will rely on experience in the trenches to rush the passer and stop the run.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Virginia Tech at Maryland Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After examining the Terps’ offense heading into 2022, we continue our football positional previews by flipping to the other side of the ball to preview what to expect from Maryland’s defensive line this fall.

Maryland returns a handful of starters from last year’s unit, but it will need them to step up after the graduation of their best defensive lineman — Sam Okuayinonu. He led all Terps at the position in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. His loss, along with the departure of Darrell Jackson to Miami, leaves a void that needs to be filled, but an experienced group alongside a few younger options will look to do just that.

“Sam [Okuayinonu], he left us with a great example of what it is to be a defensive lineman here at Maryland,” senior Greg China-Rose said. “We’re all just trying to get into this spot, you know, just trying to match his intensity that he brought every day, match the type of physicality he played with every day.”

Maryland’s 2022 defensive line depth

Ami Finau Senior 40 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF
Mosiah Nasili-Kite Senior (RS) 37 tackles, 7 TFL, 4 sacks
Greg China-Rose Senior (RS) 28 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 FR, 1 TD
Henry Chibueze Senior 18 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2 sacks (with Liberty)
Quashon Fuller Junior 8 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack (with FSU)
Tyler Baylor Senior (RS) 9 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack (6 games)
Anthony Booker Jr. Junior (RS) 9 tackles, 1 TFL (5 games)
Taizse Johnson Sophomore 8 tackles (5 games)
Isaac Bunyun Sophomore (RS) 6 tackles, 1 INT (6 games)
Riyad Wilmot Sophomore (RS) 4 tackles, 0.5 TFL (4 games)
Tommy Akingbesote Sophomore 3 tackles (3 games)
Zion Shockley Freshman (RS) 1 tackle (1 game)
Austin Fontaine Senior (RS) N/A
Daniel Owens Freshman High School (3-star recruit)
Christian Teague Junior 5 tackles (with Morgan State)

Veterans lead the charge in the trenches

The Terps return three defensive linemen that performed well last season and were able to stay on the field for its entirety. Seniors Ami Finau, Mosiah Nasili-Kite and Greg China-Rose will all look to take the next step in their development and bolster Maryland’s rush in a league known for its physicality and athleticism in the trenches.

Nasili-Kite was a Preseason All-Big Ten selection, landing on Phil Steele’s first team and Athlon Sports’ fourth team. He had seven tackles for loss last season, leading all returning players. If Nasili-Kite’s game continues to evolve, he could very well be the Terps’ top defensive lineman this season and has the potential to be one of the best in the Big Ten.

China-Rose also returns for his redshirt senior season after a five-sack 2021 — the most of any returning player. His performance last season earned him a nomination for the Burlsworth Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top college football player that started their career as a walk-on.

Finau completes the trio of returning starters on Maryland’s defensive line. He was a 2021 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection after tallying 40 tackles, five tackles for loss and a sack to go along with a forced fumble. He, like Nasili-Kite, is looking to become an even greater threat to the Big Ten’s many talented offensive lines.

In addition to the returning corps of defensive linemen, a pair of transfers will join the unit this fall. Senior Henry Chibueze comes from Liberty, where he made 18 tackles and added two sacks for the Flames in 2021. Junior Quashon Fuller also transferred to Maryland from Florida State this offseason. The former four-star recruit — listed at six-foot-two, 270 pounds — has all the necessary tools to break out and provide a boost to the Terps’ pass rush.

“I think when they all came here, they all understood what we were trying to get accomplished,” China-Rose said of the transfers joining the team for the 2022 season.

The less experienced defensive lineman that could see meaningful playing time are numerous. Sophomores Taizse Johnson, Isaac Bunyun, Riyad Wilmot and Tommy Akingbesote will all need to be ready to step in and make a play when called upon. The same applies to junior Anthony Booker Jr. and redshirt senior Tyler Baylor, as well as redshirt senior Austin Fontaine, who has transitioned to defensive line after primarily blocking as a reserve tight end and right guard throughout his career.

Defensive line play could set the tone for the Terps’ defense as a whole

Whether it’s against Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell or any of the many other talented quarterbacks in the Big Ten, the Terps will need to have an effective pass rush — or they risk putting their defensive backs in a vulnerable position. Additionally, a weaker performance by the defensive line on running plays puts more stress on the linebackers — a position with lots of question marks following a season that saw numerous contributors go down with injuries or transfer from the program.

The general expectation for Maryland this season is that its potentially elite offense will need to support a defense that could be shaky. But, if the Terps’ defense plays up to a higher level than expected, they could find themselves winning a few more games than predicted. A team’s defensive line often sets the tone for the rest of the unit, as their play — more than perhaps any other on defense — can disrupt an opponent’s rhythm. In short, Maryland’s defensive line production could prove to be among the most important to the team’s success anywhere on the field.

Maryland’s defensive line should be familiar with the person calling the plays this season, as defensive line coach Brian Williams was promoted to defensive coordinator this offseason.

“We stand behind him through thick and thin. We’ll go to war for coach [Williams] anytime, any day of the week,” China-Rose said. “The defense rallies behind him because he’s never lied to us. He’s always kept it very transparent.”

That familiarity adds to the continuity seen among the experienced big men in the trenches for the Terps this fall. The players and coaches will need to be on the same page to make sure the defense lives up to its potential this season, with many pointing to the uncertainties on that side of the ball as a potential weakness for the Terps.

“We have tremendous alignment in our defensive staff room right now,” Williams said, praising the cooperation among the defensive coaches. “We’ve got a lot of experience and we’ve got some youth. We’re able to kind of touch every gauntlet, if you will, in terms of just being able to connect with our players and being on the same page. And because we’re all very familiar with the system, now we can talk through differences a lot easier and understand and see it the same way.”