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With dominant duo off to the NFL, Maryland’s secondary will rely on its veterans

Maryland will have to recoup the production of Deonte Banks and Jakorian Bennett.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 15 Maryland at Indiana
Tarheeb Still is back at Maryland for his senior season this fall.
Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

To continue our Maryland football position previews after examining the team’s linebackers, we now take a look at what the upcoming season holds for the Terps secondary.

On paper, Maryland has one of the most experienced secondaries in the Big Ten, with all five expected starters being upperclassmen. But it will be without two of last year’s stars, Deonte Banks and Jakorian Bennett, who were both selected in this year’s NFL draft.

While the Terps had the sixth-most efficient pass defense in the conference last season, they left a lot to be desired statistically. They allowed close to 3,000 passing yards and managed nine interceptions, both of which ranked near the bottom of the league.

Safeties coach Zac Spavital also enters his first year with the Terps, but the question that remains is whether the mixture of familiar faces and new additions in Maryland’s secondary will create a unit that stands among the top in the Big Ten.

Maryland’s 2023 defensive back depth

Beau Brade Senior 85 tackles (49 solo), 4,0 TFL, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 2 FF
Tarheeb Still Senior 45 tackles (35 solo), 4.0 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU
Ja'Quan Sheppard Senior 50 tackles (17 solo), 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks (with Cincinnati)
Dante Trader Jr. Junior 62 tackles (34 solo), 0.5 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PBU
Corey Coley Jr. Junior 10 tackles (8 solo)
Avantae Williams Junior 9 tackles (7 solo) (with Miami)
Gavin Gibson Sophomore 15 tackles (13 solo), 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 3 PBU
Glendon Miller Junior (RS) 16 tackles (13 solo), 1,0 TFL, 1 PBU and 1 FR
Lionell Whitaker Sophomore 9 tackles (7 solo), 1,0 TFL, 1 PBU
Chantz Harley Sophomore (RS) 3 tackles (3 solo)
Tamarcus Cooley Freshman High School (3-star recruit)
Rex Fleming Senior 5 tackles (4 solo)
Caleb Atogho Sophomore N/A
Perry Fisher Freshman (RS) N/A
J'Mar Branion Freshman High School

The returning core is the key to success

Led by senior safety Beau Brade, a consensus preseason all-conference selection, Maryland returns a solid core in the secondary that should continue to improve in 2023.

Brade is likely to line up alongside junior Dante Trader Jr. at the safety position once again. Last season, the duo combined for nearly 150 tackles and four interceptions, making for one of the top safety duos in the conference.

As well, this season is make-or-break for Brade, who has a legitimate chance to be drafted in the top few rounds of next year’s NFL draft should he put together a season similar, or better than, his junior campaign.

Right behind Brade and Trader Jr. last fall was Glendon Miller, a promising option for the Terps at safety that could see his role increase this fall.

“We’ve got some experience in the safety positions, you know, and we’ve got some flexibility and some depth,” Spavital said in the spring. “So I mean, it’s an exciting time. I think we’ve got a lot of work to do back there, but I think what we’ll see is a little bit more competition than in the past.”

At the cornerback position, Tarheeb Still enters his senior season in a newfound leadership role. Last year he had the benefit of playing beside two NFL cornerbacks, but now he’ll likely have the task of taking on some of the toughest assignments opponents have to offer more often should he shift away from his previous nickelback role.

“I’m the oldest guy in the room now ... so I really just got to make sure these young guys are prepared and to make sure they give the right effort every day,” Still said. “[Bennett and Banks] showed me a lot, they led the way, so I gotta do the same.”

Gavin Gibson was often listed behind Still on the depth chart last season, but could also move outside should the staff feel more comfortable with Still on the interior. Lionel Whitaker is an additional candidate to step up and make more of an impact as a sophomore after playing the role of a frequent rotation piece during his rookie season.

Corey Coley Jr. is also back for his junior year after showing promise as a freshman but managing just 10 tackles as a sophomore, albeit with limited playing time, partially due to injury.

High-profile transfers seem destined for a heavy workload

While the aforementioned duo of Brade and Trader Jr. will do some heavy lifting at safety, there’s some intrigue at that position surrounding one transfer in particular — Avantae Williams. Williams was the top-rated safety in the high school class of 2020, but never found his footing at Miami, managing just 27 tackles in 17 games.

Maryland head coach Mike Locksley noted that Williams seemed to “get more and more comfortable” during team practices and “kept on making plays.”

Additionally, Cincinnati transfer cornerback Ja’Quan Sheppard figures to have a major role in his first year with the Terps. He comes to College Park with a solid resume to his name.

Last season with the Bearcats, Sheppard led the team with 10 pass breakups en route to an All-AAC first-team selection. He also recorded 50 tackles, 4 and a half of those resulting in a loss.

“He’s been a natural fit [at cornerback],” Locksley said of Sheppard.

Outside of Williams and Sheppard, few newcomers seem primed for major roles in the secondary this season. Tamarcus Cooley is the highest-rated of the unit’s four incoming freshmen, but the three-star prospect appears to be more of a building piece than an instant impact player.