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Maryland’s revamped defensive line will rely on fresh faces to take a step forward

The Terps defense lacks starting experience up front.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 SMU at Maryland Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After examining Maryland’s offensive line Monday, we continue our football position previews by flipping to the other side of the line of scrimmage.

Maryland’s defensive line showed flashes in 2022, especially on the interior. But with starters Ami Finau, Greg China-Rose and Mosiah Nasili-Kite moving on, the Terps have some 300-pound holes to fill. The trio combined for a hefty 85 tackles (54 solo), 12 tackles for loss and five sacks last year, and won’t be easy to replace.

Only a handful of the returning defensive linemen received significant playing time last season, making virtually all of the starting spots up for grabs.

Maryland’s 2023 defensive line depth

Tommy Akingbesote Junior 14 tackles (9 solo), 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks
Quashon Fuller Junior (RS) 7 tackles (5 solo), 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks
Donnell Brown Junior 48 tackles (31 solo), 14.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 1 FF, 3 FR (with Saint Francis)
Tre Colbert Graduate 48 tackles (15 solo), 8.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks (with Angelo State)
Taizse Johnson Junior 4 tackles (2 solo), 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks
Isaac Bunyun Junior (RS) 7 tackles (6 solo)
Christian Teague Senior 3 tackles (2 solo), 1.0 TFL
Jordan Phillips Freshman (RS) 1 tackle (with Tennessee)
Daniel Owens Freshman (RS) N/A
Dillan Fontus Freshman High School (3-star recruit)
Lavon Johnson Freshman High School (3-star recruit)

More experience than meets the eye

Despite Finau, China-Rose and Nasili-Kite receiving the majority of the starts over the last two seasons, head coach Mike Locksley is not concerned about the current defensive line’s experience, or lack thereof.

“We rotated a bunch of players a year ago,” Locksley said. “Guys like Tommy Akingbesote was similar to a starter in terms of how much he played. Taizse [Johnson] played a ton of reps the last couple of years.”

Akingbesote is without a doubt Maryland’s top returning defensive linemen and a frontrunner for a starting role. He started at defensive tackle in Maryland’s Red-White Spring Game in April, where he tallied one of the white team’s four sacks.

In his sophomore campaign, Akingbesote started in two of his 12 appearances, recording 14 tackles (nine solo) and two sacks. In his first career start against Wisconsin, the 315-pound lineman racked up three tackles and one sack.

Redshirt junior Quashon Fuller tallied the other three sacks for the white team, flashing a potential emergence on the edge. While Maryland’s offensive line is questionable — and was incohesive in April — Fuller’s performance in the spring game is encouraging nonetheless, especially after recording just one sack last season.

The other defensive tackle to start alongside Akingbesote for the white team was junior Taizse Johnson. Last year, Johnson posted four tackles (two solo) and one sack in nine appearances.

Akingbesote and Johnson were both four-star recruits coming out of high school and should be a major part of the Terps defensive line, whether that be as starters or depth pieces.

As for some of the lesser-experienced linemen, Tennessee transfer Jordan Phillips gave insight as to why they could play a major role on the Terps defense as well.

“The unique thing about the University of Maryland is that in practice, you know, if you’re a guy who doesn’t really play like that, you’re still getting reps in like you’re a starter,” Phillips said. “A lot of the guys who are making appearances, you know what I’m saying, as starters now, you know, they’ve been playing a lot of snaps in last year’s practice consistently. So, you know, their faces might be new to the nation, but in all reality, they’re really veterans because they’ve played so many snaps.”

This statement applies to redshirt junior Isaac Bunyun and senior Christian Teague. While neither received much playing time last year, combining for 10 tackles (eight solo), they could take on larger roles in 2023.

It’s clear Locksley and defensive coordinator Brian Williams have prepared the entire unit to be ready when called upon.

How will the newcomers fit in?

Maryland picked up three defensive linemen through the transfer portal this offseason, two of which are ripe with experience.

Graduate Tre Colbert has the most playing time under his belt. Colbert appeared in all 17 games over the last two seasons for Angelo State (Division II), totaling 95 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He was also a 2022 All-LSC first team defense selection.

Junior Donnell Brown also brings significant experience, transferring from St. Francis (Pa.). In three seasons there, Brown racked in 99 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. He could be a prime candidate to successfully make the jump to the FBS level and become an impact player.

While both Colbert and Brown could earn significant playing time, the most talked about transfer this offseason has been Phillips. The Tennessee transfer did not receive much playing time during his lone season in Knoxville, but seems to already be scaling the Terps depth chart.

“Jordan has a lot of leadership qualities. He works extremely hard,” Williams said. “He’s not afraid to let guys know when they’re not getting it done, and then at the same time, if someone sees him not getting it done, he takes it. So, trust is built.”

As someone who was heavily recruited by the Terps out of high school, it should come as no surprise if he becomes a vital piece of Maryland’s defensive front.

In addition, the Terps are adding two incoming freshmen to the unit in Dillan Fontus and Lavon Johnson. Both were three-star recruits in the class of 2022, but it’s Fontus who seems to have caught the coaches’ eyes.

“I think you’ll see some of these young players, like Dillian Fontus, who came in in the spring,” Locksley said. “You’ll see his development kind of expedite itself because of the size and strength that he comes in with and being in our weight room.”

While Maryland’s defensive line is facing a complete turnover as far as starters go, there is still room for optimism with some fresh faces stepping into bigger roles.