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Can Maryland football's secondary hold up behind 2 potential lockdown cornerbacks?

Will Likely and J.C. Jackson give Maryland a potentially excellent cornerback duo. The team’s pass rush and safety play will determine how good the secondary can be.

Maryland v Indiana Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It wasn’t long ago that Maryland’s secondary looked like one of the shakiest units on this 2016 Terrapins football team.

The Terps’ pass defense was outrightly bad in 2015, and the secondary was a big part of the badness. They gave up 8.1 yards per attempt and 254 per game, both 104th of 128 FBS teams. The defense was 75th against the pass in efficiency -per efficiency-based S&P+ – better but still nowhere near good. Opposing quarterbacks threw for a 144 rating.

Then starting cornerback and second-round NFL pick Sean Davis exhausted his eligibility, and so did starting safeties A.J. Hendy and Anthony Nixon. That left Maryland with only top cornerback Will Likely remaining, and though he’s been Maryland’s most productive defensive back for three years running, there wasn’t much behind him.

Enter J.C. Jackson, the former four-star Florida signee who’s never actually played a major college down. Maryland head coach DJ Durkin was the defensive coordinator in Gainesville when Jackson signed there in the class of 2014, before legal troubles sent him to junior college and now, two years later, is in College Park.

The word from Maryland’s practice fields this August is that Jackson may be the best player on the team. Whether he’s that good nor not, Jackson is a clearly terrific athlete, and if he can’t cut it as a starting Big Ten cornerback, it’ll be a stunner.

If you stick Jackson opposite Likely, that’s probably two cornerbacks who can cover good receivers all by themselves a lot (not all) of the time. And if you’re a defense like Maryland’s that plans to play with just one high safety, that means everything.

Likely and Jackson should be good, but who else is going to play?

Maryland still needs two new safeties to emerge. One is going to be Josh Woods, a converted corner who’s impressed Durkin as far back as spring practice.

Next to Woods could be any number of players. Denzel Conyers, a 6’3 senior who’s previously played some linebacker, took a lot of those repetitions in spring ball and looked like a decent bet. But another converted corner, Darnell Savage, looks like he’s pulled ahead for the time being.

From the outside, we’re flying a little bit blind here. Savage, a sophomore, has played just 10 career games, all at cornerback, with one start. Woods has played 14 games in his first two years on campus, pretty much all of them on special teams. He looked fluid in the spring, but how any of Maryland’s new safeties will do is still hard to say.

The pass rush could stand to make things easier on the back end.

The top two sack-getters on last year’s team, Yannick Ngakoue and Quinton Jefferson, are playing in the NFL. Fortunately for Maryland, there’s depth behind them.

Junior Jesse Aniebonam could emerge any time as a dominant edge rusher, and senior Roman Braglio has been a solid contributor for a few seasons now. Virginia Tech transfer Melvin Keihn has been in a position battle with Aniebonam for an end spot, and Keihn seems primed for good things, too.

Yet the shoes they’re filling are pretty big. Ngakoue set Maryland’s single-season sacks record with 13, and on the whole, Maryland’s adjusted sack rate was 14th in the country last year. It was 10th on passing downs.

Without Ngakoue and Jefferson, it’s tough to imagine this front causing more chaos for quarterbacks than it did last year, and that could trickle down to harm the secondary. That’s no fault of anyone’s, but it will probably happen.

Maryland needs to get hands on more passes. The Terps are due for INTs.

On national average, 21 to 23 percent of all passes defended turn into interceptions. That means if a defender gets his hands on 10 passes, he should catch two of them, unless you believe (for some reason) that all of a team’s defenders have either really great or really bad hands.

In 2014, Maryland broke up 68 passes and only picked off nine, for a ratio of 12 percent. In 2015, it broke up 38 passes (a really bad drop off) but still intercepted nine, for a more regular ratio of nine picks on 47 passes defended (19 percent).

The natural translation: Maryland needs to break up more attempts. If Maryland defenders can get a hand to, say, 65 passes and intercept 20 percent of them, that’ll be 13 interceptions – four more than in either of the last two years, and potentially the difference in turning around the scoring margin in one or two games.

Likely went all of 2015 without a single interception, despite breaking up 11 passes. In 2014, he only got his hand on 15, but six of them turned into interceptions.

Football is kind of a dumb sport sometimes, and it’s not wrong to expect Likely’s interceptions total to bounce a bit in 2016. That’d be a good place to start if Maryland’s pass defense is going to take a necessary step forward.