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Maryland football’s defensive line was the team’s worst unit in 2016

Year 1 in a new system was rough for the Terps. But like most other units on the team, things should get better.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Central Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland football lost to Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26. With the regular season now firmly in the rear view, it’s time to enter postseason analysis mode. We’re doing a position-by-position evaluation of the team. Let’s check in with the defensive line.

The players

Name Pos Ht, Wt Year Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF
Name Pos Ht, Wt Year Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF
Jesse Aniebonam BUCK 6'3, 260 JR 35.5 4.60% 14 9 0 1 1
Roman Braglio DL 6'2, 262 SR 35.5 4.60% 5.5 3 0 0 0
Azubuike Ukandu DL 6'0, 307 SR 35 4.50% 4 2.5 0 0 0
Chandler Burkett DL 6'3, 245 JR 31 4.00% 4.5 3 0 3 0
Kingsley Opara DL 6'3, 300 JR 30.5 3.90% 11.5 3 0 0 1
Cavon Walker DL 6'2, 280 JR 24.5 3.20% 8.5 3.5 0 2 1
Melvin Keihn BUCK 6'1, 225 SO 17 2.20% 2 0 0 1 0
Brett Kulka DL 6'4, 260 SO 8 1.00% 1 0.5 0 0 0

The numbers

Stat Rating Ranking
Stat Rating Ranking
Def. Rushing S&P+ 76.2 127
Adj. Line Yards 76.3 128
Adj. Sack Rate 135.3 18
Stuff Rate 18.10% 76
DL Havoc Rate 6.30% 31

What we thought would happen

I figured the defensive tackles would be a strength of the team based on their sheer size:

David Shaw is back with the team after suffered a season-ending injury for the second straight season. Shaw started the team’s first four games of 2015 before a dislocated elbow (ouch) ended his season. But he's not guaranteed to reclaim his starting spot. In his place, Azubuike Ukandu and Kingsley Opara held their own, enough so that they very well might continue as the starters to begin 2016.

And then there’s the BUCK, a position that alternates between linebacker and defensive end:

This position requires a superb, versatile athlete to can rush the passer better than a typical outside linebacker and still be able to drop into coverage. It might not matter much who ends up as the starter, because Aniebonam and Keihn should both see plenty of playing time. And on passing downs, maybe we’ll see both of them on the field, lining up on opposite ends racing to see who can get to the quarterback first.

What actually happened

Even Bill Connelly thought Maryland’s run defense should be a strength.

We were all wrong. It wasn’t.

Maryland’s defensive line performed significantly worse than it did in 2015, contributing to a decline from 34rd in defensive rushing S&P+ to 127st. As in, second-worst in the country. Maryland’s rushing offense, which was one of the best in the country, averaged 4.9 yards per carry. The Terps’ defense gave up 4.8 yards per carry. Not great.

That’s not all on the defensive line, but it does bear a good bit of the responsibility. The front seven as a whole bears responsibility for that, as do DJ Durkin and defensive coordinator Andy Buh.

But the linemen got routinely moved around and pushed off the line of scrimmage. Here they are against Nebraska:

via BTN

And against Minnesota:


Now these are two cherry-picked examples, but they illustrate the lack of push Maryland’s line was able to get. That’s backed up by the team’s adjusted line yards ranking of 128, dead last in the country.

In pass rushing, the unit fared better. Jesse Aniebonam got nine sacks, an impressive number for his first season as a starter. Melvin Keihn was a capable backup at the BUCK, and could be in for more snaps next season.

What's going to happen next

There’s really one way to go, and that’s up. There’s reason to think they’ll improve here, too. The first year in a new system can be tough. With another year of experience, they’ll all be a little more comfortable.

If Aniebonam adds more run-stopping ability to his pass-rushing prowess, he’ll be a big weapon. With a full season under his belt, he could develop more into what the team saw from Yannick Ngakoue in 2015. There’s reason to think that with another season under their belts, Cavon Walker and Kingsley Opara should be able to anchor the defense. Chandler Burkett filled in at BUCK and at defensive end, and looks capable at either spot.

Looking further into the future, four-star recruits Cam Spence and Breyon Gaddy should provide a boost when they get to campus. So things should be trending up.