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Maryland football has some question marks behind its leader at linebacker

Right now, it’s Jermaine Carter Jr. and everybody else.

maryland football spring game practice
Jermaine Carter Jr.
Alexander Jonesi

Hey guys, spring practice is underway, so we’re going unit-by-unit and projecting what we think the depth chart will look like at each position in 2017. We’ll include notes from spring practice where we can. We looked at the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, offensive linemen and defensive linemen, and now we’re onto the linebackers.

Maryland’s linebackers were unspectacular last season. Under DJ Durkin and Andy Buh, the Terps transitioned from a 4-3 defense to a 4-2-5 base defense. It didn’t go so well.

As good as the Terps were at running the ball, they were even worse at defending the run, with the nation’s second-to-worst Rushing S&P+, which measures how the rush defense performed as a whole. Of course, some of that falls on the defensive line, but the linebackers are responsible for not tackling the ball carrier as well. The linebackers also had the lowest havoc rate on defense, either recording a tackle for loss, forcing a fumble or defending a pass at a 107th-best 3 percent clip.

The players

Departures: Brett Zanotto (transfer), Gus Little (transfer)

Returning players: Isaiah Davis, Jermaine Carter Jr., Jalen Brooks, Antoine Brooks, Brett Shepherd, Matt Gillespie, Steve Baca

Players who might be returning but were ruled academically ineligible for the Quick Lane Bowl and who haven’t been at spring practice yet: Shane Cockerille

Transfers: Nick Underwood

Incoming freshmen: Ayinde Eley

Projected linebackers depth chart

Depth chart
Depth chart
First team Jermaine Carter Jr. Isaiah Davis
Second Team Shane Cockerille Nick Underwood
Third team Jalen Brooks Brett Shepherd
Fourth team Ayinde Eley Antoine Brooks
Fifth team Matt Gillespie Steve Baca

Here’s why

Jermaine Carter Jr. led the unit with 82 tackles, nine tackles for loss, six sacks, one interception, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He looked a bit out of place at times last season, but entering the second year in a new defensive scheme, Carter is the unquestionable leader of the defense and top option at linebacker. Also, he can do this:

After him, things get less clear. 2016 starter Shane Cockerille is still on the team, but was ruled academically ineligible for the Quick Lane Bowl and hasn’t been participating in spring practice while the rest of the linebackers have been working to take his starting spot.

With Cockerille out, Isaiah Davis was the next man up in the bowl game. Entering his redshirt sophomore season, he’ll likely take on an expanded role.

When Maryland switched up its front and played a more traditional 4-3, Jalen Brooks was often the third linebacker on the field. His 20 tackles were the third-most of the unit last season, and his two pass breakups may indicate that he’ll see the field more on passing downs.

Then there’s Nick Underwood, a Junior College transfer to Maryland from Riverside Community College — the same school defensive back JC Jackson transferred from. He was a tackling machine there, but it remains to be seen if his great play will translate to this level.

The reality is that Carter will likely be on the field more than any of the other linebackers and Cockerille, Davis, Brooks and Underwood will all see plenty of time as well.

And then there’s everybody else. Brett Shepherd played sparingly last season, totaling two tackles. Antoine Brooks, who also made two tackles last season, is continuing his road back from a nasty leg injury that ended his high school career. Freshman Ayinde Eley is also on the recovery trail after missing his entire senior season.

Key battle: Cockerille vs. Brooks vs. Davis vs. Underwood for the second linebacker spot

While Carter is the definite Batman here, the opportunity to be his Robin is up for grabs. Cockerille, Brooks, Davis and Underwood all have solid cases to make for why they should be that guy, and while there will almost certainly be a rotation, only one of them is going to start each game next to Carter.

With everybody on a level playing field, Durkin may opt to go with the more experienced player next to Carter, meaning Cockerille or Brooks would get the nod over Davis and Underwood. It’s not clear right now and a bunch of things can change between now and September, so this feels like it’s a wait-and-see type of situation.

Big question: Will the unit produce more big defensive plays this season?

Carter and Cockerille led the unit in tackles last season, with 82 and 80, respectively. But beyond Carter Jr.’s lone interception and two forced fumbles, the unit didn’t contribute much to the defensive stat sheet last season other than a handful of collective pass breakups.

Perhaps in the second year under Durkin and Buh, with the addition of co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Brumbaugh and Eley and Underwood, the linebackers’ havoc rate will improve.

Maryland will also play a better schedule than last season and, in turn, will be facing more talented offenses, which are probably less likely to turn the ball over, so maybe the havoc rate will remain close to where it was this season, or — gasp — get worse.