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Maryland’s veteran defensive line is showcasing its versatility

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After losing Jesse Aniebonam, the Terps’ other seniors have stepped up.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland football entered the 2017 season with more experience on the defensive line than at any other position. The Terps’ front four was all seniors with starting experience, including two regular starters returning from last year.

Those plans didn’t make it out of Week 1 before crashing down. Jesse Aniebonam, whose eight sacks in 2016 led the team, broke his foot in the third quarter of Maryland’s season-opening upset at Texas. He’s out for “several months,” which most likely translates to the rest of this season.

So head coach DJ Durkin and defensive coordinator Andy Buh had to get creative.

“We’re always messing with our depth chart, trying to get the best 11 on the field,” Buh said Wednesday. “Obviously losing Jesse is a big void, but we have enough personnel that we’ve been able to grab some guys from different positions that we feel are part of the best 11 and train those guys at that position and give them a shot.”

In Maryland’s first defensive series against Towson, the front had a new look. Without Aniebonam at BUCK—the hybrid defensive end/linebacker position seemingly tailor-made for him—Chandler Burkett moved across the line from strong-side defensive end into that spot. Cavon Walker shifted to defensive end from defensive tackle, with junior Mbi Tanyi taking his place inside. Only nose tackle Kingsley Opara was in the same spot as the week before.

Burkett saw time at BUCK last year, but spent spring and fall camp at defensive end, lining up with his hand in the ground before every play. He’s listed as at least a co-starter at both positions on this week’s depth chart, splitting the title at BUCK with junior Melvin Keihn and freshman Bryce Brand.

“It’s a long season. You’re gonna need guys to step up in places they haven’t before,” Burkett said. “It’s just part of being a leader and part of being a good teammate.”

It’s still early in the season, but the results are encouraging. A run defense that struggled mightily last fall has allowed fewer than 100 yards on the ground in both of Maryland’s first two games, and opponents are averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. The pass rush has been effective as well, tallying nine sacks.

On Saturday, this revamped front four will encounter a different sort of challenge in UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton. The sophomore made his first career start in last year’s matchup against Maryland, and he’s established himself as a dual threat since then. The Terps had their issues with mobile quarterbacks last year—Milton included—so they’ll do everything they can to keep the elusive sophomore in the pocket.

“I think it’s more of a discipline thing. Guys can’t get greedy,” Opara said. “We all get greedy. We’re all defensive linemen. We’re all hungry and we want to eat. So we see the quarterback and we want to make the play there, but sometimes it’s not always meant for us to make that play.”

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Aniebonam is still around and helping his teammates prepare. While the senior won’t get to be the on-field leader he expected to be this season, he’s doing his best to help the Terps outside the hashmarks.

“He says to me, it’s like he’s never been out,” Opara said. “Jesse’s still upbeat, in good spirits and has a big smile on his face, so that’s always great to see.”

Since being sidelined, Aniebonam has helped Burkett acclimate back to the BUCK position. That guideship and the early bye week have Burkett feeling like he never left that spot. The techniques don’t differ much between the two positions, so it’s been an easy transition.

“As long as my effort’s good and it’s consistent,” Burkett said, “I’ll be able to do most anything.”