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Maryland football is hoping for a quick turnaround at defensive end in 2018

The Terps were terrible at pressuring quarterbacks last season, but that might change drastically.

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

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect confirmation that Melvin Keihn is leaving Maryland football.

Welcome to Defensive Ends Week at Testudo Times. Our summer preview series has taken us through the entire offense, from quarterbacks to running backs to receivers to the offensive line. Because Maryland has nearly 20 defensive linemen listed on its roster, we’ve decided to split that group up. We’ll discuss the ends this week and will spend next week at defensive tackle.

Let’s talk about the guys who are, theoretically, in charge of getting after opposing quarterbacks.

Maryland had basically no pass rush in 2017.

This was hardly even an area of concern at this time last year, as the Terps had Jesse Aniebonam, a top-notch pass rusher who had nine sacks in 2016. But he broke his ankle in the season opener against Texas and missed the rest of the season, and the ramifications of his absence were more catastrophic than anyone could have imagined.

In Maryland’s first two games of the 2017 season, the defense had nine sacks. The Terps finished the season with just 16. Really, that was it. Only Nebraska had fewer among Power 5 teams, with 14 (Rutgers and Syracuse also had 16). Even this total oversells a unit that produced seven total sacks in its last 10 games.

Linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. led the team with 3.5 sacks last year. Rotational defensive lineman Keiron Howard (who we’ll include next week when we shift inside) had two, and three players had 1.5 each. One of them, Seun Oluwatimi, still isn’t on scholarship. Another, Andrew Isaacs, was a converted tight end who didn’t see much time outside the second half against Towson. The other was actual defensive end Chandler Burkett. Six players had one sack. It was rough.

But this could quickly become a position of strength.

Aniebonam earned a medical redshirt and will play one more season at Maryland. Then, on the new National Signing Day in December, the Terps added their likely starter on the opposite side.

Byron Cowart was the No. 3 overall recruit in the Class of 2015, but didn’t pan out at Auburn. He left the Tigers last fall, and he’s technically a junior college transfer, although he didn’t play any JuCo games in 2017. Maryland seemed to be the only team willing to take a chance on Cowart, but his performance in spring practice was certainly encouraging.

Aniebonam and Cowart are far from sure things. But if they can stay healthy and produce, they’ll form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the conference.

Behind them are players of all different experience levels.

Melvin Keihn has left the program after splitting time at BUCK—the hybrid defensive end-linebacker position that we’ve been referencing casually for almost three years now—with Aniebonam in 2016 and rookie Bryce Brand last year after Aniebonam’s injury, with Burkett sliding across the line periodically. With Keihn gone, that leaves Aniebonam, Brand and perhaps freshman Durrell Nchami at this spot.

Keihn’s departure means Brett Kulka is the only senior in the group besides Aniebonam. Kulka recorded a career-high 30 tackles last year and has a chance to better that number in 2018. He’ll be pushed by Tyler Baylor, a high three-star recruit who joined the team in the summer. Then there’s the duo of B’Ahmad Miller and Lawtez Rogers, both of whom redshirted last season.

It’s possible we see some names at these positions that come over from either defensive tackle or linebacker, and a few players mentioned here could drift to one of those spots as well. But this looks like the group that will be tasked with bringing Maryland’s pass rush back to life.