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Maryland football’s defensive line remains its biggest question mark entering 2019

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The Terps lost all four starters to graduation or transfer this offseason.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 04 Maryland at Rutgers Photo by Daniel Kucin Jr./Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Maryland football’s 2019 season starts in 47 days. It’s the first year of the Mike Locksley era, and fans are hopeful it can be the start of something special. Once again, we’ll be spending our summer running through the Terps’ position groups as fall camp approaches.

We’ve finished the offense, having looked at quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and offensive linemen. Now it’s time to switch sides of the ball and examine the defensive line, which has more questions than answers with the season a month and a half away.

Maryland’s 2019 defensive linemen

Player Year Position 2018
Player Year Position 2018
Brett Kulka R-SR DE 4 games, 7 tackles (5 solo/2 ast), 0.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks, FR
Keiron Howard R-SR DE/DT 12 games, 22 tackles (11/11), 3.5 TFLs, 2 sacks
Oluwaseun Oluwatimi SR DT 12 games, 22 tackles (12/10), TFL, sack, 3 FFs
Sam Okuayinonu JR DE Junior College (3-star recruit)
Lawtez Rogers R-SO DE 10 games, 8 tackles (5/3), TFL, sack
Breyon Gaddy R-SO DT 10 games, 6 tackles (6/0), FF
Brandon Gaddy R-SO DT 10 games, 2 tackles (1/1)
Cam Spence R-SO DT DNP
B'Ahmad Miller R-SO DE 3 games, 2 tackles (0/2)
Jalen Alexander R-FR DE/DT DNP
Anthony Booker Jr. FR DE High School (3-star recruit)

(Editor’s note: Bryce Brand and Tyler Baylor are listed as defensive linemen on the team’s online roster, but we’ll be including them with JACK linebackers next week).

Maryland’s defensive front has been a weakness these last few years.

Maryland pass rushers have recorded just 34 sacks in the last two seasons; the Terps’ 16 sacks in 2017 were tied for 113th in the FBS, while their 18 last season tied for 114th. Even considering how often opponents dropped back, Maryland’s sack rate was still 102nd in the country. The last Terp to record four sacks in a season was Jesse Aniebonam with nine in 2016, and only Jermaine Carter Jr. (a middle linebacker, not an edge rusher) reached 3.5.

The run defense, meanwhile, was abysmal in 2016 and still below-average the last two seasons. Maryland ranked 127th in defensive rushing S&P+ in DJ Durkin’s first season, then improved to 92nd in 2017 and 86th last fall. And if placing 113th in rushing marginal efficiency and 100th in stuff rate says anything, it says the defensive line struggled to stop opposing backs often enough.

The group was hit by both graduation and attrition in the offseason.

Maryland started three seniors in 2018 — Aniebonam, Mbi Tanyi and Byron Cowart (who was actually listed as a junior for half the season). After Cowart revitalized his career during his lone season in College Park, he was selected in the fifth round of the NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. Aniebonam and Tanyi, meanwhile, are fighting for professional spots of their own.

That trio left plenty of experience and production to replace, but Maryland still had a handful of veterans in this position group during the spring. However, senior Adam McLean — a returning starter who would at least have competed for a spot in 2019 — transferred from the program, while Oseh Saine (23 total tackles last season) has been off the roster since spring ball. In addition, defensive tackle Austin Fontaine, the Terps’ top defensive recruit in the 2018 class, moved to offensive guard after injuries on the other line and looks to be staying there.

The Terps have options, but they’re largely unproven.

Spring practice provided a chance for several relatively inexperienced players to make a name for themselves. Redshirt sophomore defensive end Lawtez Rogers and senior defensive tackle Oluwaseun Oluwatimi (a former walk-on) earned the coaching staff’s award for Best Defensive Lineman. Redshirt senior Keiron Howard started alongside Oluwatimi in the spring game at defensive tackle. And sixth-year senior Brett Kulka will return from injury to compete for the end spot in fall camp.

With the lack of returning experience, there are plenty of other players who could earn a spot on the two-deep. Twin defensive tackles Breyon and Brandon Gaddy saw time in 2018, while Jalen Alexander spent his rookie season bulking up for Big Ten football. Cam Spence, a four-star recruit in the 2017 class, still has potential if he can finally stay healthy. And newcomers Sam Okuayinonu and Anthony Booker Jr. could have a path to immediate playing time at defensive end.

Still, the lack of known quantities in this position group makes it perhaps Maryland’s shakiest on the roster. For the Terps to reach their potential in Locksley’s first season, they’ll need some of their big men to step up.