Going into what has become the most bizarre offseason in college football history, Maryland head coach Mike Locksley added 57 new players (29 on scholarship) to his roster.
The second-year head coach is laying down the foundation for the future as he continues the program’s rebuild, bringing in 39 freshmen (20 on scholarship) for the 2020 season.
Most of those first-year Terps are defensive backs, with seven scholarship players — along with JUCO transfer Jakorian Bennett — joining the position room led by Henry Baker, who is new to the coaching staff but quite a familiar name in College Park. He was a two-year starter at defensive back for the Terps from 1994-97, and he worked directly with Locksley as a recruiting intern in 2001.
But rather than beginning to work with the team and coaching staff in person, the group, which includes one four-star recruit in Osita Smith, along four three-star recruits, had to take in a defensive scheme far more complicated than the one they played in high school over Zoom.
To put it lightly, major improvement is needed at the position in 2020. Last season, the Terps allowed 271 passing yards per game and allowed opponents to complete 65 percent of their passes, marks that each ranked 116th out of 130 FBS schools. The team also only forced 1.3 turnovers per game, ranking 90th in the FBS and second to last in the Big Ten in that category.
“It was an Achilles heel for us a year ago,” said defensive coordinator Jon Hoke.
Antwaine Richardson was out for the year after tearing his ACL in April, 2019, and Tino Ellis — now on the practice squad for the Miami Dolphins — suffered an upper body injury in October. With two key players out and continued errors from the group in games, Locksley turned to his underclassmen.
Underclassmen Terps like Nick Cross, Tahj Capehart, Deonte Banks and Lavonte Gater each saw significant playing time throughout last season.
Cross, the highest ranked player of the class of 2019, was one of the younger players who really came into his own. He led the team with two interceptions and pass breakups in his debut season.
“Every game [Cross] played last year, as you saw, by the end of the year, he was playing at a really high level, he got better and better,” Locksley said. “And to me, that’s what building a program is all about. It’s about, you know, each and every player developing during the course of their time here. And I think you saw that with Nick.”
Still, the entire group struggled and was a huge cause of Maryland’s 34.6 points per game allowed on the year.
Hoke emphasized in August that the defense needs to work on limiting explosive plays, both in the run and passing game, and forcing turnovers. But another aspect of Hoke’s coaching philosophy with this year’s defense is an added sense of relentlessness in pursuing the ball-carrier, wanting his guys to impose their will on the opponent lined up across from them.
Richardson, the only senior defensive back, will play a crucial role in preparing the group to make such improvements. Eager to stay involved in the game and around his teammates, he became a student-coach last season, which helped him develop a deeper understanding of schemes, game plan installment and the intricacies of being a coach at the Power Five level.
Both Locksley and Richardson have noted how much the experience changed the way the safety he sees the field, allowing the game to slow down even more entering his fifth year in College Park.
Now, almost a year removed from his stint as a coach, Richardson is clearly the team’s leader both on and off-the-field. In addition to helping his new teammates learn the playbook, it was important to the Delray Beach, Florida, native to spend time providing support as a mentor, whether that be advice over Zoom or on the field, which included extra one-on-one work with some players.
“My message to the freshmen is, ‘Just keep your head up,’ because when I was a freshman, I didn’t have to deal with this.” Richardson said in August. “‘Don’t panic, don’t stress out. Just give all faith to God that he will get us through this tough time right here.”
That presence is vital in helping the young defensive backs continue to develop, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Antwaine knows every every position on the field,” Capehart said. “So any questions, anything, we just go to Antwaine. He brings the energy. He’s the leader of the group basically. So I’m definitely glad Antwaine is back on the field with us.”
Though it might take some time, the Terps defensive backfield may just be able to weather the losses of graduates Antoine Brooks Jr., Tino Ellis and Marcus Lewis. Richardson and Cross are expected to spotlight the position, while junior Jordan Mosley, who had 48 tackles last season, and JUCO transfer Jakorian Bennett should also see significant roles.
The live, in-game experience gained by the likes of Capehart, Banks and Gater provides depth, and while it remains to be seen how big of an impact Smtih, along with three-star defensive backs Beau Brade, Devyn King and Tarheeb Still, can have, the defensive back position is set up for years to come.
“We’re a tight knit group,” Cross said. “We’re more athletic this year, and I think that we’ll have a good time playing together with each other.”