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New Maryland coach D.J. Durkin's defense relies on excellent defensive backs

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At Michigan, Durkin's defense thrived on chaos and a great secondary. He'll have to adjust at Maryland, at least to start.

Bryan Fuller / MGoBlog

D.J. Durkin, the new head coach for the Maryland football program, is an accomplished and savvy defensive coordinator. His defense at Michigan this year has drawn lavish praise for its controlled schematic aggression, and the Wolverines finished this regular season No. 4 in total defense and No. 2 in defensive S&P+.

There's a lot to like about the notion of Durkin at Maryland. In a lot of ways, I think he's an impressive hire. In addition to his defensive exploits, Durkin is an ace recruiter and would bring a winning ethos to College Park. But based on what I've seen from Michigan this year (and what I've read from people way smarter than me), there's reason to think he'll have to change his scheme drastically to succeed in the short term at Maryland.

Durkin's Michigan defense requires excellent defensive backs

In a couple of ways, Durkin's Michigan defense is founded on having excellent defensive backs. Durkin uses his cornerbacks and safeties to create chaos against both the run and the pass, and that in turn helps Michigan's linemen and linebackers be better players. Maryland's defensive backs in 2016 are going to be young and not nearly as good as what Durkin has had with the Wolverines, and Durkin's hypothetical Maryland defense in 2016

At Michigan, Durkin has required his defensive backs to do a lot more than most college defensive coordinators would. All of his cornerbacks spend plenty of time in man-to-man coverage without any safety help. Many of this defensive backs play big roles in pass-rushing and run-stopping, and the Wolverines play a bunch of "cover 1," where there's just one safety backing up a bunch of pass-rushers and man-on-man cornerbacks.

Here are some examples from a few Michigan games this year. These plays have been cherry-picked to make a point, absolutely, but they're indicative of longer-term trends visible when watching Michigan this season:

Let's start right here at home. On this play, Michigan's in cover 2 – with two deep safeties – against Caleb Rowe and the Maryland offense. Michigan catches a pretty big break here, in that Rowe fails to notice an open receiver right in the middle of the field. But Maryland's receivers are otherwise blanketed, and Michigan's three-man defensive line (in a dime package) rushes Rowe. There's a safety around to help cornerback Jeremy Clark, but he doesn't even need it.

That's what happens when Michigan's corners get lots of help. Against Ohio State last weekend, Michigan demanded much more of them. Check out this formation against J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes' spread:

Michigan has just one safety here, standing at his own 19.5-yard line. Other than that, there are four totally singled-up cornerbacks (one is Jabrill Peppers, usually a safety but shifted to cornerback here). Ohio State has a bunch of talent at receiver and puts four of them on the field, but Durkin doesn't offer much safety help.

Now, roll it:

Neither of Michigan's two linebackers on the play drop into coverage. Barrett rolls out to his right, where he winds up staring at two receivers and two defensive backs in the flat right in front of him. That's two Buckeyes and two Wolverines. The window closes up pretty quickly, and Curtis Samuel can't make a catch in traffic against Peppers.

As James Light notes, Durkin loves lining up man-man-man against triple receivers on one side of the field. That, quite simply, is the kind of thing that doesn't work as well at Maryland as it does at Michigan.

Defensive backs against the run

Durkin also loves using his defensive backs against the run. In this sense, he's a lot like current Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi, who regularly schemes with a safety playing in the box as a de-facto linebacker. It's the kind of thing Maryland wasn't been able to do much of this year, because the secondary was too mediocre to give up bodies. (Maryland only had 16 defensive back tackles for loss all season.)

This play comes against a power formation, but I use it to point out a benefit Durkin has had with Lewis (26) at Michigan: defensive backs who can set the edge and effectively play as outside linebackers:

Durkin absolutely loves secondary blitzes. Here he is bringing Lewis (from the bottom of your screen) against Ohio State in the last game of the regular season:

On that blitz, notice how quickly Michigan's safety slides into Lewis's place to cover the Buckeye receiver. The quarterback appears to look that way immediately after pulling back on play-action, but the window is already closed. That's something Durkin probably won't have, at least not right away, at Maryland.

And here's Durkin having a safety sprint from the secondary before the snap, a la Troy Polamalu:

Durkin likes his defensive backs to be active. Here's his defensive footprint for the season:

Team Rk Nat'l Average
Std. Downs Run Rate 58.8% 74 60.1%
Pass. Downs Run Rate 36.7% 35 33.8%
Overall Havoc Rate 19.3% 17 16.1%
DL Havoc Rate 7.0% 20 5.1%
LB Havoc Rate 3.5% 88 4.5%
DB Havoc Rate 8.8% 9 6.4%

"Havoc rate" tracks how often players get tackles for loss, forced fumbles and defensed passes. It's a measure of how active players or units are. Michigan's defensive backs are hugely active, because they spend a lot of time hawking after the ball. So have been the linemen. But the linebackers, often pressed into pass coverage while defensive backs blitz, are a bit less involved. That's part of Durkin's scheme, too.

This doesn't bode terrifically for Durkin as a short-term Maryland fit. Cornerback Will Likely is the only returning starter in a secondary that didn't play well last season, and the Terps have a wide-open outlook at their No. 2 cornerback position and at both safety spots. It's a far cry from having Lewis and Peppers, and Durkin will undoubtedly have to make adjustments to avoid getting burned. But if Durkin gets the right players, like he had this year, the results can be impressive – a top-defense by both S&P+ and raw yardage. If that can happen it Maryland, this should work out.