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Jim Harbaugh loves Scott Shafer, but his Maryland defense faces big challenges

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Maryland's new defensive coordinator doesn't have the same sterling record as new head coach DJ Durkin.

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Scott Shafer, the Maryland football program's as-yet unofficial new defensive coordinator, has a long history coaching on that side of the ball. He's been doing it since he was a defensive backs coach at Rhode Island in 1993, and he spent the last seven seasons as the defensive coordinator and then head coach at Syracuse. With Shafer, there's now a lot of data.

Scott Shafer's Defenses by S&P+ Rank
Year Rank Program
2005 107 Western Michigan
2006 62 Western Michigan
2007 85 Stanford
2008 57 Michigan
2009 57 Syracuse
2010 56 Syracuse
2011 81 Syracuse
2012 66 Syracuse
2013 67 Syracuse
2014 33 Syracuse
2015 70 Syracuse

That goes back to 2005, when Shafer was the defensive coordinator at Western Michigan. It frankly isn't a great record of defensive play, at least not by S&P+, an efficiency- and explosiveness-based metric that draws on play-by-play data from every game and is adjusted for opponent strength. Other than an above-average unit in 2014, Shafer hasn't coached anything better than a mediocre defense in 11 seasons.

So, what's been the issue? Let's try to zero in on Shafer's tenure at Syracuse.

Scott Shafer's Syracuse Defenses
Year Passing S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Total S&P+
2009 89 13 57
2010 55 51 56
2011 85 54 81
2012 72 53 66
2013 59 56 67
2014 26 76 33
2015 112 94 70
Average 71.1 56.7 61.4

It's immediately clear that Shafer's defenses at Syracuse were better against the run than the pass. That makes a good bit of sense, since Shafer's defenses have operated under a 4-3 scheme that removes a linebacker (and therefore a pass coverage tool) and focuses on stopping the run. Still, the run defense was no better than average, while Shafer's passing defense was consistently not good – hitting a nadir this past season. Syracuse fielded some absolutely egregious defenses in the years before Shafer got there, though, and his run there marked an overall improvement.

Given that DJ Durkin has traditionally coached 4-3 defenses, too, there's no reason to expect a scheme change from Maryland next season. And given that Maryland will lose at least three starters from a secondary that gave up 258 air yards per game and ranked No. 77 in S&P+ last season against the pass, it's probably reasonable to expect Shafer to again struggle to stop opposing vertical pass games. His defenses have never been good at that. Last year, this happened:

Via SB Nation's Bill Connelly, here's a look at Shafer's Syracuse defensive footprint last year:

Team Rk Nat'l Average
Std. Downs Run Rate 60.9% 56 60.1%
Pass. Downs Run Rate 29.2% 108 33.8%
Overall Havoc Rate 15.7% 75 16.5%
DL Havoc Rate 6.3% 41 5.2%
LB Havoc Rate 3.2% 98 4.6%
DB Havoc Rate 6.1% 77 6.5%
PD to INC 29.2% 94 32.8%

Havoc rate is a team's "total tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays." It's designed to measure how aggressive and involved players on a given defense are, and Shafer's Syracuse defense appears to have been significantly less aggressive than Durkin's havoc-wreaking Michigan defense was last year.

Team Rk Nat'l Average
Std. Downs Run Rate 61.2% 53 60.1%
Pass. Downs Run Rate 30.6% 97 33.8%
Overall Havoc Rate 16.8% 51 16.5%
DL Havoc Rate 6.9% 24 5.2%
LB Havoc Rate 3.1% 101 4.6%
DB Havoc Rate 6.6% 54 6.5%
PD to INC 29.4% 92 32.8%

The two teams had almost identical footprints, with Maryland's being just slightly more aggressive overall.

Durkin's defenses thrive on making chaos happen. Shafer's defenses don't appear to be the same way, although they could be similar to what Maryland put on the field under Keith Dudzinski last season. Shafer's first Maryland defense could struggle mightily against the pass, but it'll be interesting to see how his style jibes with Durkin's own.

Jim Harbaugh, who was rumored to be interested in hiring Shafer as Durkin's replacement as the Michigan defensive coordinator, once upon a time gave a glowing endorsement of Shafer, dubbing him "one of the most creative and innovative defensive minds in the country."

Shafer's record doesn't match that, but maybe he'll break through in College Park.