It's been four years since the Maryland football team last had to truly break in a new starting safety. Sean Davis and Anthony Nixon started alongside each other from 2012 through 2014, and when Davis moved to cornerback last season, Nixon stayed put and Davis' replacement, A.J. Hendy, was a four-star recruit with extensive experience.
That's not the case this year, with Nixon, Hendy and Davis all gone. At spring practice, Maryland has rotated players in and out of the safety spots, as everyone from the roster's defensive backs to scout team running back Tehuti Miles has gotten a chance.
But Josh Woods, a rising junior, has emerged as a leading candidate to start. He practiced often with the first-team defense last week alongside Denzel Conyers, and this Tuesday, he was still there, most frequently working opposite Jarrett Ross, who has typically played cornerback in the past.
Woods has emerged. But whether he keeps the starting job or not, Maryland will have an entirely new safety crop, and DJ Durkin's coaching staff has made it clear that roles are up for grabs.
"That was definitely a big thing," Woods said after practice on Tuesday. "Coming in, they told us, you guys lost a lot so everything's completely open. Coach Durkin, the first thing he told us when he got here was there's no such thing as a previous depth chart. Everyone's starting brand new."
Woods came to Maryland as a cornerback in the class of 2014, and he played in eight games, mostly on special teams. He found himself on the two-deep depth chart when injuries cut into Maryland's cornerback ranks late in the season, but he never established himself there. Randy Edsall's staff moved him to safety last season, and now he's got a shot to play.
Durkin's background is on defense, and he and defensive backs coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim have a green secondary to work with. Cornerback Will Likely, who's been hurt this spring, is the only returning starter. Likely's spot isn't available, but virtually everything else in the secondary (and nearly on the team) probably is.
"I think anytime you have a position group where it's not like there's an incumbent, yeah, it creates more competition because guys believe they have a better opportunity. They're doing that. They're competing really well," Durkin said. "They're learning a lot of new things. The way we play in the secondary is new to them, so there's a lot of things we need to work on, but they're very willing and a very coachable group. I've been spending time with them, so if you look at where we were Day 1 to now, there's great improvements in that group. Josh, I like and Josh is really doing well for us and competing and being a leader."
Woods said he's developed a close relationship with Abdul-Rahim ("That's my boy") and has done the same with his secondary-mates. Under new strength coach Rick Court, one of Maryland's habits during offseason weight workouts was to have players lift in their position groups, and Woods said that did a lot to build cohesion.
"They always kept us together, so when we were dying in the weight room, my brothers, Denzel, Darnell Savage, Jarrett Ross, they were always right there, keep it going, keep it going, right there, keeping us going," Woods said. "So that translates over to the field."
Maryland's season opener against Howard is a full five months away. To the extent it's possible in spring practice, Woods has stuck out and made himself into Maryland's front-side starter at the position. To keep the job, Woods will have to keep pushing.
"I'm trying to create unsettling feelings too," Durkin said. "When they're starting to get settled, I'm trying to throw a wrench in the works there, too."