2015 Terps Football: Linebackers Preview
The University of Maryland has seen many talented linebackers come through its football program over the years. Shawne Merriman, D’Qwell Jackson, and E.J. Henderson are just three players who have stood out over the years at the position. After running a linebacker-centered 3-4 defensive scheme over the past few years, the team will be moving to a more defensive line-heavy 4-3 scheme in 2015. However, that does not diminish the importance of talented linebackers, it only changes the role that each player will play. While some of the Terrapins’ most talented linebackers are now playing on the defensive line in the new scheme, there is plenty of talent at the linebacker position for Keith Dudzinski’s new unit.
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In a 4-3 defensive scheme, the strong-side linebacker will, as the name suggests, line up to the strong side of the offense’s formation. This means that this player will usually be covering a tight end. Therefore, he must be good in coverage. However, since most offenses primarily run to the strong side of their formation, he must also be able to stop the run. It is for this reason that the strong-side linebacker is the most physical of the team’s linebackers. When a 4-2-5 “nickel” formation is used, the strong-side linebacker is the one taken off of the field and replaced with a defensive back.
Jalen Brooks – Redshirt Sophomore
2014 Statistics: 21 tackles (0.0 for loss), 0.0 sacks, 0 interceptions, 0 fumbles forced, 2 passes broken up
While just a redshirt sophomore, Brooks is projected to be Maryland’s starting strong-side linebacker in 2015. His size and coverage ability make him a great fit for this position. He was a 3-star recruit out of North Gwinnett High School in Georgia in 2013, and has bulked up from 205 pounds to 234 pounds in just a few years. Brooks appeared in 12 games last season, starting four of them. He played outside linebacker last season, but will play a very different role at the same position in 2015. He will be counted on in coverage a lot more than he was in 2014, and will be less of a pass-rusher. Brooks seems to fit the 4-3 scheme better than the 3-4 scheme, and should adjust very easily to Dudzinski’s new system.
Brock Dean – Redshirt Junior
2014 Statistics: N/A
While he has only seen action in one collegiate football game, Dean is one of the hardest workers on Maryland’s football team. His size and physicality will serve him well as the second-string strong-side linebacker in 2015. He will likely see significant competition from freshman Mbi Tanyi, but Dean’s experience will be the reason that he winds up as Brooks’ backup. Most of his playing time will come on special teams this season, where his work ethic will cause him to have a big impact.
For the past few years, the Terrapins have used two different inside linebackers in their 3-4 defensive scheme. This season, the team will use just one middle linebacker, and the role that he will play is much different from the one that he has played in the past. In a 4-3 defensive scheme, the middle linebacker is the most versatile player on the field. He is the quarterback of the defense, and is responsible for relaying all relevant information to his teammates. He is also relied upon to cover tight ends and slot receivers over the middle, and to stop inside runs by the offense.
Jermaine Carter, Jr. – Redshirt Sophomore
2014 Statistics: 27 tackles (0.0 for loss), 0.0 sacks, 0 interceptions, 2 fumbles forced, 0 passes broken up
Just a 3-star recruit out of Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, DC in 2013, Carter has grown into an excellent linebacker for the Terrapins in just a few seasons. He saw action in all of the team’s 13 games last year, and led the team with 2 forced fumbles. His size and physicality make him a great run-stopping middle linebacker, but he also possesses enough intelligence and coverage ability to take on the variety of responsibilities entailed in being the starting middle linebacker for a 4-3 defense.
Jefferson Ashiru – Redshirt Senior
2014 Statistics (Connecticut): 47 tackles (3.5 for loss), 0.5 sacks, 1 interception, 0 forced fumbles, 0 passes broken up
The Terrapins got some much-needed depth help at linebacker this season when Ashiru transferred to College Park from Connecticut for his senior season. He brings 2 years of starting experience with him, along with an excellent skill-set for the middle linebacker position. While he likely won’t beat out Carter for the starting job, his senior leadership make him a great option as the primary backup at the position.
The weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 scheme plays a similar role to the same position in Brian Stewart’s 3-4 schemes. While some 3-4 defenses use two big pass-rushing linebackers at both outside spots, Stewart usually elected to have a better coverage linebacker on the weak-side in his defenses. For the past few years, former safeties have occupied the position (Kenneth Tate and Matt Robinson). This allowed him to operate in either a 3-4 style or in a 3-3-5. This season, the weak-side linebacker will be relied upon primarily to cover slot receivers and occasionally to stop the run. This player will typically be the most athletic linebacker on the roster.
Abner Logan – Redshirt Junior
2014 Statistics: 5 tackles (0.0 for loss), 0.0 sacks, 0 interceptions, 0 forced fumbles, 0 passes broken up
The only upper-classman among the projected starters at linebacker for the Terrapins in 2015, Logan brings experience and a 4-star recruiting ranking with him to the weak-side linebacker position. His agility and coverage ability makes him a perfect fit as Maryland’s starting weak-side linebacker this season. Most of his playing time has come on special teams over the past few seasons, but he is more than ready to take on a starting role.
Avery Thompson – Senior
2014 Statistics: 5 tackles (0.0 for loss), 0.0 sacks, 0 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 0 passes broken up
While he has been a special teams player his entire career at Maryland, Thompson brings valuable experience and depth to the linebacking corps in College Park. Like Logan, he has good agility and coverage ability, and was the team’s third-string weak-side linebacker in 2014 behind Robinson and Alex Twine. Most of his playing time in 2015 will come on special teams once again, but his impact on both the practice field and the game field will be very valuable.
Q&A with Zack & Chris
Q: In a 3-4 defense, linebackers are counted on as both run stoppers, pass rushers, and coverage guys over the middle. In a 4-3, they are relied on primarily for pass coverage, with the middle linebacker also counted on for stopping inside runs. How well do you believe that Maryland’s personnel at linebacker fits the 4-3, and who do you see starting at each of the 3 linebacker spots when the team opens up their season against Richmond in September?
Garman: It’s going to put a lot of pressure on the linebackers, especially with a group that is so young and inexperienced. Their athleticism and versatility is really going to be put to the test during conference play and I have doubts on how they will adjust. Logan is the most experienced linebacker and he will be vital to their overall success as a unit. When losing so much at the linebacker position from a year ago, a move to a new defensive system isn’t ideal. When the season begins against Richmond, I expect to see Logan, Carter and Brooks starting at linebacker.
Kiesel: I think that this linebacking corps fits a 4-3 defensive scheme better than it would a 3-4 scheme. The projected starters fit their respective roles much better, and a 4-3 scheme takes some of the pressure off of the linebackers. In a 3-4 scheme, the primary focus of the defense is the linebackers. They are responsible for covering the middle of the field and serving as the team’s primary pass-rushers. However, in a 4-3 scheme, they are more focused on coverage, as the defensive line handles most of the pass-rushing. As I laid out above, I expect Carter to start at middle linebacker, with Brooks on the strong-side and Logan on the weak-side.
Q: Maryland’s coaching staff has moved a number of outside linebackers to defensive end, as expected with the move to a 4-3 scheme. It looks as if the 3 linebackers who will start in 2015 will be players who have not seen much action outside of being role players on special teams and occasionally getting a few snaps on defense. Who is the one linebacker who you believe will stand out this season for Keith Dudzinski’s unit?
Garman: Abner Logan is the guy I’m looking to standout in the linebacker unit. He showed some good things in his freshman season, including the breakout game against Clemson where he recorded 15 tackles. He didn’t see much playing time last season, but he has the most game experience of this unit and has shown he has the ability to play well at this level. We’ll see if he has the ability to star in this unit and be a leader, but with his game experience heading into the season, it appears he’ll be relied on the be a leader as a junior.
Kiesel: I’ve always been a huge Jermaine Carter, Jr. fan. He has really bulked up since he arrived on campus in 2013, and has the physicality necessary to play the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense. He will need to rise up as the leader of the team’s defense this season, as he will be relied upon to be the quarterback of Dudzinski’s unit. I really look forward to watching him take that next step and leading the Terrapins’ defense in 2015.
Q: How do you believe the move to a 4-3 scheme will change how the coaching staff will recruit linebackers?
Garman: Moving forward, I think the coaching staff will go hard after more athletic and versatile linebackers who are better in coverage. In the 3-4, the Terps’ linebackers were good at the different blitz packages and hitting gaps in the offensive line. Now they will need to be able to be better at covering opposing tight ends and some wide receivers. The mentality of the linebackers they recruit will have to be different because they will have to be more than just ball tacklers, but guys who can play better in the open field and play the pass better. More speed will be needed at linebacker moving forward for the Terps.
Kiesel: 4-3 linebackers are relied upon in coverage much more than 3-4 linebackers, so I’d expect Dudzinski to target smaller, more athletic players who are comfortable covering tight ends and wide receivers in space. The DMV area is full of these type of athletes, so finding them should not be a problem for Edsall’s staff.
Zack is a financial analyst for a defense contractor in Washington, DC. The Owings Mills native focuses most of his efforts on Maryland Football recruiting and individual coach and player pieces; but also covers Terps Basketball. He has established relationships with Big Ten beat reporters across the conference, which he utilizes in his game previews. Now a Sr. Terps Analyst for BSL, Zack can be reached at: [email protected]