2016 Terps Season Preview: The Defense
The Maryland Terrapins will open their 2016 season on September 3rd against the Howard Bison. This summer, we have taken an in-depth look at each position on the team. They can be found here by clicking the links on the projected depth chart. This week, we will be taking a broader look at the team’s offensive and defensive units and their new coordinators. Next week, we will begin previewing the Terrapins’ matchup against the Bison.
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Mike London – Associate Head Coach/Defensive Line Coach
Andy Buh – Defensive Coordinator
Matt Barnes – Linebackers Coach
Aazaar Abdul-Rahim – Defensive Backs Coach
One of DJ Durkin’s first hires after he was named the new head coach at Maryland was former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer, who he hired as his defensive coordinator. However, a few months later, Shafer resigned that position for personal reasons. In the few days following that announcement, Durkin hired former Kentucky assistant coach Andy Buh to fill the hole in the coaching staff.
Buh has been coaching football since 1996, and has been coaching at the collegiate level since 1997. He has served as a defensive coordinator for Stanford, Nevada, and California. Durkin and Buh were on the same staff at Stanford under current Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh from 2007 to 2009. He has been credited with major defensive turnarounds at both Stanford and Nevada. His most recent position was as the special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach at Kentucky, a job that he held for just the 2015 season. However, in that one year his coaching made a strong impact. The Wildcats’ pass defense finished fifth in the Southeastern Conference, and their red zone defense ranked fourth in the conference. They also forced the fourth-most fumbles. He was hired to be Maryland’s defensive coordinator on April 4, 2016.
While offensive coordinator Walt Bell will essentially be given free reign over his offense this year, Buh will be working closely with Durkin to craft and execute the defense’s gameplans on a daily basis. Durkin is a defensive-minded coach, and will be very involved in the unit’s performance. Whether the defensive coordinator was Shafer or Buh, they were going to be working with Durkin’s defense.
Durkin crafted his defense primarily based on his experience under current South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp when the two coached together at Florida. Much like Maryland’s current situation, Durkin was Muschamp’s defensive coordinator, but was more beholden to Muschamp’s scheme than he would have been under a more offensive-minded head coach. He took his own version of that defense with him to Michigan last season, where he reunited with Harbaugh and served as his defensive coordinator.
Durkin’s scheme is very multiple, but is based around a 4-3 Under defensive scheme. Maryland ran a version of this scheme last season under former defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski. Many times, it is referred to as a 4-3 front with 3-4 personnel, which can explain many things about this scheme.
In its most basic front, this is what the 4-3 Under defensive scheme looks like. Immediately, you can see that, much like a 3-4 front, the 4-3 Under uses a nose tackle. Unlike other 4-3 fronts, the Under lines up a defensive tackle over the opposing offense’s center. This allows for a lot of multiplicity from the defensive unit, primarily by giving them the ability to move the weak-side defensive end off of the line of scrimmage. This position is the most important one to Durkin’s defense, and he calls this player the “Buck”. This player will line up as a traditional defensive end, as an outside linebacker, or as an inside linebacker. He is a pure pass-rusher, and will wreak havoc in the backfield of the opposing offense.
Moving the “Buck” all over the defensive front allows Durkin to confuse the opposing offense. While his base defensive scheme is a 4-3 Under, by moving this player off of the line of scrimmage, it becomes a 3-4 front. Since Durkin likes to use a lot of nickel and dime formations, moving the “Buck” off of the line of scrimmage can create some 3-3-5, 3-2-6, and 2-3-6 fronts.
Speaking of nickel formations, there has been much discussion around College Park about Durkin’s heavy use of an extra defensive back. Let’s break down when he’ll use that extra defensive back, and when he’ll stick to his standard 4-3 Under front.
Simply put, if the opposing offense comes out with two or fewer wide receivers, Durkin will stay in his standard 4-3 Under front. The two wide receivers will be covered by the two cornerbacks. However, if the opposing offense comes out with three wide receivers, Durkin will counter by bringing an extra defensive back onto the field to create a nickel look. Against four or more wide receivers, Durkin will add another defensive back, creating a dime look. This allows him to match up one defensive back for each wide receiver. This philosophy was not shared by former head coach Randy Edsall, who preferred to stay in the standard 4-3 Under front against three wide receivers, moving to nickel against four wide receivers and dime against five wide receivers on standard downs.
Durkin’s heavier use of nickel and dime formations are important, because most teams who employ spread offensive schemes tend to base their offenses out of 11 personnel (3 wide receivers). Last season, the Terrapins remained in their standard 4-3 Under front against these offenses, but Durkin will be basing his defense out of nickel formations against these teams this season. Let’s take a quick look at the schedule.
Penn State: Multiple
Michigan State: Pro-Style
Ohio State: Spread
As you can see, 6 of Maryland’s opponents this season run spread offenses, 4 run multiple offenses (a mix of spread and pro-style), and 2 run pro-style offenses. This means that, for the majority of the season, the Terrapins will be basing out of nickel or dime formations.
Durkin and Buh have stated publicly that they will be basing their defensive coverages on Cover 1 and Cover 3.
They feel very strongly that it is important for them to be able to bring an extra safety into the box to stop the run. By basing out of these one-high looks, they will be able to do just that. Last season, the Terrapins based their defense out of Cover 4, which many teams do in order to defend spread offenses. However, Durkin will be using an extra defensive back to do that, allowing him to dedicate more defenders to stop the run. I would also expect Durkin and Buh to call plenty of Cover 1, as they seem comfortable trusting their cornerbacks in man coverage.
As I mentioned above, the most important position in Durkin’s defense is the “Buck”, a position that will be filled by junior Jesse Aniebonam this season. He has been one of the more impressive players in camp so far, and seems like a perfect fit for this versatile position. He will be the featured pass-rusher, moving all over the field to attack opposing offensive lines.
In standard 4-3 alignments, the opposing defensive end position will be taken by redshirt senior Roman Braglio. However, in nickel and dime formations, I would expect him to be taken off of the field in favor of Virginia Tech transfer Melvin Keihn, another excellent pass-rusher. Having him on the field with Aniebonam will be a priceless weapon for Durkin and Buh.
With the Terrapins playing a lot of nickel formations, they will only have a need for two linebackers most of the time. Jermaine Carter, Jr. will anchor the middle of the defense, and is set to have one of the best seasons ever for a Maryland linebacker. He will be joined by former quarterback and fullback Shane Cockerille, who has won the weak-side linebacker job this season. He will be called upon to cover the opposing offense’s tight end or running back.
The defensive backfield will be featured a lot this season, with plenty of young defensive backs set to receive playing time. When Maryland plays nickel or dime formations, their star cornerback William Likely will move inside to cover the opposing offense’s slot receiver. His abilities as a run-stopper and his ability to read screen passes will be highlighted in these situations. The outside cornerback positions will be held down by Florida transfer J.C. Jackson and redshirt senior Alvin Hill.
With the Terrapins bringing their strong safety into the box most of the time, they must be able to trust their free safety to be the lone high defender. The coaching staff likes what they have seen from Josh Woods, who will have that job this season. The strong safety spot will be taken by either Denzel Conyers or Darnell Savage, Jr. Since this player will be playing as an extra linebacker most of the time, I would expect Conyers, the former linebacker, to win this job. In dime formations, I would expect Savage, Jr., the former cornerback, to serve as the sixth defensive back in more of a coverage role.
Durkin’s defense is certainly an exciting one, and the Terrapins have some talented pieces. While schemes are more important on the offensive side of the ball, attitude and intelligence are more important on the defensive side of the ball. There are only so many coverages and formations that a defensive coordinator can call. At the end of the day, it comes down to players getting themselves into the correct locations and making plays.