Terps Spring Preview: Defense
Two weeks ago, I previewed some of the offensive storylines to watch for as the Maryland Terrapins get closer and closer to the start of spring practice. This week, I’ll preview some of the storylines to watch for on the opposite side of the ball. Head coach DJ Durkin hired former Syracuse Head coach Scott Shafer as his Defensive Coordinator, though Durkin will certainly play a large role in crafting the Terrapins’ defensive scheme.
(Discuss this article on the BSL Message Board here.)
This will be Maryland’s third different defensive scheme in three years. From 2012-2014, Brian Stewart ran a 3-4 scheme with the Terrapins. In 2015, Keith Dudzinski ran a 4-3 scheme. In 2016, we will see Shafer run a highly multiple, hybrid scheme that encompasses many different schemes.
Maryland’s new defense will base out of a 4-3 under scheme (shown above), which is the same scheme that Dudzinski ran last season. Personnel-wise, it is very similar to a 3-4 scheme. At a very basic level, the only difference is that the weak-side defensive end has his hand on the ground in the 4-3 under scheme, and is standing up in a 3-4 scheme.
The difference between Dudzinski’s 4-3 under scheme and Shafer’s hybrid scheme is that the weak-side defensive end/linebacker (the “Buck”) must be a very versatile player, because he will occasionally line up with his hand in the ground or standing up. When he is standing up, he may line up anywhere on the defensive formation. This allows Shafer to show a plethora of different looks to the opposing offense, creating confusion and uncertainty. While his defense will base out of a 4-3 under scheme, it will also show looks from 3-4 schemes. He will also use a variety of different nickel and dime formations, including 4-2-5, 3-3-5, 2-4-5, 4-1-6, 3-2-6, and 2-3-6. The versatility of the “Buck” is crucial to creating all of these different looks.
One of Shafer’s first tasks will be to find a player who can play this versatile “Buck” position. This is usually the position for your best pass-rusher, but he must also be able to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield when necessary. For Shafer, the clear choice seems to be Jesse Aniebonam.
Aniebonam is entering his junior season after joining the Terrapins as a 4-star recruit in 2014 out of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School. In his first two seasons, he saw time on passing downs as a pass-rusher, but never saw regular snaps. Now that Yannick Ngakoue has decided to enter the NFL draft, Aniebonam will have a chance to get regular snaps at the “Buck” position in Shafer’s defensive scheme. While he is an excellent pass-rusher, he played some outside linebacker in Stewart’s 3-4 scheme in his freshman year. This gave him experience playing while standing up, and also covering tight ends and running backs out of the backfield.
The thing to watch this Spring is how well Aniebonam adjusts to his new role in Shafer’s defense. The hope is that he is able to pick up his assignments quickly so that they can build the defense around his abilities. Last season, we saw Ngakoue wreak havoc in the Red-White Spring Game. We will have to wait to see whether Aniebonam can have the same type of impact this year.
The other biggest storyline on the defensive line is how large of an impact Adam McLean can have in his first season with the team. After some academic issues last season, he was forced to re-enroll in classes this spring. He will have the ability to practice with the team all spring, which should allow him to pick up Shafer’s scheme at the same pace as his teammates. McLean comes to Maryland as a 4-star recruit out of Quince Orchard High School, and I have projected him as the Terrapins’ starting defensive tackle in 2016.
In Shafer’s scheme, the defensive tackle also has to be versatile. If the “Buck” lines up with his hand in the ground, the defensive tackle is playing a standard role. However, if the “Buck” is standing up, the defensive tackle becomes more of a defensive end, as he is uncovered on the line. Therefore, the ideal player for this role is a smaller defensive tackle with some pass-rushing skills (essentially a weak-side defensive end in a 3-4 scheme). McLean certainly fits this bill, as some recruiting analysts saw him playing this role out of high school. The biggest thing to watch is whether or not McLean can work his way into a starting role as a true freshman.
The strongest starting unit for Shafer’s defense this season will be the linebackers, but depth remains a large question. The starting group of Jalen Brooks, Jermaine Carter, Jr., and Abner Logan will be very strong, but the depth behind them is a question. In the Big Ten Conference, having quality linebackers is very important due to the number of pro-style offenses in the conference. In more spread-based conferences such as the Pac-12 Conference, defenses often base out of nickel formations, putting less of a premium on quality linebackers.
I have projected Nnamdi Egbuaba, Tyler Burke, and Brock Dean as the group of backup linebackers for 2016. Burke and Dean got some playing time last season, while Egbuaba did not. While I would feel comfortable with any of these three players seeing a few snaps here and there, I would not feel comfortable if any of them had to see extended playing time. Keeping Brooks, Carter, Jr., and Logan healthy must be a priority this season. Additionally, the Terrapins must put a premium on linebackers in their 2017 class, preferably adding a few transfers as well.
While the starting group of linebackers looks very solid for the 2016 season, the same can’t be said about the starting group of defensive backs. The return of star cornerback William Likely is absolutely huge for Shafer’s defense, as there would be even bigger question marks without him.
The competition for the second cornerback position will be an interesting one to watch. It will likely be a competition between Alvin Hill and Jarrett Ross, players who have gained some quality experience over the last few years. I expect Ross to win that job, primarily due to his size and Hill’s abilities as the third cornerback in nickel and dime situations.
The Terrapins will also have to replace both of their starting safeties from last season, as A.J. Hendy and Anthony Nixon have both graduated. The competition for both of these jobs should be heavy, with a large number of players involved. I have projected Denzel Conyers as the team’s starting free safety, as he looked good in some limited playing time last season and showed a good nose for the ball. I have also projected Josh Woods as the starting strong safety. We haven’t seen much of Woods in his first two seasons with the team, but he was a nice-looking 6’3″ 3-star recruit out of the McDonogh School when he joined Maryland’s 2014 recruiting class. While there isn’t a whole lot of certainty surrounding the defensive backfield, there is plenty of upside and potential in this group of players.