There’s little doubt that the path to success in the Big Ten begins and ends with the ability to play good defense. Maryland hasn’t accomplished that since moving to the B1G from the ACC and it was certainly part of the thinking in hiring Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin as the head coach.
He’ll have an interesting first season on that side of the ball, continuing the 3-4 defensive switch but having plenty of 4-3 looks to throw at teams. In fact, it may be really difficult for those outside the program to really label what exactly this defense will look like.
It’s also an indication that he and defensive coordinator Andy Buh aren’t exactly sure what they have in front of them in 2016.
With sack master and All-Big Ten defensive end Yannick Ngakoue off to the NFL, there’s a massive pass rushing void to fill. The hope has to be that junior end Jesse Aniebonam takes up that pass rushing mantle, but it may be tough considering the rest of the Terps defense had 22 sacks (amongst 11 players). Aniebonam was third on the team and is the leading returner after Quinton Jefferson also left a year early for the NFL draft.
However, expect this to be a defensive end position by committee until things figure themselves out naturally. Aniebonam may be more of a pass-rushing specialist, while you could see Roman Braglio and Va Tech transfer Melvin Keihn be more of the every down type of ends.
Braglio showed up well in the spring game, recording four sacks and that has to be good news heading in to the fall.
Defensive tackle could be where this team has its greatest strength, and a lot of that has to do with finally getting Adam McClean in a Terps uniform. He was one of the best 2015 recruits at the position and has lived up to it following an impressive spring. Expect him to start when it is all said and done, and when in the 4-3 scheme look to Azubuike Ukandu to team up with him and likely be the first option in 3-4 looks.
If Maryland is going to get something more out of its defense a lot of that increased production is going to come from the leadership provided by easily its best pure defensive player — Jermaine Carter Jr. He’s about the only player who may never come off the field in situational type defenses.
The third team All-Big Ten linebacker is ready to blossom and appeared to have taken his game up another notch in the spring under this defensive coaching staff, which is music to Maryland fans’ ears.
As for the rest of the group? Ummm, it was hard to tell based off of the spring game thanks to the Terps offense forcing them in to nickel looks most of the time. If it’s a 3-4 defensive look, expect to see one-time quarterback Shane Cockerille next to him.
What is clear is that Cockerille’s athleticism is useful to Durkin and Buh’s ideas on defense and will likely be on the field the second-most next to Carter.
On the outside, things are murkier with little in the way of pass rushing specialists available for a true 3-4 base look to the team. Names that got playing time as situational players included Gus Little, Isaiah Davis, Nnamdi Egbuaba and Jalen Brooks.
In that group, look towards Jalen Brooks and Gus Little to be the ones asked to take on pass rushing roles, while the others may fit better in a purely 4-3 look.
While there may not be a better pure defensive player on the Terps roster than LB Jermaine Carter, Jr., there is no better overall player on the roster than cornerback/punt returner/wide receiver Will Likely.
Simply put, opposing offenses don’t test him that often in the pass game, special teams kickers kick away from him and other cornerbacks don’t enjoy facing him. He’s got a unique combination of size and speed that make him dangerous in all three areas of the game. Just because he’s multi-talented, don’t think he isn’t his most dangerous as a cornerback though.
The real question is just who will step up to the plate opposite of him, because whomever it will be is going to see the ball his way a ton in 2016. It appears it will be an interesting battle between Alvin Hill and Darnell Savage Jr. for the role opposite Likely, who missed most of the spring.
But, depth has to be a real concern given that there are no fewer than six incoming freshmen defensive backs and no clear fourth or fifth cornerback on the roster, let alone backups at safety either.
With both safeties gone from last season, one would think the position would be in trouble in 2016. However, it appears Durkin and Co. have what they like in Denzel Conyers and Josh Woods. The question is just how deep the position is
Our Projected Starters
*We are giving extra starters because of the multiple looks this defense is going to give.
DE: Jesse Aniebonam
DT: Adam McClean
DT: Azubuike Ukandu
DE: Melvin Keihn
OLB: Gus Little, So.
ILB: Jermaine Carter Jr., Jr.
ILB: Shane Cockerille, Jr.
OLB: Jalen Brooks, Jr.
CB: Will Likely, Sr.
FS: Denzel Conyers, Sr.
SS: Josh Woods, Jr.
CB: Darnell Savage Jr., So.