2011 Preview: Joe Vellano

What to expect from the Terps DT, Lombardi Award candidate this season.

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After being named to the Rotary Lombardi Award watch list, defensive tackle Joe Vellano may lose the right to be labeled the most underrated player on the Maryland football team.

During spring practice in 2010, Vellano shocked the coaching staff with an impressive but unforeseen performance. The coaching staff had no other choice but to insert him into the starting lineup.

Thirteen games later, Vellano registered a team-high five sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss, and led defensive linemen in tackles (63). His first season starting for the Terps translated into earning second team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors.

Now the secret is out about Maryland's star defender.

In addition to the being a contender for the Lombardi Award, Vellano was named to Phil Steele's preseason second team All-ACC squad, alongside teammates Danny O'Brien and Demetrius Hartsfield. ESPN ESPN rated Vellano the second-best at his position in the conference, just a few slots above teammate A.J. Francis.

Laden with higher expectations in 2011, along with being anointed a team captain, the only junior among the four, Vellano must repeat his spectacular season in order for the Terps defense to take a step further under first-year head coach Randy Edsall. A defensive-minded coach, Edsall, alongside defensive coordinator Todd Bradford and defensive line coach Greg Gattuso, should only help to mentor Vellano.

At Southern Mississippi, Bradford led Conference USA's no. 2-ranked defense. The Golden Eagles, in 2010, recorded 27 sacks and 87 tackles for loss. The team also forced 11 fumbles.

Gattuso, former head coach of Duquesne and defensive line coach for Pittsburgh the past six years, is a former defensive lineman himself. In 1982, he was part of a Penn State team that captured a national championship.

Now tutoring the defensive linemen in College Park, Gattuso offers a resume that includes molding Brandon Lindsey and Jabaal Sherard into some of the most ferocious pass-rushers in the nation last year, totaling 10 and nine sacks, respectively. The Panthers averaged 3.6 sacks per game in 2009, the best in the country.

In contrast, Maryland averaged less than two sacks per game. The team's most dynamic pass rusher in recent memory was Shawne Merriman, who in 2003 and 2004 sacked opposing quarterbacks 8.5 times. The last Terp to register double-digit sacks was Kris Jenkins in 2000.

Perhaps Vellano is one of the candidates to break the trend and turn the Maryland defensive line into a palpable force. Each of Vellano's five sacks came in the team's first five games. At 6-2, 285 pounds, Vellano told reporters earlier this offseason he and other teammates shed weight to get into better shape for the season. If true, the five sacks that were produced in five games could equate to more 10 sacks in a dozen regular season games.

From what we've seen from Vellano thus far is the signs of another dominant campaign. At the annual Red-White Spring Game, the second-year starter was tied for the fourth-leading tackler and led the way with a team-high two sacks.

The next step for Vellano is emulating what his father did for Maryland nearly 40 years ago – earning all-conference honors. In 1972, Paul Vellano, also a defensive tackle, was an All-ACC selection. A year later he earned first team football coaches All-American honors.*

No longer a breakout candidate, Vellano is among the elite stars on the Terps defense. He must play the role of stopper on the defensive line. He must play the role of mentor to redshirt freshmen Clarence Murphy and Andre Monroe who will line up beside him. And he must play the role of captain, both on and off the field.

*Correction (1:12 p.m.)

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