Fall Camp Positional Preview: Defensive Backs

In anticipation of fall camp this August, we're previewing each position and breaking down where things stand with Maryland as it heads into it's inaugural Big Ten campaign. Here's a look at the defensive backs:

Maryland’s secondary had its moments last year with the emergence of a young corner and the continued development of its safeties. But the unit did have some issues as well, finishing 57th nationally at 225 passing yards allowed per game, while surrendering 18 touchdown passes in a mediocre ACC. Some of that, however, can be attributed to its two presumed starters, J.J. Johnson and Dexter McDougle, missing significant time, the former for all but two games and the latter for the final nine outings.

Now, McDougle has graduated and Johnson will have to battle to reclaim his starting spot as the Terps’ cornerback unit indeed has a different look from this time last year. The safety unit, though, remains in-tact and will be expected to step up in a big way heading into the Big Ten.

The second corner spot may be up for grabs, but the No. 1 job is clearly sophomore Will Likely’s, a 5-foot-7 “baller” who was thrust into a starting role last season following McDougle’s and Johnson’s injuries. Likely only had one interception in 13 games, but he did record a team-high seven pass defenses to go along with six breakups, more than holding his own against some elite receivers. He also finished fifth on the team with 70 tackles and had 4.5 tackles for loss.

Likely had a standout game against Virginia Tech where he shined on special teams and as a cover man, while he recorded eight tackles and a breakup against Marshall.

An all-business, never-back-down corner who plays with a chip on his shoulder, Likely should continue building on his strong 2013. That said, he is undersized and Big Ten quarterbacks will inevitably pick on him with mismatches, so we’ll see how well the competitive Likely responds. Moreover, Likely did make some freshman mistakes in coverage, once in awhile peeking into the backfield and getting beat deep, so he’ll have to iron out the inconsistencies heading into 2014.

At the opposite corner spot, the aforementioned Johnson will be battling listed starter Alvin Hill for the starting job. Johnson, 5-11, broke his foot in the season-opener against FIU and didn’t return until the regular season finale against NC State. After ascending to the No. 1 spot as a sophomore, it was a disappointing development for the District Heights, Md., native, who was expected to be one of the ACC’s elite cover men last year. This spring, Johnson was limited, and he’ll have to step up in August in order to show he’s fully recovered and ready to be a reliable corner once again. That may well happen after he shakes some initial rust.

If not, the junior Alvin Hill will keep the spot he earned this spring. Hill actually showed signs last fall when he rotated in in 12 games and managed 24 tackles, two breakups and two pass defenses as a nickel/dime back. Then this winter and spring Hill seemed to take yet another step, having arguably the strongest performance of any Maryland defensive back. He’s a heady corner with size who attacks the ball in the air, isn’t afraid to get physical and possesses solid all-around fundamentals.

Besides Likely, Johnson and Hill, sophomore Jarrett Ross should see more field time this season, although he missed the spring following surgery. Though mainly a special teams presence, Ross played in 12 games last year and had seven tackles. He’s another young up-and-comer who drew praise for his scout team play, and he’ll likely fill a dime role in 2014.

Maryland returns both of its starting safeties in junior Anthony Nixon and classmate Sean Davis. Nixon started as a true freshman and turned heads with his play, but he had a relatively quiet 2013 campaign. Which isn’t necessarily a negative, though we expected more in the way of big plays from the supposedly opportunistic Nixon. The 6-1 free safety did rack up 60 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, but he did not have any pass breakups, fumble recoveries or interceptions after having two recoveries and a pick in five starts the year before.

Nixon did well enough shadowing receivers, though like most safeties he did get exposed a couple times, such as against Clemson. He played relatively well this spring, however, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll be supplanted in the lineup.

Next to Nixon, Sean Davis won the starting strong safety job during the 2013 fall camp, and then proved he deserved it. Davis started all 13 games and ended up with a team-high 102 tackles to go along with two picks, three pass defenses, five breakups and a fumble recovery. It’s not always a positive when a safety has so many tackles (it usually means receivers are catching a bunch of downfield passes), but the hard-hitting Davis spent a good amount of time in the box and hovering near the line, so he was filling gaps and cutting down running backs.

Now, Davis did have some issues in coverage and he’ll have to improve in 2014, but it’s not like he performed poorly when dropping back. He had a big interception during the loss to Boston College, and also recorded a key breakup in the NC State victory.

Davis’ backup could very well be a starter at another program. Senior A.J. Hendy has developed into a reliable, effective piece who Maryland can count on whenever he’s in the game. The Bowie, Md., native played in 12 contests with three starts last year, and ended up with 32 tackles, two breakups, five pass defenses, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

Hendy’s most memorable performance came during the West Virginia bout when he took an interception back 28 yards for a score and also scooped up a muffed punt, earning him ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors. Hendy, like Davis, has to improve his deep-cover skills, but he’s fairly reliable all-around -- and especially so as a run stuffer.

The fourth safety to know is junior Zach Dancel, who should see more time on defense as Nixon’s No. 1 backup this year and extra-man specialist. Dancel played in 12 games primarily on special teams in 2013, and he ended up with seven tackles. The New Mexico transfer has shown signs this spring, as he looks to be an effective in-the-air defender with good field awareness.

The Terps also added junior college signee Denzel Conyers in the spring, who can play immediately and could fill various spots. He is listed as a safety and could be a nickel or dime type.

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