COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- As the secondary’s last line of defense, the deep cover man who roams the middle of the field, hawking wayward pigskins, free safeties typically get their fair share of interception opportunities. The good ones, like Virginia’s Anthony Harris, may end up with a handful of picks by campaign’s end.
But Maryland junior free Anthony Nixon recorded nary a one in 2013 and has just one interception during his career, a total that rankles him. Of all the areas Nixon said he wanted to improve on in 2014, creating turnovers is foremost in his mind.
“Interceptions. My goal is one interception per game,” a straight-faced Nixon said after practice Aug. 19.
Harris, who led all safeties in picks last year, had eight. Does Nixon truly think 12 is possible?
“Well, we want to go to a bowl game, so at least 13,” he deadpanned.
Nixon wasn’t finished listing his rather ambitious goals. He said junior strong safety Sean Davis should have at least eight interceptions this year, if only because he spends a good amount of time in the box and has less chances to track receivers deep. And when backups A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel enter the game in Maryland’s sub-packages?
“Well, hey, if everybody eats,” Nixon said, “We can lead the nation [in interceptions].”
Now, Nixon probably realizes the chances of that are slim, but his point was clear: The Terps’ secondary, which totaled nine interceptions in 2013, needs to force opposing offenses’ hands even more this season. Whether that’s picking off passes, creating fumbles or just making sound tackles in space, the emphasis is on aggressively pursuing the football. Too often, Nixon implied, Maryland’s defensive backs played back on their heels last year, and a few of the ACC’s best receivers took advantage.
Nixon, who surrendered a couple long-gainers himself, is taking it on himself to ramp things up, generating more of those momentum-changing turnovers. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder said head coach Randy Edsall told him that while he was a solid, dependable performer, he was capable of raising his game.
“It was a lot of small things [Edsall told me], but not small to me,” said Nixon, who had 60 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack last year. “Get more interceptions, get more turnovers … be more vocal. So I’m trying to work on every aspect of my game. Breaks, route-recognition, everything.”
Edsall said he’s noticed steady improvement in the safety’s play.
“He’s playing faster because he’s got another year under his belt… He’s a guy who can make all the checks, knows everything out there, gets the guys together,” Edsall said, “I’m expecting a lot out of him this year.”
While Nixon has spent plenty of time on the field honing his fundamentals, the off-the-field work has been instrumental in his development. Edsall and his assistants have harped on film study throughout fall camp, lauding those Terps who have put in extra tape-study time -- and then noting their improved play recognition and faster pace. Nixon, for his part, has been singled out on more than one occasion.
“Both Sean [Davis] and Anthony have done a great job taking what they’ve learned the last two years and fine tuning it. Just watching film, knowing how to watch film, going over the call sheet and knowing how we play,” defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said. “I’m excited to see them play with more maturity this year.”
Nixon acknowledged he’s picked Stewart’s brain more than during his previous two years in College Park, gleaning valuable tips.
“I haven’t done everything I wanted to do so far [in college],” Nixon said. “So I’m trying to talk to Coach Stew more and watch more film [with him] to get more insight into the game … He's watched way more film than me and played DB in college.”
Devouring hours of game tape is something the attentive, studious Nixon probably doesn’t mind, relatively speaking. But the third-year safety may have had a more difficult time with his voice inflection. A quiet, modest personality, he’s not been one to speak up during practice or yell instructions to his fellow defensive backs. But this August Nixon has piped up on a few occasions, perhaps because that’s what’s expected of veterans.
“Off the field I try to be quiet because I’m a humble person, but on the field you have to be vocal and communicate,” Nixon said. “I feel like communication is key to having a good defense and I’m just trying to get everybody on the same page.”
“[Nixon] doesn’t say a whole lot,” Edsall said. “He is kind of quiet, [but] he’s a little more vocal on the field, and I’ve seen a couple times this preseason he’s been a little more …energetic. Not that he wasn’t energetic [before], but you see a little more of a vocal leader than before.”
That may be so, but Nixon still considers himself the lead-by-example type. He said he’s taken his new roommate, freshman safety Antwaine Carter, under his wing, as well as helped junior college transfer Denzel Conyers with the defensive calls. Nixon mentioned how the new defensive backs look up to the juniors and seniors, and it’s the veterans’ responsibility to set the tone.
That’s particularly important this year, because the Terps don’t boast much defensive back depth, according to Edsall. So it’s inevitable Maryland will have to count on some of the more inexperienced players during Big Ten action.
“These young freshmen have been doing good,” Nixon said. “[Daniel Ezeagwu], he’s got nice hair and he’s going to be a good corner for a long time at Maryland. [Josh Woods], he keeps guys [out of his body] when he’s pressing, and he was a receiver in high school and has good ball ability. … It’s very important to have that depth, because if one [defensive back] goes down, it’s good to have someone who can step up.”
If all goes according to plan, however, the Ezeagwus and Woods’ of the world won’t be seeing the field all that much in 2014. Ultimately, at the safety spots at least, it’s going to fall on Nixon and Sean Davis to keep those Big Ten wideouts at bay, with an assist from Zach Dancel and AJ Hendy.
Davis and Nixon, of course, have played side by side for the last two years. Together, with the chemistry between them, they arguably form of the most underrated duos in the conference.
“Sean’s been more of a leader as well. He’s very focused, he’s ready for the games and he’s going to do very well this season,” Nixon said. “This year me and Sean have been using hand signals so we can communicate nonverbally. We’ve definitely come together off the field, and on the field and it’s been working.”
Will it work to the tune of 21-plus picks as Nixon stated earlier?
Who knows? But it’s not going to happen if Nixon keeps dropping surefire interceptions like during a recent practice when a wayward pass clanked off his palms.
“Oh yeah,” Nixon said, acknowledging the miscue. “[But] if the ball is thrown to me, I’m going to catch it," he said with a sheepish smile.
Nixon Has Ambitious Goals In 2014
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