Defense Ready to Make a Mark Vs. Madison

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland and its defense are ready to make a mark in the season opener this Saturday against JMU.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Senior linebacker L.A. Goree makes Maryland’s defensive chemistry sound almost mystical.

Familiarity, in this case, builds contentment.

It’s just another edge for a Terrapin team anxious to build on last year’s 7-6 mark and make a B1G name for themselves this season. And it all begins Saturday with the 3:30 p.m. kickoff against FCS foe James Madison at Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium.

“There’s a level of trust because we know where we are,” said Goree, one of nine returning starters on that side of the ball. “Everybody on defense, we’re closely connected. I know where everyone is going to be, and I know all of them outside of football, too. We’re close.”

With all the preseason talk about quarterback C.J. Brown back – and from now on, shouldn’t all sixth-year players be known as ‘brownshirts’ – the big play potential of Stefon Diggs & Co., and the uncertainty about the offensive line, what should be a pretty stellar defense is flying a little under the radar as the season opens.

That could change Saturday.

Third-year defensive coordinator Brian Stewart has six seniors in his starting front seven, a world of experience – particularly compared to James Madison’s four returning offensive starters. There would seem to be a big edge for the Terrapins though the Dukes do have some weapons.

“We cannot take James Madison lightly,” said Goree, who was third on the team with 76 tackles last season. “I remember they beat Virginia Tech (in 2010). They’re a D-I team and they have a lot of transfers. We’re working hard in practice.”

JMU, which started with a 5-2 record last year before slumping to finish 6-6, also has a history with the Terrapins. The last time these two teams tangled in 2009, it took overtime to decide matters, Maryland prevailing 38-35. The only other meeting, in 1998, was just a 23-15 triumph for the Terrapins.

The Dukes make the short drive to College Park, and come ready to play each time. This time, they’ll do it with a new coach, former North Carolina interim head man Everett Withers and new schemes on both sides of the ball. That makes JMU a tough scout right out of the gates. There’s really no film on exactly what the Dukes plan to do Saturday. At least not until after this game.

“Yeah, that’s tough,” said Goree. “We just have to focus on what we do so we can be prepared for whatever they do.”

That sound-bite seemed Edsallesque. The fourth-year Maryland coach, Randy Edsall was tight-lipped about what should be a tight defensive unit. “The one thing that you want to be able to do is do what you do best. Even though we have guys that have played, we’re not going to try to do a whole lot of different things with them. We’re going to do the things that we think we do well and add any wrinkles we need to add to enhance what we do.”

What the Terrapins have done well, at least last year, is control the action around the line of scrimmage. Opponents rushed for just 3.7 yards per carry, and the Terps were 18th in the nation with 37 quarterback sacks, including 0.66 per game from defensive end Andre Monroe, the top figure among retuning FBS players.

“There ain’t no secret, it’s just will,” said Monroe who actually had 9.5 sacks last year. “No one is going to stop me from my goal and that’s to get to quarterbacks. You’ve got to find a way.” The 5-11, 282-pound defensive end doesn’t have any one move to get to that goal, he said. No bull-rush, or nifty swim-move or speed-on-the-edge burst. “I don’t think I have any specific preference as far as a move,” he added. “It’s more of a reaction. I see what a (blocker) is doing and if he has a weakness, I take advantage.”

Monroe wasn’t playing in 2012 when then Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee rushed for 64 yards and two scores in a 33-13 Yellow Jackets win over Maryland. Now Lee is a redshirt junior for the Dukes, making his first start, one of five FBS transfers on offense. (There are three more on defense, including former Maryland cornerback Jeremiah Wilson and safety Titus Till.)

“He’s a mobile quarterback, definitely athletic,” said Goree. “We have to put pressure on him.”

Monroe was more to the point: “You don’t want to let any quarterback get comfortable in the pocket.”

One of Maryland’s advantages this year will be in the depth Edsall and Stewart can employ on that veteran defensive front. Seniors Monroe and quick Quinton Jefferson man the ends but the Terps have talent behind them in senior Spencer Myers and sophomore Roman Braglio.

Myers is actually heading into his first college football game but he has been an All-American wrestler and turned heads in summer camp with his athleticism at end. Braglio saw a lot of time last year and even had a defense built around his mobile-quarterback-chasing skills when the Terrapins romped over Old Dominion, 47-10.

The 265-pound Braglio played nose tackle that day but those days are probably over, particularly with the senior tandem of Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo manning the spot. Those two – and the ability to keep a talented, fresh nose tackle on the field at all times – is a real plus not many teams can match.

“Darius and Keith, they’re both starters,” explained Edsall. “That’s why there’s an ‘or’ there (on the depth chart). Both of them are going to play and play quite a bit. It’s going to make them better and make us better. You’ll see Roman. You’ll see Spencer in there as well.”

The return of Yannik Cudgoe-Virgil at weakside linebacker is another plus. The uber-athletic YC-V is a pass-rushing terror and was really starting to make a name for himself when he went down with an injury after six games. Yannick Ngakoue took over and played well. Now a sophomore, Ngakoue has experience behind Cudjoe-Virgil, and can contribute, too.

Former starter, senior Alex Twine backs Goree and sophomore Cavon Walker is behind senior Matt Robinson on the strong side. Robinson, the converted safety, is a prototype strong side linebacker and a big reason Maryland opponents only converted 34.2 percent on third downs, the 21st best defensive figure in the country. There aren’t many linebackers better in coverage.

Honorable Mention All-ACC Cole Farrand is back in the middle. He was second on the team with 84 tackles, 7.6 per game and had that incredible 23-tackle effort against Clemson. His back-up, redshirt freshman Jermaine Carter, Jr., along with Myers, are the only Terps in the front seven two-deep without actual game experience.

“We have a lot of experience, a lot of character on this defense,” emphasized Goree. “There are a lot of familiar names and we’re just trying to take a step forward every day.”

What does all that experience mean exactly?

Edsall said, “It allows you to make adjustments quicker. It allows them to communicate better.”

Those kind of intangibles are especially important early in the year against unfamiliar offenses and as the defense is still gelling. Goree broke it down a little further, though. “When I go up to take on a block and I have a guy like (safety) Sean Davis behind me to come up and make the tackle and protect me, that’s a good feeling.”

Davis and fellow junior safety Anthony Nixon have combined to start 31 of Maryland’s last 35 games, and Davis was a standout all preseason camp, in the best shape of his career.

Sophomore William Likely is back to start on one corner and he’s already on the verge of stardom as a gritty 5-7 sophomore glue-stick of a cover-man and as an exciting punt returner. Alvin Hill, a junior starts on the other corner and few teams boast a “third corner” like senior Jeremiah Johnson, a stalwart in 2012, who missed all but two games last year with a toe injury. Senior A.J. Hendy has been playing back there somewhere, mostly at safety, for four seasons, too.

They’ll all be keeping an eye on Dukes receiver Daniel Brown, who hauled in 42 passes for eight scores and a 15.8-yard average last year. If they can take him away, the Terps can start squeezing what looks like a suspect JMU running game and perhaps make life really tough for Lee.

“We have to do what we need to do because they’re not going to take us lightly,” said Monroe. “It’s about preparation. And we’re going to prepare the same way for them as we would anyone else.”

No quarterback has seen the Maryland defense as much as the Terrapins’ offensive leader, Brown. He has lined up against them for six years, now. “The biggest thing is they’re able to disguise things,” he said. “They’ve got confidence, depth, senior leadership, they’re all comfortable. It’s not just one guy knowing his position. Everyone knows every position. They hold each other accountable, too.”

Brown will look across to the far sideline Saturday and see his younger brother Jordan, a redshirt freshman wide receiver/defensive back. Asked about their conversations recently, C.J. said they’ve been “minimal. Just asking him if he was going to make the trip.” (He is.)

(Maryland freshman defensive back Daniel Ezeagwu’s twin brother David is a second-string linebacker for James Madison, too.)

Brown said the Terrapins have “prepared for everything,” not knowing exactly what JMU’s new-look defense will present. “We’ve played similar teams and no one wants to be that team featured on the ‘Upset Special,’” he said. “We understand that these guys have a lot of transfers coming in and they’re going to be good football players like J-Wil and Titus.”

Brown said the Terps were watching film of different teams that have similar systems or where the new JMU coaches worked before. All that extra film work doesn’t ruffle a six-year guy.

And it’s doubtful the Dukes can come up with much to rattle that veteran defense. There’s a been-there, done-that feel among the long-time Terps, anxious to get out and hit somebody with a different-colored helmet.

“Everybody is doing the right thing and things are smoother because we have so much trust in each other,” said Monroe. “We’ve been through the grind together. We’re like brothers.”

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