Spring Football Previews: Defensive Line

A preview of Maryland's defensive line heading into spring practice March 7.

On defense is where the most change/attention will be this spring, what with new head coach D.J. Durkin bringing his Michigan influence to College Park, Md., in a new scheme under first-year coordinator Scott Shafer.

Shafer, the former head coach at Syracuse, will reportedly employ a 3-4, odd-man front with a hybrid boundary in rising-star Jesse Aniebonam. Think perhaps Brian Stewart's 3-4 former scheme at Maryland but with more "man" coverage behind it in support.

First things first, the Terps lost three of their top four tacklers from a year ago -- all safeties, incidentally -- as well as their top two defensive linemen. At this month's NFL Combine was former standout junior rush end and honors candidate Yannick Ngakoue (team-leading 13.5 sacks and 15.0 tackles-for-a-loss in 2015), as well as former defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson, who had 12.5 tackles-for-a-loss and 6.5 sacks per game to rank second in both categories. That's a lot of production, both front and back lines alike.

Up front the chore this spring will be setting the new attacking scheme with the 6-3, 260-pound junior Aniebonam (6.5 tackles-for-a-loss, 3.5 sacks a year ago) working the Marcus Whitfield role of a few years ago as the hybrid. Aniebonam is the best edge defender in the program now that Ngakoue has left, and is also better in run support. He played in all 12 games with three starts a year ago.

There are several who could work behind him, including massive junior Cavon Walker (6-3, 260), who hopefully has put past injuries behind.

But in the trenches is where some of the best battles will be, as returning from knee surgery is sophomore Malik Jones (6-4, 275), who was lost in fall camp last year for the season. He could project as one starter at end, and opposite him senior Roman Braglio (6-2, 262), who chipped in 5.5 tackles-for-a-loss and 3 sacks a year ago, at the other.

Braglio rates fourth among leading returning tacklers with 35, and has seen his game and production improve with each season and is one of the team's hardest workers. Jones is a big athlete with a quick first step and wing span who was on the cusp of taking over the starting role last year before the injury.

Backing him could be sophomore Oseh Saine (6-2, 286), another athlete who has put on some needed bulk/strength since arriving a year ago early from prep school. Other ends working their way in the 2-3 deep include junior Chandler Burkett (6-3, 240), sophomore Brett Kulka (6-4, 254), and sophomore Mbi Tanyi (6-1, 280).

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if Virginia Tech transfer and former Under Armour All-American end Melvin Keihn (6-1, 211) remains at end, where he was last season while serving a sit-out year, as he is likely better fitted for outside linebacker.

Inside, the battle will also be intense among a large cast of returners and newcomers vying for the nose spot, including former 4-star Under Armour All American Adam McLean, who re-enrolled in January. On paper, the powerful and quick McLean could be the guy, but he will have his hands full fending off last year's line revelation, overachieving former walk-on senior Azubuike Ukandu (6-0, 307), who was a top run-stuffer and also made some plays in space after being thrown in the mix. He finished third on the team with 6.5 tackles-for-a-loss and chipped in 2.5 sacks as the biggest surprise up front after injuries and ineffectiveness forced him into late-season playing time. 

After him, there's sophomore Kingsley Opara (6-3, 305) who when healthy has proven he can be a factor in the backfield with his strength and athleticism. He had 16 tackles a year ago in reserve duty. There's also sophomore David Shaw (6-4, 307), the former starter, who missed all but four games due to injury last season. He is another solid run-stuffer but will be challenged to regain his starting role.

The Terps also return former walk-on and senior tackle Ty Tucker (6-2, 285), who played in seven games a year ago, senior Ruben Franco (6-5, 249), while it will be a big spring for redshirt freshman Keiron Howard (6-3, 289), to see where his development is. He is another big man that can move who is trying to crack the 2-3 deep. 

The Terps lost their top two stars off the defensive line a year ago, and indeed have big shoes to fill. But there is much anticipation for McLean to finally take the field as he is Maryland's top defensive line "get" in perhaps a decade.

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The Terps have plenty of numbers inside, but the trick will be establishing another strong outside presence like in 2015, where Maryland got much of its team 35 sacks. 

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