COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin has basically created an open competition at every position during spring practice, with no 2015 starter guaranteed a spot atop the depth chart. But that’s especially true in the secondary where the Terps graduated three starting seniors, including both safeties, Anthony Nixon and A.J. Hendy, and cornerback Sean Davis. Only All Big-Ten corner Will Likely remains, the fourth-year opting to return for one last go-around in College Park.
So with three open spots, the likes of junior safety Josh Woods, senior safety Denzel Conyers, junior safety Antwaine Carter, junior safety Elvis Dennah, sophomore corner Darnell Savage, senior corner Alvin Hill, senior corner Jarrett Ross and freshman corner Antwaine Richardson are all vying for position.
“I think any time where there’s not an incumbent at a position, it creates more competition and it creates more opportunity,” head coach D.J. Durkin said. “The [defensive backs] are doing that, and they’re doing well. They’re a willing, coachable group. If you look at Day One until now, it’s been great improvement.”
One of the unit’s standouts thus far has been the safety Woods, who was shifted from cornerback towards the end of the 2015 campaign. The 6-foot-1, 202-pound Owings Mills, Md., native hasn’t seen much field time since arriving as an all-state performer from McDonogh in 2014, but he’s making a bid for the free (or front-side) safety spot under Durkin and Co.
“I didn’t get a lot of reps last year, but I’ve been getting reps in the spring and the coaches have been working with me,” Woods said. “Coming in [the coaches] told us, ‘Alright, you guys lost a lot, it’s an open competition. There’s no such thing as a previous depth chart. Everyone is starting brand new.’ I didn’t even know if I was playing safety…. But it’s been a good adjustment.”
Durkin, for his part, concurred with Woods:
“Josh has really done well for us, competing and being a leader, and hopefully he keeps that going.”
One of the ways Woods began stepping up as a leader was hitting the weight room in earnest during the winter. The safety said that was a major emphasis as soon as Durkin assumed the reins last December and most of the team has responded.
“Honestly it’s, ‘How are you producing in the weight room? Are you doing the things you’re supposed to do?’” Woods said. “And [the coaches will] reward you with playing time and moving up the depth chart. Plenty of guys have been moving up and down.
“So when we were in the weight room, my brothers Denzel, Darnell, Jarrett Ross, we were always right there like, ‘Keep it going, keep it going.’ So that just translated to the field.”
Since many of the defensive backs trained together all winter, they ended up developing an inherent comfort level with one another. Woods said the direct result has been a greater sense of chemistry and communication during spring ball.
“We’re definitely coming together more as a team and a unit,” said Woods, who mentioned the defensive staff has stressed the need to learn all the secondary spots and everyone’s responsibilities. “And I think it’s because we were together so much this winter.”
The former three-star two-way standout also credited defensive backs coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim’s teaching methods. He said the young assistant has quickly acclimated himself and developed a rapport with his secondary.
“Coach Aazaar is a funny guy. That’s my boy. He’s probably my favorite coach because I’m always with him,” Woods said. “Whenever we see him in Gossett [Team House] he’s like, ‘Come on, let’s watch some film.’ He’s a very honest guy, which I can respect. And he’s changing the culture around, because we can be honest with each other and say whatever, but understand we’re still brothers.”
Whether that culture change leads to improved secondary play remains to be seen. But so far, so good for Woods and Co.