A Look at Terps Through 3 Games: The Defense

A look at the Terps' defensive three games into the 2016 campaign.

Last week we looked at the Maryland offense through three games, and this week we turn to the defensive side for the undefeated Terrapins (3-0), who meet Purdue in their Big Ten opener Oct. 1 for Homecoming.

All in all -- and yes, the competition hasn't been what the Terps are about to start getting a more steady diet of in league play -- the Maryland defense has done a very solid job of limiting the run and keeping opponents mostly one-dimensional. They have stayed ahead of the sticks, and despite an almost entirely new secondary, contested most throws down the field beyond a few breaks here and there.

The Terps are allowing just 17.0 points per game, 155.3 yards rushing, and 210 yards passing through three contests. They got their biggest challenge/adversity last week in Orlando against UCF, which had an athletic freshman quarterback many didn't have a firm read on yet.

That likely resulted in a more conservative approach, trying to make him beat you through the air and not with his quick feet, and in turn resulted in a more-adventurous-than-expected night. There was not a ton of dialed-up pressure, and a lot of nickel, as they didn't show a ton while mostly sitting back.

And that adversity (something the staff was looking for in Week Three to test the players more) was added to by the fact starting senior safety Denzel Conyers went down with a knee injury and was lost for the year. 

Starting with said secondary, it's a good thing the Terps have been burning so many shirts, as the rookies will be needed now on the back line with depth scant. Conyers ranked fifth on the team in tackles with 13, and had upped his game after playing corner, even linebacker, and now safety at Maryland. His loss is tough in many ways, as he was a senior finally get his career on track at a new home and thriving after bouncing around for years.

Junior Josh Woods, who had looked strong as a backup to Conyers (who he narrowly lost the job to in fall camp) previously, will now get the starting nod opposite sophomore starter Darnell Savage. The Terps wanted to see a more aggressive Woods this season, and he has mostly delivered, with 11 tackles and better in run support. Savage has 13 stops, fourth best on the team, and has eased into his new starting role (he was a corner last year) nicely, when he was a rookie getting burned in the deep game a bit. Now he has more confidence contesting balls in the air and jamming receivers, etc.

The two freshmen, heavy hitter Qwuantrezz Knight, and another Floridian, Elijah Daniels, will now step into the primary safety backup spots. The good thing is both have played, going back to the opener versus Howard, and have gotten their feet wet with solid reps. Knight is one of the Terps best hitters already, and then there is also freshman backup Jake Funk, who has played on offense and special teams (where he, too, has been a big hitter) and lends another versatile hand to the depth.

The safety corps has been solid in pass coverage, good in run support, and now the staff wants to see the entire secondary contest and pick more balls in the air. There is only one pick among the secondary through three games (new starting corner J.C. Jackson, who missed the first game), while linebacker Jermaine Cater, Jr. has the other. But that's not to say they haven't been sticky (and effective) in coverage, as they have.

Jackson has blossomed, after a year off after transferring out of Florida, more with each game as a Terrapin, and leads the team with two breakups and three deflected balls. Jackson is the Terps most aggressive defender in coverage, and after giving up a deep ball at FIU, is now the staunchest defender on the back line, always around the ball.

Opposite him, senior Alvin Hill has been very solid, while Will Likely, who is seeing a lot of action in nickel, rates third on the team with 20 stops, including a career-best 14 at UCF in extended time. Jackson is the best bet already, very sticky, aggressive and chippy in coverage, and a huge new piece to a secondary that coming in had many question marks. 

At linebacker, it has been a yeoman, solid-but-unspectacular effort so far, as the unit doesn't quite have the collective speed or depth past Terps 'backer units have enjoyed. 

They need to cover more space, both in the run and pass, and didn't wrap up well enough in the early going at UCF. And at times they have struggled shedding/getting off blocks to limit bigger plays from scrimmage.

Still, they have snuffed out their fair share of plays. And converted former four-star Gilman quarterback Shane Cockerille remains a heck of a story, as he got the starting nod this fall at WILL and leads the team with 25 stops including a career-high 14 at UCF. He has seemingly got more confident and played with better fit with each game, but still has some work to do playing laterally and the like. Not a big runner-and-hitter, he has been grinding, and filling better and keeping more of the play in front of him, not caught out of position as much as before.

Right behind him is junior national honors candidate Jermaine Carter, Jr., who also has had a few ups and downs, but still ranks second on the team with 22 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks and that one pick, which went for the 'pick-six' at FIU in Maryland's first sudden-change play of the year Week Two. Carter is always instinctive, but has been a step slow at times in pursuit and sometimes wrapping up. Still, he is probably the defensive MVP so far through three games. And we're sure he'll rise to the occasion even more come Big Ten play.

This is a group that doesn't have a ton of proven depth, and junior Jalen Brooks, a starter last year, has fallen off the pace a bit as a reserve and has but 6 stops in three games. No other Terp has more than 4, all in limited time.

At the BUCK spot -- and the edges where many would like to see the Terps turn up the pressure more -- Jesse Aniebonam is emerging as a key play-maker, with his 10 tackles, including 4.5 TFLs for minus-19 yards and 2.5 sacks. The spot would have been enhanced even more against a speedy UCF team last week had sophomore backup Melvin Keihn not been suspended for the game. He has only played in two games, but has 7 tackles and 2 TFLs, and has made his presence/quicks felt. His speed could have been used with contain that night when the front seven struggled at times generating much pressure at all on the rookie quarterback. Keihn will be back this week versus the Boilermakers.

The emerging MVP up front on the line may be junior tackle Kinsgley Opara, who appears to finally be hitting his stride after several ups and down and injuries in his UMD career. He has 11 tackles, 2 TFLS, a half a sack, and applied the pressure and snared the late quarterback fumble at UCF, staying with the play all the way. He is playing better in space and getting deeper into the backfield, and his engine seems much better this season as before you would only see fits and starts from the athletic but sometimes underachieving Florida product.

Senior end Roman Braglio has been solid with his 7 tackles and a QB hurry, and he always has a nose for the ball. He also helped key the big fourth down stop at FIU two weeks ago. After him, inside on the line, though, it has really been a mixed bag of rotating players who have been solid enough in occupying linemen for the linebackers to clean up, but need to work harder in getting off blocks and to the QB to make more plays. Cavon Walker, Brett Kulka, David Shaw, Malik Jones, etc., and not much Adam McLean (ankle injury, and did not make travel team for last two weeks), need to ramp up, especially given the Big Ten wars/big nasties to come.

While we'll see if the scheme becomes more aggressive starting this week, it is still a group  mostly by committee' and finding itself, though Opara no doubt is beginning to flash some potential.

The Terps have eight sacks through three games and five takeaways, thanks in large part to the three UCF fumble/miscues last week. Obviously they want to generate more pressure up front, and take the ball out of the air more on the back line, and the bye week was probably spent with a lot of time tinkering trying to further establish a better identity with the stakes getting higher. 

The unit has contained things up front well enough, minus a few scattered broken plays/deep shots, keeping much of play in front of them. Only at UCF was tackling a bit suspect, but that was the fastest, most aggressive group they had seen. But obviously it will be a new ball game starting Saturday with Purdue, and then on the road at PSU, as more battles in the trenches must be won as this critical, early stretch continues for Maryland and first-year Coach D.J. Durkin, The feeling is the Terps haven't shown much in getting through their non-conference slate unscathed.

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