It is inevitable that any preview magazine providing a quick look at Maryland’s prospects for 2008 will mention the the loss of a veteran tailback tandem as perhaps the biggest concern facing the Terrapins.
Actually, it doesn’t come close to the greatest worry.
Most Maryland fans can pinpoint a much more vulnerable position. While the Terps can trot out a couple young running backs behind a burly, established offensive line, give them the instructions “Run through the hole. FAST!” and probably do reasonably well, the defensive line might not be as well off.
Statistically, the line produced its best season in three years last fall, but that isn’t saying all that much. The Terps’ sack totals were in consistent decline since coach Ralph Friedgen’s first season, falling from 38 (2001) to 37 (2002) to 33 (2003) to 28 (2004) to 21 (2005) to 20 (2006). Last year, that number jumped back to 28 – still only ninth in the 12-team ACC.
The rushing defense also scuffled, yielding nearly 150 yards a game. A good chunk of that damage came from opponents repeatedly scampering to the edge, which provided a certain retro feel to Maryland games even if no one employed the wishbone to achieve their results.
It’s possible that both the sack total goes down and the rushing yards allowed per game goes up this year.
Dre Moore was arguably the Terps’ most irreplaceable part last year, an athletic, run-clogging tackle who Tampa Bay drafted in the fourth round back in April. Carlos Feliciano blossomed into a decent nose tackle as a senior. Both are gone.
The only starter remaining is senior Jeremy Navarre, who is set to move inside to tackle. He did play there at times last year, but at only 270 pounds will probably face some physical mismatches. He’s a three-year starter with nine career sacks – not exactly huge numbers given the opportunities available – though he did toss up a reputable 5.5-sack performance last year.
The best bet as a backup is senior Dean Muhtadi, who got into six games a year ago. The transfer from Christopher Newport (and he won’t be the last lineman who began his career at a small school to be mentioned) should again be a reserve this fall.
The logical replacement for Navarre at end is senior Mack Frost, who played half of last season before a knee injury shelved him. There was a two-week stretch – against Rutgers and Georgia Tech – that it seemed Frost had really established a decent role for himself. Then, like seemingly half his teammates, he got hurt.
While Frost was out during the spring, the top of the depth chart was shared by Jared Harrell and Deege Galt. Harrell made it into four games last season, and Galt just one. Both will be needed to provide help as Maryland attempts to establish some sort of rotation.
That leaves nose tackle, where it’s pretty clear Maryland would have liked it if Travis Ivey would have already seized the position. He started the spring atop the depth chart and wasn’t exactly facing the most experienced competition. Instead, he was busted down to third string by the middle of the spring, and the prospective starter is walk-on (and Marist transfer) Olugbemi Otulaja.
The man Friedgen calls “Bemi” – Ralph admits he can’t pronounce the guy’s name, and “Bemi” seems a lot more respectful than the classic football coach fallback of “No. 96” – was particularly effective when injuries thrust him into the loss at North Carolina last year. Another possibility is redshirt freshman Dion Armstrong.
But the reality is defensive line is not the best position to be expecting walk-ons to contribute. It’s possible to unearth linebackers and tight ends and safeties – in part because there are a lot more guys with the body type to fit those roles running around.
There’s only so many people big enough and strong enough to be defensive linemen, which places an onus on not messing up in recruiting. But a quick look back at the D-linemen the Terps signed between 2004 and 2006 (presumably the guys who would be entering their third, fourth and fifth seasons) shows Maryland hasn’t received as much as it needed in that span.
* Carlos Feliciano: Forced to play as a freshman (and managed the dreaded “Did not record any statistics” for that season) and started his final season-and-a-half. Maryland could have really used him for 12 games in ‘08 rather than four games in ‘04.
* Mack Frost: It’s OK that Frost took a while to mature. He was a spare part his first two years, then probably the team’s best reserve lineman last year. Frost will obviously be needed to do more.
* Jack Griffin: Played for two years before switching to offensive line.
* Dennis Marsh: Transferred to Norfolk State after his redshirt freshman season.
* Dane Randolph: Converted into an offensive tackle.
* Melvin Alaeze: Signed twice, but his criminal proclivities prompted Friedgen to uninvite the talented Baltimore-area product. It turned out to be a sage move, but the Terps still invested a lot of time to recruit a highly regarded prospect and got nothing to show for their trouble but a headache they foisted upon Illinois and later the state correctional system.
* Deege Galt: Lost a year with a knee injury and has played in one game in his career.
* Jared Harrell: Used sparingly over the last two seasons.
* Barrod Heggs: Ran afoul of Friedgen from time to time before academic problems torpedoed his career after his redshirt freshman season.
* Travis Ivey: Served as a reserve – when healthy – last year as a redshirt sophomore.
(EDIT: Forgot to initially put this in, but Jeremy Navarre was actually recruited as a fullback before quickly being shifted to the defensive line. His absence would otherwise be exceptionally glaring from that list).
Included in this is a net zero for the 2006 recruiting class. The only defensive line possibilities in that group were Alaeze and Bruce Campbell (who, after a year at prep school, eventually matriculated as an offensive lineman.)
Of the 10 guys listed above, one never made it to campus, two left pretty quickly and two were turned into offensive linemen. Most schools, including Maryland, need more than 50 percent of their defensive line recruits to have an impact for at least two seasons. That 50 percent is the Terps’ ceiling for the middle of the decade is not encouraging.
The consequences of the errors of four years ago could very well manifest themselves this fall. And that has to be the greatest concern of all in College Park entering 2008.