Just wanted to pass along an early look at the spring game advance for tomorrow’s e-edition.
The topic – Maryland’s revamped defense, which is really the big story of the spring.
Certainly, it’s feasted on the Terps’ offensive line. But beyond simply production, it’s energized a group of defensive backs who basically waited to get hit with whatever another team would try to do over the last few seasons.
I asked both Anthony Wiseman and Jamari McCollough how they were doing with the new scheme. Both started with the same thing: “I love it.”
It was genuine, too, the sort of instant reply accompanied by an eager smile rather than a pause. If nothing else, it’s clear these guys believe they’re in for a big season.
Onto the story:
Anthony Wiseman got a new coach and immediately started doing his homework.
He hit the phones, asking friends who played in the CAA against Massachusetts coach-turned-Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown. The consensus was the same: The Terrapins’ cornerback was going to love his final season.
After a spring of adopting a more physical defense and perpetually pestering a beleaguered offense, Wiseman knows the fun is only starting now that Brown has infused a new identity into the Terps.
“He always says ‘Play with our hair on fire,’” Wiseman said.
Consider the Terrapins perpetually singed.
While spring games – like Saturday’s at Byrd Stadium – typically possess all the flavor of a glass of water, this year’s game at least provides a first glimpse at a defensive scheme coach Ralph Friedgen is eager to deploy in the fall.
“In the past, it was more of reacting to what the other team does,” safety Jamari McCollough said. “With this defense, we’re going to make them do what we want. It’s a real big difference.”
It all starts in the secondary, where Maryland’s personnel is almost ideal for the switch. The Terps could start four fifth-year seniors in the secondary, and both Brown and Friedgen are pleased with the rotation Maryland can deploy at both safety spots.
A scheme reliant on pressing receivers at the line is almost a perfect fit for cornerback Nolan Carroll, a 6-foot-1, 202-pounder likely to miss the spring game with a concussion. It also appeals greatly to Wiseman, who enters his second season as a starter.
The returning safeties thrived even more this spring, particularly McCollough and Kenny Tate. Friedgen is eager to find ways to get both strong safeties on the field, a desire that won’t necessarily nudge Terrell Skinner or Antwine Perez to the sideline.
“The difference I see in our secondary is they’re playing so much more confidently than they did last year,” Friedgen said. “I saw us at times last year when we played man coverage, we’d play so far off them. We were so worried about getting beat. I think Don’s come in and kind of showed them some good technique.”
One of the first things Brown did was ensure Friedgen divided the coaching responsibilities in the secondary. Brown oversees the cornerbacks, and Kevin Lempa handles the safeties.
The truly position-specific responsibilities aren’t the only pro-style developments. McCollough, who frequently watches tape of pros like Troy Polamalu and Bob Sanders, realized early in the spring he was working in similar schemes.
“I feel like I’m out there playing for the Ravens,” McCollough said. “It’s crazy. We’re doing the same thing I see them doing on film – a lot of blitzing, very aggressive.”
Without question, the Terps embraced a riskier approach this spring. Brown frequently implores the secondary to value the possibility of tipped passes, and Maryland is eager to end a 33-game drought without a touchdown. The last member of the secondary to return an interception for a score was Domonique Foxworth in 2003.
The change in philosophy also leaves Maryland vulnerable to yielding big plays. With the safeties so vital to creating pressure, the Terps’ cornerbacks will probably face more one-on-one situations than the past.
“If you can’t play on an island to some degree, you’re going to struggle,” Brown said. “At the same time, I think if you’re a Division I defensive back, you dream about the ultimate one-on-one challenge of college football. Like I told them, only the truly great ones can live on this island.”
It’s a substantial shift of thinking for a team coming off an 10-interception season, including just three in its final eight games. Maryland hasn’t averaged more than one interception a game since 2002, but the implementation of Brown’s defense bolstered belief among a group of defensive backs who have never visited the end zone.
“I think as individuals, we didn’t get recruited for nothing,” Wiseman said. “Obviously we have some skills. Sometimes it’s just the right coach. Every coach is different, but I think this coach fits our needs.”