Maryland rewind '08: Defensive line

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If there was an obvious deficiency the Maryland football team could only hope didn’t cause problems as it opened camp, it was the defensive line.

Then Travis Iveygot hurt. And Carl Russell, like Ivey, broke a foot. And Mack Frost never fully recovered from knee surgery a year earlier. And Bemi Otulaja wound up in one of those detestable plastic walking boots.

And on and on and on it went. It also should come as no surprise that Maryland’s defensive linemen accounted for 10.5 sacks all season (this total excludes the LEO position, which will be looked at in the linebackers review).

At the college level, there are two ways to express frustratiion when something that isn’t as good as it you think it should be.

You can blame the players if they happen to be underachievers.

Or you can blame the coaches for not attracting better talent.

Sometimes it is on the players. But not in this instance.

For the most part, the defensive line was a unit of maximization, a group that squeezed pretty much everything they had out of their natural talent. Jeremy Navarre was that sort of player as he moved inside to tackle and then back outside to end later in the season. So too were Otulaja and Dean Muhtadi, a pair of former walk-ons who are both members of my all-time Maryland all-interview team.

Ivey and Dion Armstrong played fairly well when thrust into starting roles late in the season. Frost had moments – especially with his sack against North Carolina – whenever he could play. Jared Harrell had five tackles for loss in mostly a reserve role.

But there was not a true, menacing defensive end who could humiliate offensive tackles with an assortment of pass rushing maneuvers. There was not a ginormous, run-clogging tackle who might as well have worn a “Do Not Enter” sign on the front of his jersey as he filled up a hole.

Maryland had its moments against the run (California, Wake Forest, Nevada) and some not-so-great moments (Clemson in the first half, Virginia, Virginia Tech). The pass rush was best summed up in two words: Coverage sacks.

This was a group dedicated to methodically going about its business, relying on technique and resilience rather than an overwhelming reservoir of talent.

In other words, they were who we thought they were.

No one can credibly say Maryland’s defensive line was an elite unit. But that was a matter of raw talent, not effort.

In one way or another, responsibility for the unit’s shortcomings fall on Dave Sollazzo. It’s much smarter to examine the work of Sollazzo the recruiting coordinator (and head coach Ralph Friedgen) rather than Sollazzo the defensive line coach. Scrutinizing the decision to play Carlos Feliciano for four games in 2004 when he would have been vastly more valuable this season as a fifth-year senior is also worthwhile.

The thing is, Maryland was fortunate it received as much as it did from Muhtadi, whose steep out-of-state tuition bills for business school probably would have sent him elsewhere had he not received a scholarship last spring. The Terps also got as much as possible out of Otulaja, the good-natured New Yorker who was a late-camp scholarship addition.

(One of the best camp stories remains Otulaja recounting how he scribbled the words “Scholarship player?” on the back of one of his workout shirts. He started 10 games for the Terps, which more than answered the question).

Those maximum-effort options are gone now, as is a four-year starter in Navarre. Frost leaves, as well. Replacing them will be four redshirt freshmen. A.J. Francis‘ redshirt was wisely saved (as was Masengo Kabongo‘s), but the two other guys (Russell and Joe Vellano) already have injury histories.

Ivey and Armstrong figure to start at Maryland’s two tackle positions next season, while Harrell is an early candidate at end. But this unit is no more settled now than it was at this time last year. It probably won’t be a unit with a ton of sacks or big-time publicity.

But the Terps showed this past season that if their D-line extracts everything possible out of its talent, it’ll be good enough to help reach a bowl game. Expect the same sort of outlook in 2009.

Patrick Stevens

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