The Washington Times - January 12, 2009, 11:39PM

Back in July, I pointed out a curious trend for the Maryland football program.

For all of its ups and downs and injuries and whatever, it always had stability in the secondary.

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From 2002 to 2007 – six full seasons – Maryland needed to start a substitute defensive back all of 10 times. Six were spot starts, the other four coming after Josh Wilson wrested a job away in 2004 as a sophomore.

So what happened this year? Maryland needed to account for eight extra starts on account of injuries to its two best defensive backs.

It’s safe to anoint Kevin Barnes the best of the bunch, a cornerback who very well might be drafted early on the second day of the draft despite a shoulder injury in mid-October that cost him the second half of his senior year.

After that, it sure seemed like Terrell Skinner was as effective as anyone – certainly in spurts.

Then there is Jamari McCollough (who was such a long-shot entering camp he didn’t even get mentioned in the link above). While Moise Fokou was probably the Terps’ best defender and Alex Wujciak would probably receive some consideration for the team’s defensive player of the year, McCollough was arguably the most valuable member of the unit.

He was a backup at both safety positions and at cornerback, which isn’t the easiest thing to do. Yet he was a bit of a revelation as a junior, picking off four passes for the season and collecting a critical sack against N.C. State.

Those were the good things. In general, though, it was a fairly humdrum unit that didn’t look all that bad in part because of a scheme that provided some help.

Let’s look at the final seven regular-season games (mostly post-Barnes), shall we? Maryland intercepted one pass in that span. No, that’s not a typo. McCollough’s pick of Cam Sexton in the closing moments against North Carolina was it in terms of takeaways in the passing game.

In that same span, the Terps yielded three touchdown passes of more than 20 yards – to Virginia’s Kevin Ogletree, Carolina’s Cooter Arnold and Boston College’s Rich Gunnell (when a defender tripped).

(For the whole season, those numbers are 10 interceptions and six touchdown passes of 20+ yards, but half of those picks came against Delaware and Eastern Michigan).

Now, what follows is a highly simplistic conclusion, but it’s worth considering anyway: The secondary didn’t make many huge plays, but it didn’t cripple the Terps, either.

Certainly, the safety play was solid. Skinner, when healthy, often looked like a natural as a defensive back. Senior Jeff Allen was precisely what he projected out to be – a durable regular and a steady tackler who made the most of his talent. Backup Kenny Tate, a true freshman, received plenty of time and is a safe bet to start if he wisely opts to remain on defense.

Cornerback, though, was another issue.

Barnes’ injury didn’t help. Neither did fifth-year senior Richard Taylor’s latest knee injury. That left Nolan Carroll and Anthony Wiseman to play much of the time at corner, with a bit of McCollough tossed in – especially when Carroll was battling his off-and-on ankle injury that understandably cost him some time.

Ultimately, coaches believed those three were the best options, which very well might have been the case. Much of the time, opponents eschewed the passing game for running against a small defensive line, and it might have been a saving grace. When Maryland finally sold out to stop the run, it yielded 370 passing yards to Nevada in the Humanitarian Bowl.

Needless to say, it was not a fine day for the Terps’ defensive backs.

Still, you’re not going to fly a free agent in for a tryout in the college game. Maryland went with what it had, and while neither star-studded nor flashy, proved adequate for what the Terps wanted to do in 2008.

In fact, beyond the bowl game shredding (and the demolition against Middle Tennessee and the fourth quarter of the Cal game), arguably the worst thing that happened to the secondary was a coaching decision.

This, of course, was using Cameron Chism’s redshirt to play on the kickoff team for the last 10 games – and then barely using him on defense.

Yes, there was a shortage of cornerbacks, so it made sense to use Chism once Taylor (and especially Barnes) went down with their injuries. So not to do it while actually using him four or five times a game on kickoffs was rather baffling.

If Chism was ready play, why not use him a series here or a series there? And if he wasn’t (and I mean no slight to special teams work when I write this), why not use someone else on the kickoff team? The dropoff couldn’t be that substantial, no?

Already, Chism has a place in the top five most inexplicably burned redshirts of the Ralph Friedgen era, with his final spot on this subjective list still to be determined:

1. DT Carlos Feliciano (2004)
2. WR Danny Melendez (2002)
3. TE Jason Goode (2004)
4. CB Cam Chism (2008)
5. WR Drew Weatherly (2003) or WR Isaiah Williams (2005)

That, of course, is an argument for a summer day when there’s nothing better to do than bicker about past true freshmen as camp looms in the distance.

The point of this exercise was to look back on a single season. Maryland’s pass defense – which obviously falls quite a bit on the secondary – yielded 218 yards a game, and had 10 interceptions to go with 20 passing touchdowns yielded.

Those numbers, clearly, do not suggest greatness. Neither was it patently dreadful.

Instead, it was a lot like the rest of the team: Inconsistent.

Unlike much of the rest of the team, injuries were a factor in the inconsistency.

And unlike most of the unit’s immediate predecessors, Maryland’s secondary actually had to deal with injuries.

There is plenty of room to improve. But it’s going to take some stability – a thing all-too-familiar for much of the decade, but all-too-elusive in 2008.

Patrick Stevens