Maryland positional preview: Defensive line

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It goes without saying that to be in college football (and really any level of the sport) it is wise to be in possession of a good offensive line.

Of course, to be great, you’re probably going to need an excellent defensive line.

And when examining the last five seasons of Maryland football, “great” is rarely the adjective that springs to mind to encompass the entirety of the program.

If there’s a common thread to tie it all together, it’s that the defensive lines of all those teams were at best fair and at worst a colander.

Here’s a glance at Maryland’s rushing defense in the Ralph Friedgen years:

YearYardsACC rank
Record
200190.61st10-2
2002128.63rd11-3
2003129.43rd10-3
2004143.17th5-6
2005165.711th5-6
2006162.910th9-4
2007147.310th6-7
2008146.79th8-5

Realistically, there’s only two other numbers that so consistently track the differences between the 10-win years and everything that’s come since – points scored (duh!) and rushing offense, and rest assured they’ll get vetted in due time.

But for today’s purposes, this chart works just fine to illustrate a big reason why the Terps have authored solid-though-unspectacular seasons for the latter portion of the Aughts.

The line did a better job holding up in those early years, did what it could when paired with an atrocious offense in 2004, summarily got trampled the next two years (Steve Slaton sends his regards) and then settled into alternating between quality play and getting flattened via superior opponents (Darren Evans sends his regards) the last two years.

Yesterday, it was mentioned here that Maryland churned out linebackers at an impressive rate over the last decade or so, and as such should be given the benefit of the doubt when those manning the position aren’t all that tested.

Of course, the reverse is true on the line, where only three players in eight seasons have heard their name called during the NFL Draft:

* Charles Hill, one the underrated veteran stars of the 2001 team
* Randy Starks, part of Friedgen’s first recruiting class
* Dre Moore, a D1scourse favorite who was also a bit of a project

Perhaps more stunning: The Terps haven’t had a defensive end selected since Derek Steele went in the seventh round in 2002.

That brings us, at long last, to trying to figure out just what the Terps have to work with this year. And, as is usually the case, Maryland looks a little bit better at tackle than end.

That’s because, as things stand now, the Terps have at least a couple players worthy of the admiring Keith Jackson label “Big Uglies” – Travis Ivey (6-4, 325) and Dion Armstrong (6-1, 303). Toss in redshirt freshman A.J. Francis (6-5, 310) and that’s a good start.

It’s a lot of size, and it was missing last year when Maryland went small on the interior with Jeremy Navarre and Bemi Otulaja for much of the season before the Ivey/Armstrong tandem emerged and Navarre shifted back to end.

Undersized is OK if you’re healthy and technically sound and receive some help; undersized and injured is not, as the Terps found out the hard way on Evans’ huge night in Blacksburg last November. Still, the Terps maximized what they had at tackle given the less-than-ideal circumstances, and may well do so this season while playing a stronger hand.

End, though, is a greater quandary. At some point, you look at the top two players at the “Anchor” position – seniors Jared Harrell and Deege Galt – and understandably wonder how well a couple seniors who have just 22 games and two starts between them can hold over the course of a full season.

Harrell is an interesting possibility; he had five tackles for loss in limited duty last season and is yet another really bright defensive lineman to come through the program. But it’s guesswork to project how he’ll do over a dozen games. You just don’t know.

On the other side, there is virtually no track record. Derek Drummond didn’t play until Rick Costa’s November arrest and didn’t start until Trey Covington came up lame the week before the season finale. Then there’s redshirt freshman Masengo Kabongo – an untested quantity – and true freshman De’Onte Arnett, a guy who could thrive once he adds some weight to his impressive frame.

Perhaps the most important part of the hiring of Don Brown as defensive coordinator is the philosophical shift away from expecting so much from the line at the expense of avoiding disaster in the secondary. Like it or not – and fans resoundingly did not like it one bit – that was the approach the last three seasons.

There will be less pressure on the line this time around, what with the blitzing from all areas of the defense and a rather clear belief the Terps’ defensive backs can survive on an island. That should make life a little less stressful for Maryland’s linemen, though that’s a relative term with leather-lunged coach Dave Sollazzo barking commands on the practice field every day.

The recent track record says the Terps will be no better than so-so on the defensive line, and you’d need to be desperate for hope to believe that a solid spring against an embryonic offensive line means good days are just ahead.

It’s tough to know precisely what to expect. The inexperience is a minus, Brown’s system a plus (in large part because it helps nullify past history a bit).

In the end, the Terps might be a little bit better on the defensive front than in 2008. But they probably won’t be great, and that’s going to have some limiting effect on the entire program’s upside in 2009.

Patrick Stevens

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