Yesterday provided the opportunity to analyze one of Maryland’s biggest weaknesses heading into the 2008.
Today will be the exact opposite —- a look at an unmitigated strength.
The Terrapins‘ linebackers typically fare rather well (though the traditionally high tackle totals can be chalked up to athletic LBs, a favorable scheme or simply more opportunities because of a overmatched defensive line). Last year, Erin Henderson and Dave Philistin were particularly impressive, and not a week went by without praise being heaped upon Adrian Moten.
Much was made —- seemingly more by fans than anyone —- about a restructured defensive scheme. Maryland showed a willingness to tweak its ineffective LEO position in the spring, some welcome news for three-year starter Trey Covington (who is far better served trying to use speed rather than strength to contend with an offensive tackle).
Covington, he of the 6.5 career sacks, is not his predecessor at LEO, Shawne Merriman. But he could be a capable player further off the line. That chance could develop this fall, though there’s really no way to tell yet if Maryland plans to go forward with its adjustments —- or if the adjustments will be particularly glaring.
Either way, Covington ranks second on Maryland’s roster in career starts (34, behind only Jeremy Navarre). The players immediately behind him are a redshirt freshman (Derek Drummond) and a junior whose experience mostly lies on special teams (Jeff Clement).
Looking for a completely random wild card here? How about Rick Costa, who has played on the strong and weak sides at Maryland but had some success as a third-down rusher? It would be no surprise to see him reprise that role, assuming he can stay free of injuries (neck, shoulder) and concussions (two in a three-month span last year).
As for the Terps’ more conventional linebacker positions, there are few questions about who could be filling them. Figuring out where everyone will slide in is another matter.
Alex Wujciak (barring any more injuries) will finally make his long-awaited debut, and he seems like a good fit at middle linebacker. Coach Ralph Friedgen gushed non-stop about the guy two seasons ago, and seemed tempted to burn his redshirt. Ultimately, Wujciak ripped up an ACL in camp last year and lost another season. He comes with about as much hype as a guy who hasn’t played a real game at any level since late 2005 can bring.
The incumbent middle linebacker is Dave Philistin, who shifted there last season and wound up fourth in the ACC in tackles. He missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, but could probably play anywhere. He started games at strong side linebacker earlier in his career and spent a spring on the weak side. He’ll be somewhere and should be particularly valuable.
An equally versatile option is sophomore Adrian Moten, who backed up all three linebacker spots last year. The over/under on the number of times Friedgen says “We need to get this guy on the field” during camp is probably about 14, which is about right for a guy who managed to share the team lead in sacks (5.5) without starting a game. Moten, too, could wind up just about anywhere, but he put in his spring work on the strong side.
If he stays there, he’ll be trying to fend off 2007 starter Moise Fokou. The former walk-on was steady if not particularly spectacular last year, but that can happen when the other two starting linebackers are tackling machines.
Fokou missed the spring while recuperating from shoulder surgery, which gave the Terps a chance to toy with sophomore Dominique Herald at linebacker. Friedgen was impressed with how well the hard-hitting safety adapted to the position. But if all the talk of a 3-3-5 Stack scheme (and don’t worry, that breakdown is coming at some juncture) comes to fruition, Herald will almost certainly have to be used as one of the two strong safeties (or rovers, or whatever term you wish to assign to the spot). Maryland isn’t particularly deep in the defensive backfield —- not nearly as deep as at linebacker, anyway —- and would probably be best served using Herald there.
There are a couple more interesting names in play. Chase Bullock figured his turn to play had finally arrived last year when he began August as the starter at middle linebacker. Instead, he sprained an ankle in camp and was mostly an afterthought after Philistin won the job. Bullock played on the weak side (Erin Henderson’s old spot) in the spring, but there has to be a decent chance that he’ll have to compete with Philistin again next month.
Redshirt freshman Ben Pooler also figures to play some this year, though he spent the spring as Wujciak’s backup. That might not be a spot conducive to seeing the field too much.
The one concern some fans might have is finding a replacement for Henderson. Yet in the Friedgen Era, it hasn’t exactly been difficult to plug holes at linebacker when a talented player departs. D’Qwell Jackson took over for E.J. Henderson. Wesley Jefferson replaced Jackson. Erin Henderson took over for William Kershaw, who has floated around the NFL the last two years. Philistin was a more-than-capable successor for Jefferson.
Either Maryland is really good at recruiting linebackers, or it’s a lot easier to replace players at that position than others. Or it very well may be both.
No matter what the answer is, the Terps will be fine at linebacker in ‘08 —- and could be absurdly deep if injuries don’t strike again.
Coming tomorrow: The secondary.