Any idea who has the trickiest job among Maryland‘s coaching staff this season?
Here’s a vote for secondary coach Kevin Lempa, who must replace three of his four starters from last year. And who actually does the replacing could be in flux as much as any other position.
The one returning starter, Kevin Barnes, is one of three cornerbacks who are most likely to see the most playing time. He’s a senior, had a team-high four interceptions last year and is easily the most known commodity in the defensive backfield. He wasn’t listed as a starter at the end of the spring, but he’s as good a bet as any DB to be on the field when Delaware takes it first snap on Aug. 30.
The two other strong possibilities are Anthony Wiseman and Nolan Carroll. The question with Wiseman is never speed, and he was a useful part-time player in Maryland’s nickel and dime packages a year ago. He’s also 5-foot-10, which makes him a dicier option against some of the bigger wideouts in the ACC (think Florida State’s Greg Carr, who it seems like has been in Tallahassee for more than a decade).
Carroll enters his second season as a cornerback after beginning his career at wideout. He is also one of two Florida natives left on the Terps’ roster (along with Terrell Skinner). Can he be a starting defensive back? It remains to be seen, but he’ll certainly have a chance to log a lot of time this year.
A guy to keep an eye on is Richard Taylor, who won last season’s unofficial Obi Egekeze Award, a totally fictitious honor reserved for the Maryland football player who generates the most questions from beat writers despite either never playing or barely appearing at all. Past “winners” include Egekeze (2005-quadriceps) and Drew Weatherly (2006-broken foot).
Taylor actually deserves credit for making this otherwise sardonic list. He suffered an ACL injury in April 2007 but insisted to coach Ralph Friedgen he would make it back in time for the opener. Most guys probably wouldn’t have wormed their way into any conversation about returning until November, and as it turns out that’s about when Taylor was cleared to play.
He didn’t wind up getting into any games, but his speed wasn’t going to be the same just seven months after surgery. Taylor will be better off this fall, and should press for a role —- and maybe a starting gig.
The Terps lost their top two safeties —- three-year starter Christian Varner and program player J.J. Justice, a guy whose role grew incrementally throughout his career. Maryland has a player with a similar career arc ready to step in at strong safety: Jeff Allen.
The senior will finally get a chance to start, and his special teams work is evidence he should be capable of taking over for the loquacious Varner.
Free safety could turn out to be one of the top camp battles. Converted wideout Terrell Skinner and Southern Cal transfer Antwine Perez shared the top spot in the spring. Perez was one of the elite prospects in the country when he signed with the Trojans in 2006, but he played sparingly as a freshman (no great surprise for a team perennially in national title contention) and left L.A.
Perez’s was a name you would assume was heard a lot throughout the spring. You would assume incorrectly. A newly recharged and revitalized Friedgen had plenty more time to oversee the defense, but Perez did not come up often when the banal “anyone jumping at you?” and/or “anyone making a move?”questions the big fella could answer in his sleep were inevitably asked after each practice.
There’s also the issue of Dominique Herald, who played linebacker in the spring but is a natural safety. Maryland seems intent on getting him on the field, and it very well could happen at his original position.
The free safety spot alone makes it far liklier that the Terps will have some instability in their secondary. And that just hasn’t happened very much in the Friedgen Era.
In seven seasons, someone who wasn’t the “regular starter” got the nod a total of 16 times. That’s four players over 87 games, and using the basic precepts of a College Park education (recognizing those digits and a multiplication sign on a calculator), it’s easy to calculate 348 possible secondary starts. The Terps have started a substitute defensive back just 4.6 percent of the time, or just a little more than twice a season.
2001: 6 (Dennard Wilson 3, Dominique Foxworth 2, Rod Littles 1).
2003: 1 (Jamal Chance 1)
2004: 5 (Josh Wilson 4, Reuben Haigler 1)
2005: 2 (Isaiah Gardner 1, J.J. Justice 1)
2006: 2 (J.J. Justice 1, Kevin Barnes 1)
In short, that’s only two shaky spots —- the Tony Okanlawon/Dennard Wilson/Dominique Foxworth cornerback sequence in 2001, and the Reuben Haigler/Gerrick McPhearson/Josh Wilson cornerback combo in 2004. Those two account for nine of the subs starting (Wilson started another game at the other cornerback spot in ‘01). No one else missed more than one start in a season.
That’s a remarkable history of stability —- one that can’t be counted upon to continue this fall. There just aren’t enough obvious answers to think everything will sort itself out in a neat little package.
Lempa could certainly produce a sound unit; he did it at Boston College before he joined the Terps. Maryland quietly ranked in the top third nationally in pass defense, though some of that was a function of opponents eschewing the aerial game for running fly sweeps and other such misdirection plays against a vulnerable defense front.
Call it a gut feeling: Even if the secondary is effective —- and it very well might be —- the way Maryland uses its defensive backs will bear monitoring deep into the season.
Coming tomorrow: The tight ends.