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Maryland's Lineup Tinkering Holds Publicity, Recruiting Implications

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and Staff

September 20, 2004 COLLEGE PARK — A casual fan, glancing at the Maryland depth chart in the school's media guide or website, might think the Terps have changed their basic defensive alignment. From left to right along the defensive line, the positions are listed as end, tackle, nose tackle and end. There are three linebacker positions shown — weak-side linebacker, middle linebacker and strong-side linebacker. On paper, that's a traditional 4-3 scheme, which would be a pretty significant departure from what's actually been used on the field in College Park for the past five seasons.

It was former Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden, a long-time defensive coordinator, who created the position known as Leo, a hybrid between a linebacker and an end. The Leo lines up on the weak side, most often in a two-point stance, essentially as a fourth linebacker. Players in that position must be strong enough to take on a direct block and be the first line of defense against the run, quick and powerful enough to beat a tackle in pass-rushing situations, yet fast and sleek enough to drop into coverage against a tight end or running back.

Vanderlinden and then-defensive coordinator Wally Ake initially experimented with the position in 1999, when the Terrapins were short on linemen. Erwyn Lyght, a former linebacker, was listed as an end on the depth chart, but he really played the hybrid role that later would define the Leo.

Maryland changed the designation of that particular position on the depth chart the following season, as Mike Whaley moved into the role. Blackney became the defensive coordinator when Friedgen was hired before the 2001 season, and the new staff decided to maintain Vanderlinden's basic scheme on that side of the ball.

Jamahl Cochran succeeded Whaley at Leo but since has been replaced by Shawne Merriman, an amazing physical specimen who is the prototypical player for that unique position. Merriman, at 6-4 and 245 pounds, runs the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds and can vertical leap more than 38 inches. He can bench press 385 pounds and squat 590.

"It's so hard to find someone who can play that position," Friedgen said. "It's essentially a defensive end, but we do so much zone blitzing that he has to drop into pass coverage a lot like a linebacker. You've got to find a guy who's strong enough to take on a 300-pound tackle and stop the run, yet mobile enough to cover a back out of the backfield, or even a wide receiver. Shawne could play other positions, but I think he's going to be a dominant player at that position."

Merriman can perform all of the required roles at a high level. Last season, he led the team with 8.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hurries. He also had 9.5 tackles for loss. Yet the junior out of Frederick Douglass High in Upper Marlboro, Md., also was outstanding in coverage — able to run stride-for-stride with a running back, tight end or even slot receiver while also making numerous downfield tackles.

By all accounts, Merriman will continue to perform the same role for Maryland this season, that of a hybrid linebacker-end. Blackney likes the Leo concept because it allows him flexibility in his vast arsenal of blitz packages. If Blackney wants to blitz a safety, as he often has done with senior Chris Kelley this fall, he can drop Merriman into zone coverage to compensate.

So why the change in terminology?

The answer is simple. Nobody knows what the heck a Leo linebacker is, and the Maryland staff got sick of explaining it. Furthermore, none of Maryland's outstanding Leo linebackers — despite their amazing versatility — were being selected to All-ACC teams and such, perhaps in part because some media members weren't making the right connection between the players and their position on the ballot. Whaley, Cochran and Merriman never received any postseason recognition, despite putting up some great numbers.

The biggest reason for the change, though, is recruiting. Maryland thinks it has lost some top-notch defensive end targets in part because opposing schools told those players they would not be highlighted in a scheme that required only three down linemen. That negative recruiting tactic was used on in-state standouts Victor Abiamiri (Baltimore Gilman, Notre Dame) and Derrick Harvey (Greenbelt Roosevelt, Florida), and Maryland coaches were growing weary of having to explain to those recruits why it wasn't true.

"If the players like being called a defensive end, and it helps with recruiting," Blackney said, "then let's go ahead and (make the change)."

Obviously, in a true 4-3 alignment, both ends line up with a hand in the dirt, and they usually have quarterback-rushing responsibility in obvious passing situations. In Maryland's scheme, opposing coaches told recruits, the lone end would never get sacks because he usually would be lined up on the strong side. That means he would have to play off a bump from the tight end, then beat a block by the tackle and perhaps a chip from a running back just to get near the quarterback.

Of course, none of it is that simple, especially in this era of multiple fronts and disguised coverages. Kevin Eli, the Terps' strong-side defensive end for most of last season, was second on the team with 12 quarterback hurries and third with 5.5 sacks in 2003. He was named second-team All-ACC.

Yet the fact that Merriman received no recognition, despite putting up superb statistics, further convinced the Maryland coaching staff to get rid of the Leo acronym and simply call that position a defensive end.

Again, recruiting was a major factor in that decision. Maryland desperately wants to land in-state (Randallstown) stud Melvin Alaeze, who is rated the nation's No. 1 defensive end by some services. Friedgen and Blackney didn't want Alaeze hearing more myths about how ends aren't able to shine in Maryland's system.

Finally, it also should be noted that a key factor in Blackney's earlier decision to stick with the Leo concept was that the previous regime had been recruiting players to fit that position. The coach wanted to employ a system that properly utilized the available personnel, and for the last few years the Terps have been woefully shy of true ends.

Certainly, Blackney would reconsider his defensive alignment again if he had a bunch of big, strong powerful ends in the mold of an Abiamiri, Harvey or Alaeze.

Hokies Shifting Recruiting Focus

BLACKSBURG — The move to the ACC gave Virginia Tech a chance to save two things on the football recruiting front.

One is time. The other is aggravation.

Once the ACC deal was sealed, Tech quickly was able to do something it had thought about for a while — eliminate Florida from its regular recruiting travels. While the Sunshine State remains unbelievably talent-rich turf, teams outside the state must compete with a pretty good triumvirate in Miami, Florida State and Florida. In short, most outsiders have been getting only second-tier talent away from the Hurricanes, Seminoles and Gators.

Plus, recruiting in Florida "is a whole different world," one Hokies assistant said. "The word 'commitment' has a different meaning there."

A number of de-commits over the years out of Florida frustrated Tech coach Frank Beamer. Almost all of those who said they'd sign with Tech and didn't came from Florida.

Instead, Tech is concentrating much more of its recruiting time and resources on North Carolina, as well as some in South Carolina and Georgia.

"The talent there is awfully good," a Tech staffer said, "and they seem to be good kids."

Tech previously had three assistant coaches assigned to Florida, which is a considerable investment of resources, and the Hokies have had some success there. Of the team's current starters, offensive guard James Miller (Pompano Beach) and cornerback Eric Green (Clewiston) are from Florida. The 2004 roster lists six players from Florida. In recent years, a handful of starter-types have come from the Sunshine State.

But the stars in the state usually stay in-state. Tech wanted running back Tyrone Moss badly and put in plenty of time toward his recruitment. In the end, though, he stayed with his hometown Miami Hurricanes. In addition, the state has an unusually high percentage of academic question marks, far more than Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, and many ACC recruiters talk of the ethically challenging nature of recruiting in some parts of Florida, especially the talent-rich southern portion of the state.

And the de-commits? If Beamer's hair wasn't already mostly gray, they were enough to finish the job.

Two years ago, quarterback Courtney Denson of Miami said early in the recruiting process that he was committed to Tech. In what should have been a strong hint, he also said at the time that he was going to "take my visits and explore my options." Huh? So, Courtney, are you committed or not?

"Yes," Denson said. "I'm committed to Virginia Tech."

Denson, of course, signed with Auburn. He has since left the Tigers.

There were more than a few people who thought Denson's "commitment" to Tech was nothing but a ploy. The Hokies wanted him as a quarterback, while others were looking at him as a defensive back. If Tech wanted him as a QB, the thinking went that a commitment to the Hokies would make some others promise they'd consider him as a quarterback, too.

As the Tech assistant said, Florida can be a "whole different world" on the recruiting trail. And he wasn't talking about Disney.

Tech had two more de-commits last year: defensive back Damian Sims of Boca Raton, who ended up signing with Iowa, and defensive end Mike Mangold of Merritt Island, who landed at Florida.

The Hokies won't turn away anyone from Florida. They still stay in touch with some of their better contacts there, and they will take a hard look at a prospect if they get a good recommendation. But this year, for example, a search of the ACC Sports Journal's football recruiting database failed to find a single Sunshine State prospect who had an offer from Tech and listed the Hokies among their favorites.

Meanwhile, Tech has reassigned those assistants who had Florida as part of their recruiting territory to the Carolinas.

In that regard, the Hokies can't beat the proximity. From Tech, it is a shorter drive to some of the major metropolitan areas of North Carolina than it is to some of the bigger cities in Virginia. It only makes sense that Tech would look for talent there.

It was a tough sell without the ACC. With Tech playing in the Big East, it had a hard time swooping in on a kid from Charlotte or Raleigh or Winston-Salem and saying, "Sign with us, and you'll never play in your own state."

With the ACC, Tech can count on at least two games a year in North Carolina and plenty more exposure in that state.

The move seems to be paying off. Tech already has signed a handful of players from North Carolina, including freshman quarterback Cory Holt (Lexington). He's in the process of taking a redshirt this season but is a prominent part of Tech's future plans.

Tripp Carroll is an offensive lineman from Charlotte who actually was signed out of Florida. He played his senior season at Andrew Jackson High in Jacksonville, which was coached by his father, but he's a Carolina kid. Unfortunately, his Tech career has been riddled with injuries. A leg problem caused him to take a redshirt season in 2003, and a concussion set him back in preseason this year, when he was making a push to be the starting center.

Justin Harper, from Catawba, is a wide receiver who is part of a talented group of true freshmen Tech is using at that position this season. He had three receptions through Tech's first three games. George Bell of Fayetteville is a promising tailback who was thought to be headed to N.C. State, but he chose Tech instead. He's already third-string, as a true freshman. Overall, Tech has five North Carolina players on its roster, three true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen.

North Carolina isn't the only new territory the Hokies have mined. They also received a commitment earlier this season from touted defensive back Dorian Porch of Calhoun, Ga. He said he picked the Hokies over nearby Georgia, although the Bulldogs (his favorite) never came through with a scholarship offer.

Tech also has had its share of frustration with its North Carolina recruiting.

Michael Hinton, a promising defensive back from Rocky Mount, was dismissed from the team in April after being arrested for assault and destruction of property. (He recently received a 30-day suspended jail sentence.) There's also the sad case of Rod Council, a cornerback from Charlotte who was rated among the best in the country at his position.

Council, an honors student, was caught after stealing about $16,000 worth of computer equipment from his school. Because of his solid background, he received a first-time offenders deal in court that would remove the incident from his record once he completed his high school education, some community service and some probation time. Tech still was willing to consider him for admission, but only after the record was completely cleared. The suggested plan called for him to attend Hargrave Military Academy and enroll at Tech later.

By the time everything was cleared up, however, Hargrave had no more scholarship money available. Council ended up signing with Louisville, where he was eligible immediately because the Hokies declined the player's offer to sign with them in February.

Frustration, though, is part of the recruiting process. It is an inexact science. Some promising players don't develop. Sometimes all of the reports say a kid is a solid citizen, yet he does something stupid. That happens everywhere.

Tech just hopes the bad things and the strange stuff will happen less often with kids from Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia than it did with kids from Florida.

Bonus Brick: On Underclassmen

Let's conclude our contribution to this issue (please see pages 12-13 and 18-19 for the rest) by providing information on six juniors and a precocious sophomore who are quite interested in major ACC area colleges. As usual, they will be introduced alphabetically.

Wayne Ellington (No. 16), an elite 6-4, 175-pound junior WG at Merion Station (PA) Episcopal Academy, was watched recently by coaches from UNC, Connecticut and Seton Hall at an open-gym workout. Among the many other prominent programs involved with him are Arizona, Duke, Syracuse, Kentucky, Villanova, St. Joseph's, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.

Eric Hayes (No. 48), a smooth 6-3 junior PG/WG at Dumfries (VA) Potomac who averaged 13 points and seven assists per game while drilling 91 percent of his free throws as a sophomore, already has scholarship offers from Virginia Tech, Miami, Richmond and West Virginia (Sept. 18-19 unofficial visit). Additionally, Maryland, N.C. State and Georgetown (Sept. 6 unofficial visit) are very interested, while UNC, Wake Forest, Boston College, Clemson and many others also are in contact with this heady, sharp-shooting floor general who played well this spring and summer for the Boo Williams All-Stars AAU team.

Gerald Henderson Jr. (No. 11), a 6-5, 195-pound junior WG/WF who's Ellington's high school teammate at Merion Station (PA) Episcopal Academy and the son of a former Philadelphia 76ers star of the same name, made two- to three-hour unofficial visits to the campuses of Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest and N.C. State on Sept. 4-5. During those visits, the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Demon Deacons offered him scholarships! Henderson, a terrific prospect who said he particularly was impressed by UNC's Dean Smith Center, also is interested in Villanova and Notre Dame, among others.

Marques Johnson (No. 33), a 6-5, 200-pound junior PG/WG at Fort Wayne (IN) Snider and an Underclassmen All-Star Game selectee at the Reebok ABCD Camp, recently made unofficial visits to nearby Indiana and Purdue. He's also being recruited very hard by Wake Forest and Georgetown, which round out his current top four. All four schools reportedly have offered this clever floor leader a scholarship.

Jon Scheyer (No. 20), a big-time 6-4 junior WG at Northbrook (IL) Glenbrook North, has unofficially visited Duke (offer), and the Blue Devils are at the top of his primary list, which also contains Illinois, California (Sept. 18-19 unofficial visit), Michigan State and Arizona. His secondary list consists of North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA and Notre Dame, which aren't currently recruiting this highly skilled prospect as avidly as the other five schools. During the upcoming season, Jon plans to visit Durham for a Duke home game, and he'll also attend games at Illinois (versus Wake Forest) and Michigan State.

Lance Thomas (No. 13), a highly mobile 6-8, 200-pound junior WF/BF who transferred this fall to Newark (NJ) St. Benedict's from Scotch Plains (NJ) Fanwood, was consistently impressive last spring and summer. His favorite colleges are Arizona (offer), Duke (no offer), Georgia Tech (offer) and Villanova (offer), while a plethora of others, including Connecticut, Syracuse, Rutgers, Kansas and Wake Forest, also have offered him a scholarship.

Eric Wallace (No. 3 in the Class of 2007), an exciting 6-5, 205-pound sophomore WF at Kernersville (NC) Glenn, unofficially visited Chapel Hill on Sept. 4 for the UNC-William & Mary football game. He chatted with Carolina coach Roy Williams for an hour and a half prior to the game, and he now has received a scholarship offer from the Tar Heels. As reported previously, Wallace (a tremendous talent who scored 17 points in the Reebok ABCD Camp's Underclassmen All-Star Game in July) already had been offered scholarships by nearby Wake Forest and by N.C. State, where he attended an early summer team camp. While Wallace said he was thrilled to get the offer from the Tar Heels, he didn't offer a commitment in return.

One more time, stay tuned!

— Brick Oettinger, ACCSports.com


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