September 26, 2006
COLLEGE PARK -- It didn't take long for the critics to come down on Chris Cosh.
Cosh was a somewhat controversial choice to replace savvy veteran Gary Blackney as Maryland's defensive coordinator, and the Terrapins' porous performance through four games had many people saying, "I told you so."
Many diehard fans didn't want Cosh back in College Park, in part because he once abandoned former Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden at a crucial stage of recruiting. Considering that Cosh was the Terps' recruiting coordinator at the time, it certainly wasn't a pleasant development when he bailed out on the program in January, less than one month before national signing day.
Angering fans even further was the fact that Cosh, who was hired away to become the defensive coordinator at Michigan State, took a key recruit with him. Julian Peterson, a highly touted defensive end from nearby Crossland High in Temple Hills, Md., had developed a strong relationship with Cosh and followed him to East Lansing instead of College Park.
Coach Ralph Friedgen hired Cosh earlier this year for his recruiting prowess as much as his defensive acumen. Cosh is a native of Washington, D.C., and played football for Bishop McNamara High in Forestville, Md. His long-standing connections in two key regions -- D.C. and Prince George's County -- were a welcome addition to a staff that severely was lacking in local ties.
However, critics pointed to Cosh's unimpressive resume and lackluster track record in questioning the hire. Cosh failed miserably in his most recent stint as a coordinator, at South Carolina in 2003. The Gamecocks gave up an average of 36 points and 463 yards in their final six games that season.
South Carolina coach Lou Holtz fired Cosh after the Gamecocks allowed in-state rival Clemson to score 63 points in the season finale. Cosh lasted just one year as the defensive coordinator at Illinois and Michigan State as well.
Cosh decided to stick with the same 3-4 alignment and aggressive "up-field" philosophy employed by Blackney. But the early indications are that Maryland isn't attacking nearly as much as it did under Blackney, whose creative blitz packages appear to have been put on the shelf.
South Carolina fans, who watched Cosh's 4-3 alignment allow an average of 368 yards per game in 2003, sometimes jokingly referred to his system as the "great sieve" defense. They complained that the Gamecocks too often sat back in coverage and allowed themselves to be picked apart.
So far, it appears that a similar philosophy has been installed at Maryland, which too often has allowed the offense to dictate. It was worrisome when the unit gave up 310 and 321 total yards to lightweights William & Mary and Middle Tennessee State. Concern grew into panic after West Virginia shredded the Terrapins for 383 total yards. The Mountaineers piled up 340 yards on the ground, averaging a whopping eight yards per carry.
It wasn't very reassuring when Friedgen cited poor communication as a major factor in the disappointing effort. West Virginia went with a no-huddle offense that completely befuddled Maryland's defenders, who had trouble getting signals from their sideline.
"Defenses are being called, and they're not being executed," Friedgen said. "Other defenses are being run."
Further investigation revealed that crowd noise made it difficult for anyone to hear middle linebacker Wesley Jefferson, who is charged with calling any defensive changes. Not surprisingly, the results were disastrous.
"We have a blitz on, and one side of the defense doesn't run the blitz while the other side does," Friedgen said. "That results in a big hole."
Added defensive tackle Dre Moore: "A lot of guys didn't get the call or missed the call. Then we checked different things on the field, and not everyone got the check. I guess we were running two different plays a lot of times."
An adjustment the coaching staff made was to have all the players look to the sideline for the calls, which come in the form of hand signals from line coach Dave Sollazzo and color-coded cards.
DEFENSIVE TALENT BASE ORDINARY
A wise football coach once said, "You can't scheme your way out of bad talent."
Cosh may be in that unenviable position right now, as there is a dearth of playmakers and a myriad of deficiencies on his Maryland defense.
A quick scan of the starting lineup does not show one defender who is a sure-fire NFL prospect. Senior cornerback Josh Wilson has a chance to get drafted, while senior tackle Conrad Bolston could get a shot as a free agent. Beyond those two, no one on the current depth chart has the look of a future professional, although some scouts talked about senior linebacker David Holloway in those terms after his impressive junior year.
An obvious lack of team speed is the biggest issue facing the defense, which has struggled to pursue ball-carriers and close down gaps. Size and strength along the front line is another issue for the Terps, who were blown off the ball by the Mountaineers.
Maryland has missed massive Robert Armstrong (6-4, 327) more than expected, as he was the only true nose tackle on the team and could take on double-teams while holding the point of attack.
Bolston, who enjoyed a strong junior campaign, has not played well so far this season. He's been forced to play out of position and does not have the size (303 pounds) to handle a guard-center combination block. Moore and Carlos Feliciano, a pair of undistinguished juniors, are splitting time at the other tackle spot.
Most observers have pointed at strong-side end Jeremy Navarre as a primary reason for Maryland's problems. The 6-3, 263-pound true sophomore often is overmatched size-wise and also lacks foot speed. He has been swallowed up by opposing tackles at times, getting driven backward on run plays and unable to get to the quarterback on pass plays.
Maryland's repeated failure to land a stream of big-time rush ends from within the state -- see Derrick Harvey (Florida), Victor Abiamiri (Notre Dame) and Melvin Alaeze (Illinois) -- has proven costly. Navarre, who was recruited as a fullback, plays with good leverage and a great motor, but he never should have been forced to start as a true freshman.
The Maryland coaches would love to give redshirt sophomore Mack Frost more repetitions at strong-side end, since he's bigger and faster than Navarre. However, the 6-5, 257-pound Frost remains too inconsistent in terms of technique and execution.
Another target of fan criticism has been cornerback Isaiah Gardner, a Notre Dame transfer who has been awful thus far. Gardner, who played in 10 games as a backup in 2005, has not stepped up in his first season as a starter.
The Virginia Beach native was touted as a tremendous athlete and solid tackler, but he has shown he is neither so far, while also appearing a step slow. Gardner has displayed very poor one-on-one coverage skills, failing to play the ball in the time he's in position to make a play. He gives receivers way too much cushion and does not close on the ball very well.
In recent years, Maryland has been fortunate to have big-time defenders capable of covering up for others. Middle linebackers E.J. Henderson and D'Qwell Jackson, along with linebacker-end Shawne Merriman, cleaned up a lot of mistakes with their relentless pursuit and sound tackling.
Jefferson, a hard worker with good instincts, just does not have the physical ability to run from sideline to sideline and make plays a la Henderson and Jackson. A former consensus prep All-American, Jefferson clearly has not been able to take up the mantle as Maryland's next great middle linebacker.
While the linebacker corps as a whole has been decent this season, the reality is that there is no individual player capable of consistently getting to the ball and making plays. It is notable that three former walk-ons -- Holloway and backups Moses Fokou and Rick Costa -- are playing key roles on the unit.