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Rock-solid Defense Wins Back Doubters

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


October 6, 2003 COLLEGE PARK — It seems silly, now that so many Maryland fans were worried about the team's defense after two games. Northern Illinois and Florida State both moved the ball and scored points on the Terrapins, who have fielded one of the nation's stingiest defenses over the past couple seasons. Was the loss of dominant middle linebacker E.J. Henderson even more devastating than anyone imagined? Was the veteran secondary, so highly touted in preseason, simply overrated? Had opponents figured out a way to make Maryland pay for its aggressive strategy of blitzing from all angles at all times? To its credit, the coaching staff was not nearly as concerned, knowing that the offense's inability to sustain drives and score touchdowns was the primary reason for Maryland's 0-2 start. Did defensive coordinator Gary Blackney need to make some schematic adjustments and shore up certain positions? Of course, that happens early in every season. Yet Blackney was confident he had a talented unit that would prove itself to be a strength over the course of the entire season. One month later, those same fans who were disparaging the Maryland defense were praising it with all their might. Four straight dominant performances cast the unit in an entirely different light. Maryland entered the Clemson game ranked 14th nationally in scoring defense (15.0 points per game) and ninth nationally in total defense (264 yards per game). Some detractors said those impressive statistics were built while bullying three lesser opponents in Citadel, West Virginia and Eastern Michigan, which scored just 20 points combined against the Terps. But there was no questioning the defense's ability after a suffocating effort against Clemson, which simply could not run the ball. Tackles Randy Starks and C.J. Feldheim anchored an overpowering front that controlled the line of scrimmage and held the Tigers to 10 yards rushing. “Our defensive staff made (Clemson) look one-dimensional. They stopped the run and made them throw,” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. “Overall, we've had an outstanding year on the defensive side. We've got some pretty good players over there.” It was widely assumed that Maryland's secondary, featuring four returning starters and a pair of All-ACC selections in corner Domonique Foxworth and safety Madieu Williams, would be a strength. However, there were legitimate questions elsewhere. Would sophomore D'Qwell Jackson rise to the challenge of playing the middle linebacker position, which is so integral to Maryland's scheme? How would outside linebackers Leon Joe and Leroy Ambush perform without Henderson around to draw so much blocking attention? Was Feldheim fully recovered from his ACL injury? Could Scott Smith stay injury-free and step up at strong-side defensive end? Most encouraging is the fact that Jackson has developed into an absolute stud, flying all over the field in leading the team with 70 tackles. Jackson was unblockable in racking up a career-high 16 tackles versus Eastern Michigan and returned an interception 58 yards for a touchdown against Florida State. He has displayed a nasty side by making some monstrous hits, and he's shown an ability to get to the quarterback, with two sacks and a team-high seven pressures. “D'Qwell has just been sensational,” Friedgen said. “He plays well every week.” Joe (45 tackles) has proven the big numbers he put up the past two seasons were not the result of roaming free because of the security blanket provided by Henderson. Ambush has shown he's a solid linebacker in his own right. Smith once again has been sidelined by a degenerative back disorder, but career backup Kevin Eli has risen to the challenge of starting. The fourth-year junior, who just couldn't get himself big or strong enough to play in seasons past, leads the team in sacks and tackles for loss. “Kevin has really stepped up and helped this team,” Friedgen said. “He's worked hard to become a contributor. He's been disappointed the last couple of years and at times seemed on the verge of hanging it up. But he worked extremely hard over the summer, lifting weights and getting himself ready to play.” Another defender who has taken his game to another level is sophomore Shawne Merriman, who plays Maryland's Leo position, a hybrid between defensive end and outside linebacker. Merriman, easily the Terps' hardest hitter, is a relentless pursuer thanks to tremendous speed and quickness. He had five sacks after recording two against Clemson. At the core of Maryland's defense is Starks, a 6-4, 305-pound beast who simply cannot be blocked one-on-one. Incredibly strong (440 bench, 765 squat) and extremely athletic for his size, the true junior is looking more and more like a future first-round draft choice. Blackney was the first to admit he needed to tweak some schemes, as opponents had made adjustments to the myriad zone blitz packages the Terps used so successfully over the past two seasons. The veteran defensive coordinator said Northern Illinois gave future opponents a “template” by using max protection to give the quarterback time and throwing underneath passes behind the blitzing linebackers and safeties.

As a result, Blackney was forced to mix things up. He used a three-man rush more often, moving the Leo linebacker (Merriman or Jamahl Cochran) around to different spots and blitzing from different angles than in years past. Even Friedgen marveled at Blackney's schemes after Maryland produced four sacks, a slew of hurries and two interceptions against Clemson. Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst entered the game completing 67 percent of his passes, but he looked confused and harried in going 22-for-45 against the Terps. “I thought Gary did a good job of mixing pressure with coverage,” Friedgen said. “What teams are doing to us now is protecting with seven people and using three-man routes. So, we're doing that with a three-man rush and eight guys covering. Gary will mix it up and come after you.” Foxworth seconded that assessment: “Coach Blackney is nothing short of a genius. Every week he comes up with something new for each team, and this week he added some new wrinkles, put us back in more zone coverages and tried some new blitzes. His play-calling was a big reason we did so well.” Blackney has been concerned about Maryland's inability to create turnovers. The Terrapins came up with six interceptions but forced just one fumble and recovered none in their first six games. “We work every day on stripping the ball,” Blackney said, “but we just haven't been able to get any loose this season.” Mainstream Missed On Maldonado Major metropolitan dailies such as the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun don't like to admit getting scooped by a school newspaper. The Post, which has built an impressive reputation for investigative journalism, takes pride in finding the truth behind the party lines that are spouted regularly by area sports franchises and athletic departments. The Sun and Post recently were disappointed at having to cite The Diamondback for first reporting that members of Maryland's men's and women's lacrosse teams were being investigated for a hazing incident. That proved a legitimate story, resulting in university suspensions and reprimands, to the point that Maryland men's coach Dave Cottle was forced to cancel the fall practice season. It was interesting that both papers, along with the other dailies that cover Maryland on a regular basis (Annapolis Capital, Frederick News-Post), did not follow up on a Diamondback story that raised more serious allegations. The school newspaper, a daily with a strong history of quality journalism, reported that tailback Sam Maldonado had failed a drug test during the preseason. Citing reliable sources, the story said Maldonado had been suspended for two games for not meeting the terms of an agreement that allowed him to play despite the failed test. Even The Diamondback article left some unanswered questions. It didn't explain exactly why a player would be suspended four games into a season for a violation that occurred in August, or why a player would be eligible to play at all after failing a drug test. The Diamondback stood by its story, and the writer was adamant that the sources cited were trustworthy and possessed intimate knowledge of the situation. The Sports Journal later learned that members of the Maryland coaching staff confronted the writer about reporting the information, but the coaches did not deny it was true. The Diamondback never ran any kind of retraction, and neither the Maryland athletic department nor Maldonado made any public accusations of libel. So why didn't any of the mainstream newspapers in the area at least acknowledge the report, which appeared on Sept. 26, prior to the Eastern Michigan game? You can bet that some at least looked into the situation; perhaps they were unable to turn up enough of their own evidence to warrant a story. There was no chance the issue was going to be addressed by the well-connected Terrapin Times. That magazine/website is a wonderful source of positive information on Maryland's athletic programs, but it has become more and more of a mouthpiece for the athletic department in recent years. Ultimately, the public may never know what transgression Maldonado committed. It appears the mainstream media has decided to bury its head in the sand on this one.   Brought to you by: