Better or worse? Previewing Maryland's defense in 2021
Despite a sub-.500 record, Maryland showed some defensive flashes of promise in Year 2 of the Mike Locksley era.
After allowing over 40 points in the first two games of the season, Maryland (2-3) capped off 2020 by holding each of its last three opponents under 30 points in the pandemic-shortened campaign.
Maryland’s pass rush was strong, with areas of concern being the rushing defense and third down stops.
Maryland had 8 winning seasons and 4 finishes in the AP Top 25 from 2001-14. But since its 1st season in the B1G (2014), Maryland hasn’t had a winning record.
Locksley and Maryland are hungry to put last season’s inconsistencies behind them, and elevate the defense into a more potent unit.
“And when you look at where we are, we feel really good about how we’ve been able to develop the roster, balance the numbers and make sure that we have enough good players and we’re developing the players in our program,” Locksley said via 247Sports.
Maryland will return 6 starters, so continuity and familiarity will be beneficial as they attempt to turn the page defensively.
So what should we expect from the Maryland defense in the third season of the Mike Locksley era? Let’s take a deep dive and explore:
Pressuring the QB: Better
Last season, the Maryland defense racked up 14 sacks, led by Mosiah Nasili-Kite (4). At 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds, Nasili-Kite is nimble and disruptive in the backfield.
The pass rush will be bolstered with the return of end Durell Nchami, who missed last season due to a knee injury.
Ami Finau tallied 2 sacks last season and will be a key component to the pass rush. Finau has the capability to clog up the middle and force offenses to play out to the sidelines. T Joseph Boletepeli will provide upperclassman savvy.
Maryland has a group of edge rushers capable of wreaking havoc, including Fa’Najae Gotay, Ruben Hyppolite II and 4-star freshman Demeioun Robinson. Freshmen Branden Jennings and 5-star prospect Terrence Lewis add solid depth to the rotation.
Lawtez Rogers recorded a 12-yard sack in the spring game, one of several encouraging moments for the pass rush. An evolving Rogers finished with 3 sacks to earn the Kris Jenkins Most Valuable Lineman Award for the spring game.
“I would say I’ve grown physically, for sure. I feel like I turned my body into where I wanted to be,” Rogers said via the Testudo Times. “Also, I would say mentally off the field, on the field, the way I go about things, the way I talk to people, the way I study, the way I look at film, I say mentally, I feel like there’s been a lot of adversity that changed the way I see things.”
Rogers believes the pass rush could be special this season.
“We got after the quarterback, we made some big plays when it counted,” Rogers said via DK News. “We held them to field goals, which I feel is really, really big. I feel like that can translate right over to the season. It shows the effort and determination that we play with as a defense.”
The Maryland front seven will pack a bunch this season and be even stronger than last year’s edition.
Run defense: Worse
The Maryland rushing defense struggled mightily in the limited sample size of 2020. Maryland allowed 14 touchdowns and a conference-high 230 yards per game on the ground.
Maryland will return an experienced cast of linebackers but rising senior Chance Campbell departed for Ole Miss. Campbell amassed 42 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season. For Maryland to not regress, Hyppolite will have to fill the void and Ahmad McCullough will have to play sound on the outside.
Regardless, with the loss of Campbell, Maryland will see a drop off on run defense.
Pass defense: Better
The Maryland pass defense demonstrated solid lockdown capabilities. Maryland ranked 3rd in the B1G in passing yards per game allowed (200.0) and opponents’ completion percentage (. 564).
Overall, Maryland only allowed 6 passing touchdowns in its 5 games.
Rising junior safety Nick Cross and rising sophomore cornerback Tarheeb Still are a pair of dynamic pieces who will need to elevate themselves in order for the Maryland secondary to thrive even further. Cross tallied 23 tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble last season. Meanwhile, Still recorded 20 tackles.
Jordan Mosley, who finished second on the team in tackles last season, is back for Maryland. Mosley forced two fumbles en route to winning the Stefon Diggs MVP Award during the spring game. Mosley also amassed 8 tackles and 2 pass breakups.
“Jordan is a quiet leader for us, one of those guys that you don’t pay a lot of attention to him because he goes about his business the way he does and then he just shows up on the stat sheet,” Locksley said via DKNews.
Still, a sophomore, could be an x-factor for impactful plays in the secondary.
The Maryland pass defense should be even stingier in 2021, which increases the likelihood of a winning record in a full season.
Special teams: Better
Punters Anthony Pecorella and Colton Spangler return for Maryland. Last season, they combined to average a 39.7-yard net.
Pecorella saw more action in the spring game. Pecorella punted 5 times for an average of 39.5 yards, and all 5 landed inside the 20. Spangler only punted twice but one of them was a booming 61-yarder that flipped the field position.
As for kickoffs, it could be an open competition. Joseph Petrino didn’t get any touchbacks in 5 tries in the spring game, while Hunter Patrick and Pecorella each had touchbacks.
Maryland won’t be elite on punts and kickoffs but the unit will do enough to hold its own.
The departure of Campbell stings, but Maryland has a strong cast of returning players and newcomers on defense. Nasili-Kite and Rogers will be a terror for the pass rush. Hyppolite should be a key contributor for the pass rush and run defense. Cross and Mosley will serve as anchors for the pass defense.
The bar was set pretty low based on last season, and the Maryland defense is trending upward heading into 2021.