The Longhorns and Terrapins will battle it out in Austin on September 2nd to open the Tom Herman Era. Earlier, we took an in-depth look at how the two offensive units matched up. Today, we turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball.
Following the 2016 season, head coach DJ Durkin brought on Jimmy Brumbaugh from the University of Kentucky as co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach. Brumbaugh inherits a veteran position group that returns a wealth of experience and had success getting to the quarterback last year. Senior Jesse Aniebonam may be Maryland’s best defensive player. Aniebonam collected 9 sacks and 14 tackles for loss during his first season at the BUCK position, a hybrid DE/LB spot in the Maryland defense. Senior DE Chandler Burkett brings starting experience, starting 8 games in 2016.
On the interior of the line, Seniors Kingsley Opara and Cavon Walker will hold down the DT spots. The duo combined for 6.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss a season ago.
Despite the upperclassmen presence along the defensive front, the Terrapins struggled to stop the run last year. Maryland gave up an average of 226.9 rush yards per game in 2016, ranking 105 out of 128 FBS teams.
The defensive line unit will be led by senior Poona Ford, who was 4th on the team with 54 tackles a season ago. Ford enters 2017 with 17 careers starts and was a preseason All-Big 12 member. In a 3-man front, Ford will likely occupy the nose tackle position. Junior Chris Nelson will occupy one of the end spots. Nelson finished 2016 with 45 tackles and 6 tackles for loss. The other end spot will likely belong to sophomore Malcolm Roach. Roach was named honorable mention Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2016 after finishing with 3 sacks and 8 tackles for loss. Last week, Tom Herman mentioned that when the defense does go to a 4-man front, the 4th member of the defensive line will be junior Charles Omenihu. The 6’7 defensive end finished last season with 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss.
Even with an injury to DE Andrew Fitzgerald and the transfer of DE Jordan Elliott, Texas still boast some quality depth behind their starters. Sophomore defensive tackles Gerald Wilbon and DeAndre Christmas-Giles both saw playing time their freshman year, combining for 10 tackles. Junior College transfer Jamari Chisolm recorded 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss in his final season at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College. Tom Herman has also praised freshman Chris Daniels and Taquon Graham. Daniel redshirted during the 2016 season and has lost over 35 pounds since spring practice. Graham is an incoming 4 star recruit from Temple, who was ranked as the 13th ranked DE in the country on the ESPN300.
Similar to the defensive line, the linebacker group will be senior laden. 2017 Butkus Award Watch List member Jermaine Carter Jr. enters his senior season having led the Terrapins in tackles the previous two years. Senior Shane Cockerille made the unusual transition of QB to LB prior to the 2016 season, and went on to rank second on the team in tackles with 108. Cockerille was forced to sit out Maryland’s bowl game after being ruled academically ineligible, and although he has not been cleared yet for the upcoming season, he has been practicing with the team. Senior Jalen Brooks enters 2017 with 15 career starts and will look to hold down the WILL linebacker spot next to Carter Jr. and Cockerille.
Behind the 3 seniors, Maryland has a lot of question marks. JUCO transfer Nick Underwood and sophomore Isaiah Davis look to provide quality depth, with Davis looking to build on his only start of the season in Maryland’s bowl game, where he collected 7 tackles.
New Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has stated the Longhorns will employ multiple sets on defense, but against a team that will look to establish the run early like Maryland, Texas may operate with 4 linebackers often. The good news is Texas has no shortage of linebacker talent for Orlando to work with. Junior Malik Jefferson headlines the group and will look to excel at the ‘Rover’ role that will allow the 2017 Bednarik Award Watch List member to utilize his play making abilities in space. Senior Naahson Hughes has 26 career starts under his belt and will occupy the ‘B’ backer spot. Junior Anthony Wheeler will play inside, but must improve against the run and choosing gaps correctly.
Junior Breckyn Hager led the team with 6 sacks a season ago, and will be brought in along with Sophomore Jeffrey McCullough during pass rush situations. JUCO LB Gary Johnson enters his first season at Texas after being ranked as the number 1 inside linebacker in the country, according to ESPN. Johnson collected 82 tackles in his final season at Dodge City Community College, despite playing in only 9 games. Junior Ed Freeman also has starting experience and will back up Jefferson.
The Terrapins entered fall camp with one established starter at CB, but a lot of question marks behind him. Junior JC Jackson started 11 games a season ago and was productive, recording 1 interception, 6 pass breakups and a forced fumble. At the cornerback spot opposite of Jackson, sophomores Tino Ellis and Antwaine Richardson look to take the next step forward in their development. Ellis saw limited playing time in all 12 games in 2016 after making the switch from WR to CB, while Richardson only saw action in 2 games. RaVon Davis made several starts at the nickel cornerback spot last season and figured to be pushed by incoming freshman Markquese Bell, who ranked as the 88th best high school player in the country, according to ESPN. Bell may be unavailable for the Texas game though, due to an indefinite suspension that was handed down by head coach DJ Durkin last Friday.
At Safety, Maryland returns 3 players who have extended starting experience, with several players who can also serve as quality depth. The Terrapins began 2016 with junior Darnell Savage and senior Denzel Conyers manning the two safety spots. Conyers suffered an ACL injury in the third game of the season, but will return in 2017 after being granted a 6th year of eligibility. Senior Josh Woods got the first crack at replacing Conyers following the injury, collecting 41 tackles and 2 pass breakups. Sophomore Qwuantrezz Knight also saw significant playing time a year ago, appearing in 10 games and making 1 start.
Texas entered 2016 with high expectations at corner after Holton Hill, Devante Davis and Kris Boyd all flashed major potential as freshman. Only one of those players ended up progressing, with the other 2 taking major steps backward. Boyd enters his junior season having established himself as the top corner on the roster after finishing 2016 with an interception to go along with 51 tackles and 2 forced fumbles. Hill and Davis struggled to find the field in 2016, with Davis being benched for poor play during the first few game of the year, and Hill only appearing in 5 total games due to coach’s decisions. Despite what happened in 2016, Tom Herman has praised the way Hill and Davis have responded to new cornerback’s coach Jason Washington, with Hill holding down the starting spot opposite of Boyd for the majority of camp. Junior PJ Locke returns as the starting nickel corner, and ranked 2nd on the team in pass breakups last season with 8, one fewer than senior John Bonney. Bonney has starting experience and has the ability to play corner, nickel and safety.
The Longhorns defense will open the season with two new starters at safety. Junior DeShon Elliott and Sophomore Brandon Jones will man the back end of the secondary. Elliott came on strong late in the season last year, recording a fumble recovery and interception in the final 2 games of the year. Jones had some growing pains as a freshman, but was considered the number 2 safety prospect in the country coming out of high school, according to ESPN. Both players figure to give Texas the range and speed they have been searching for at the safety positions. Senior Jason Hall started 10 games a season ago, but was slowed by a hamstring injury suffered during spring practice.
Similar to Texas, Maryland struggled in the field goal department in 2016. Adam Greene and Mike Shinsky combined to go 10 for 15 on field goals, with a long of 41 yards. Both kickers return for 2017 without any incoming competition.
Australian native Wade Lees handles the punting duties, and is one of the best in the country. The 2017 Ray Guy Award Watch List member averaged 39.8 yards per punt and had 20 punts land inside the 20-yard line in 2016.
In the return game, Maryland’s primary kickoff return man will be WR DJ Moore. Moore averaged 22.3 yards per kickoff return in 2016. The Terrapins will be forced to find a new punt returner following the graduation of Teldrick Morgan. The most likely replacements will be running backs Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson, who each have experience returning punts.
Unlike the coach before him, Tom Herman puts a premium emphasis on special teams. A year ago, graduate transfer kicker Trent Domingue connected on only 15 of 22 field goals, along with missing 4 extra points (3 of those coming in a single game against Oklahoma State). Herman stated during fall camp that he felt he brought in the players necessary to improve that area, including a new snapper on field goals and JUCO kicker Joshua Rowland. Rowland was the rated the number 2 Junior College kicker in the country, according to ESPN. During the Spring Game, Rowland connected on 3 of 4 fields goals, with the only miss coming from 49 yards.
Herman will have the luxury of returning All-American Punter Michael Dickson. Dickson was named a Ray Guy Award Finalist in 2016 after averaging a Texas record 47.4 yards per punt and pinning 28 punts inside the 20-yard line.
The Longhorns were dreadful in the return game a season ago. Texas averaged 18.4 yards on kickoff returns, ranking 114 out of 128 FBS schools. Punt returns were not much better, with an average of 6.5 yards ranking 91st in the country. The emphasis on special teams should benefit the return game immediately. Speedster Devin Duvernay handled 12 kickoff returns a season ago and averaged 21.4 per return. Brandon Jones and Armanti Foreman also both have experience returning kicks and punts.