With the Buckeyes facing third-and-4 at the Terps’ 44-yard line, quarterback J.T. Barrett’s pass ticked off the fingers of safety Josh Woods and into the arms of wide receiver Johnnie Dixon, who turned the near interception by Woods into a 35-yard gain.
“He made a great jump on the ball,” Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh recalled Wednesday. “The ball moves faster than the man sometimes. I thought he had it. I jumped up. I can’t lie to you. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.”
Four plays later, Barrett went in for a 1-yard touchdown, the first in what seemed like an avalanche of points for the then-No. 10 Buckeyes in their 62-14 victory at Ohio Stadium. While Maryland struggled mightily against Ohio State, Woods quietly played his best game as a Terp.
With a career-high 11 tackles and a forced fumble on freshman running back J.K. Dobbins early in the second quarter, the senior from McDonogh showed something he had rarely demonstrated during his first three years at Maryland.
“The one thing I loved about watching Josh play against Ohio State was the confidence he played with,” Buh said.
It was one of many things Woods struggled with last season. Elevated to the starting lineup after Denzel Conyers tore his ACL in the third game at Central Florida, he lost the job after road defeats at Indiana and Michigan, and didn’t play in three of the team’s last four games.
Woods has become a tougher, more resilient player than he was a year ago.
“That’s pretty much what the program tries to instill in everybody,” Woods said Tuesday. “Another season in the program, a lot of guys are starting to understand that, buy in and everything that Coach Durkin and the rest of the staff does is definitely working.”
Durkin said Wednesday that he and the rest of the coaching staff have taken notice in the turnaround by Woods, who will go into Saturday’s home game against Northwestern with 28 tackles, second on the team behind linebacker and fellow senior Jermaine Carter Jr.
Woods also had his first career interception in a win at Minnesota two weeks ago.
“When you start measuring guys of who has made the most improvements, he’s up there at the top of the list,” Durkin said of Woods. “He’s done a tremendous job. I think he’s made a real decision in his life to make football a priority, prepare the right way.”
Woods began showing signs during winter workouts of becoming a different player. Though he conceded before the season that he was still in “a funk” at the start of spring practice, it quickly changed by the end when Woods put himself back in the hunt for a starting job.
“Coach Durkin tells us every day … control the controllables,” Woods said before the season. “I wake up, no matter how sore I am, how tired I am. No matter what, I’m going to get better today. It became contagious almost. It became an expectation of me, and my coaches saw that I could do it and helped me get to that standard.”
Buh acknowledged that Woods saw that the players Durkin was recruiting into the program were getting a chance as freshmen to play rather than waiting as he did. Last year it was Qwuantrezz Knight and Elijah Daniels; this year it was expected to be Markquese Bell.
“At certain points in the process, he knew he wasn’t the highlight guy, there was praise being given to other guys and he fought through that, didn’t flinch and kept being consistent, like a veteran guy should do who’s been in the system,” Buh said. ”But he did it in the right way. He’s not by any means a silent guy, but he did it silently. Just put his head down and worked.”
What impressed Buh the most was the way Woods took players such as Knight and Bell under his wing during the winter workouts and spring practice. Without knowing it himself, it might have helped Woods become a better player.
"He acted more as a coach in the spring, teaching,” Buh said. “Like we always say, the teacher learns the most and that’s a great example of that. Him teaching the younger guys what’s going on really helped him, his game in finding the angles and all the things you need to do to be a good safety in this league.”
But when Bell, a former four-star prospect who Durkin said already looked physically like an NFL safety, was suspended days before the season opener at Texas, it put the onus on Woods to perform.
Along with Carter, Woods has become one of the leaders on defense.
“Just leading by example, if that makes sense,” Woods said. “My coaches have a lot of confidence in me. They’re allowing me to go out and make plays. I’m really just trying to make sure everybody knows what’s going on, on the defense, on the back end.”
Said Durkin: “I think he’s done a great job as a leader, an older guy in the room. He has good leadership ability and it’s shown. He’s playing well on the field. He’s in on a lot of plays, making a lot of tackles, and I think he’s steadily, week to week, gotten a little better. And you see he’s playing a lot more because of it.”