COLLEGE PARK — When Darrell Perkins took over as Maryland's defensive backs coach in March, he was inheriting one of the team's most veteran position groups with four projected upperclassmen starters.
But he was also taking over a position group in transition, with roles and schemes changing as the Terps switch from the 3-4 defense to new defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski's 4-3.
So the job for Perkins is to help his defensive backs transition to some of the mental differences between schemes. And thus far, Perkins has resonated with the Terps in the secondary.
"He has 15-plus years in the game, so I know he knows a lot," junior cornerback Will Likely said. "We're just trying to pick his brain just to get better."
Perkins came to College Park after spending a year at Old Dominion coaching cornerbacks. Before that, he spent four years at Connecticut coaching in the secondary and, like new running backs coach Terry Richardson, was a member of Maryland coach Randy Edsall's staff when the Huskies appeared in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2010 season.
The Aurora, Colo., native has bounced around in his career through a host of mid-major schools, but he got his start in high level college football with Purdue as graduate assistant in 2000 and 2001. The Boilermakers won the Big Ten Conference in 2000 and played in the 2001 Rose Bowl, and Perkins helped the defense prepare to face future Pro Bowler Drew Brees every day in practice.
Those experiences — coupled with a stint as an assistant high school coach and as a head high school basketball coach in Colorado — have helped Perkins hone his coaching craft. And with Maryland's defensive transition, Perkins said most of the changes will come mentally.
"At the end of the day, the fundamentals and techniques of it remain the same," Perkins said. "Once you kind of learn those types of things there, you're really off and running, and they've adjusted well. Your coverages might adjust a little differently, but once you learn that, they're all techniques and fundamentals you've done no matter what scheme you're in."
The quartet of Likely, cornerback Sean Davis, and safeties Anthony Nixon and A.J. Hendy has combined to appear in 130 games and start 87. They've been starting since they were underclassmen and have largely developed their games. Likely is an unafraid and dynamic playmaker. Davis, in his move from safety to cornerback, has an intriguing combination of size and speed. Nixon has been starting since he was a freshman, and Hendy has flashed a nose for the ball at times in practice.
"They're very coachable," Perkins said. "They're responsible and dependable guys, guys that you can count on day in and day out. That excites you about it as a coach, that you're getting that type of person and that type of consistency."
But there is room for improvement. In a 40-37 loss to West Virginia last season, Mountaineers quarterback Clint Trickett threw for 511 yards and four touchdowns while wide receiver Kevin White had 13 catches for 216 yards and a touchdown.
So Perkins has focused on the smaller details.
In the switch in defensive schemes, responsibilities change in run defense, and Davis and Likely said the secondary will play more man-to-man defense instead of zone. A significant part of that is positioning, which Edsall and Likely noted improvement in so far in practice.
"Darrell's really helped these guys from a fundamental and technique standpoint," Edsall said. "Great communicator."
The Terps will see some high-octane offenses with speedy wide receivers on the outside during their second season in the Big Ten, and the secondary will be tested.
But thanks to a veteran core, Perkins knows he can spend time on the little things that could pay off later in the season.
"They set goals for themselves," Perkins said. "They're self-motivated in a lot of ways. And then the upperclassmen do a good job setting a good example for the younger guys and they're helping train those guys and show those guys what they have to do to be successful as they move forward in the program."