COLLEGE PARK — When Richmond lines up across from the Maryland defense Saturday at Byrd Stadium, it will immediately give the Terps unit, that focused so much on bulking up and improving, a chance to prove if that offseason work paid off.
The Spiders boast three preseason All-Americans in running back Seth Fisher and wide receivers Reggie Diggs and Brian Brown, providing the Terps with an immediate test after implementing a new defensive scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski.
"They're a good, well-coached team, have a lot of playmakers," defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson said Tuesday. "The running back, he runs the ball hard. He's good. The receivers are good playmakers. It's definitely going to be a test. We want to show the world what we've been doing all camp."
A season ago, Diggs led the Spiders with 85 catches for 1,157 yards and seven touchdowns, while Brown was close behind with 79 catches for 1,089 yards and four touchdowns. But Richmond is breaking in a new quarterback this season in redshirt sophomore Kyle Lauletta, so much of the focus could fall on Fisher, who rushed for 777 yards with 12 touchdowns and posted three 100-yard performances a season ago.
Jefferson said the shift to the 4-3 from former defensive coordinator Brian Stewart's 3-4 better equips the Terps to stop the running game with more bulk on the offensive line.
"They're putting us in position to be playmakers right at the point of attack, penetrating, getting in the backfield, and make plays rather than last year," Jefferson said. "We had guys like 280 pounds trying to sit and eat up space, take on double teams. It's freeing us up to make plays. I feel like it's definitely going to help us a lot."
On the defensive line, Jefferson is paired with fellow defensive tackle David Shaw, while defensive ends Roman Braglio and Yannick Ngakoue are on the outside. Coach Randy Edsall expects to rotate as many as eight players along the line, with younger players such as sophomores Kingsley Opara and Jesse Aniebonam and redshirt freshman Brett Kulka, getting early exposure to game situations.
"You'd like to make sure you do have eight guys ready," Edsall said. "That doesn't mean that all eight are going to play equally, but some guys will be able to spell a guy for a couple plays if we need to. It's always been my philosophy to have enough defensive lineman that if you need to — and especially early in the season in terms of the heat, some things along those lines — you can roll some guys in there."
While Maryland is working to replace a number of graduated players from the front seven who were familiar faces across their four years in College Park, Jefferson doesn't expect the transition to some younger players to be difficult or to have any ill effects.
Many of the players who are being counted on to step up received playing time in the past because of injury, ineffectiveness or the coaching staff giving them early experience.
"I don't think it really is as young as it looks on paper," Jefferson said. "Roman has experience. He had sacks in the past two seasons. Yannick played a lot. David Shaw played a lot before his injury too. I played a lot before I got hurt as well. Me personally, I don't think we're that young."
Behind the seemingly young front seven, Brown and Diggs will provide the first test of the season for Maryland's veteran cornerback duo of senior Sean Davis and junior Will Likely. With the switch to the 4-3 defense, the Terps are expecting to play more man-to-man defense in the secondary, so Saturday will be the chance for Likely to pick up where he left off after an illustrious 2014 and for Davis to solidify his shift from safety to the outside.
But most of all, Jefferson said the Terps' improved communication could provide the biggest boost for the defense this season. And they'll have the chance to show that right away with a trio of All-Americans lined up across the line of scrimmage.
"We all have to be on the same page," Jefferson said. "You can't have one guy doing one thing and one guy doing another thing. That's how somebody splits us. We've just been taking it upon ourselves, and I think the leadership on the defense as well. I feel like we have a lot of guys who are not going to let this team fail."