COLLEGE PARK — Scott Shafer seemed at ease as he sat in Maryland's Gossett Team House on Tuesday and fielded questions about his past stints as a coach, his present job as the Terps' defensive coordinator and the future of his unit, one that struggled at times during a 3-9 season in 2015.
He's no longer the center of attention at a program — that title belongs to coach DJ Durkin, who hired Shafer in December — and he can put all of his energy into molding Maryland's defense to fit his and Durkin's vision.
Shafer inherits a unit that finished the 2015 season ranked 90th nationally in total defense and 103rd in scoring defense. The Terps are losing three starters in the secondary to graduation and their two most productive defensive linemen to the NFL draft. It's a challenge, but Shafer's resume is filled with teams, from when he coached with Durkin at Stanford to when took over Syracuse's defense, that he helped revamp almost immediately. Maryland is his latest opportunity for a quick turnaround.
"I think more than anything, probably the kids buying in and the assistant coaches buying in. … We always talk about controlling the things in your life that are most important and then you become a good football player," Shafer said. "That's your mindset starting with your attitude and then backing it up with work, which is your effort."
Shafer traced his presence on staffs at rebuilding defenses back to 1996 when he was the defensive backs coach at Northern Illinois under Joe Novak. The Huskies went 3-30 in the first three seasons Shafer was there, but slowly, they improved. Shafer became defensive coordinator in 2000, and three years later, Northern Illinois went 10-2 in a season that included wins over Maryland and Alabama.
In two seasons, Western Michigan went from the 116th-ranked defense to the 11th. In Shafer's lone season at Stanford as defensive coordinator — Durkin coached the defensive line — the Cardinals' rush defensive improved 30 spots, and the scoring defense jumped 41 spots. And at Syracuse, the Orange jumped from 100th in total defense to 37th.
In those reversals of fortune, Shafer has stuck to the same mantra. It's not necessarily where he's putting the players on the field that leads to success; it's how he's getting them to play.
"I've always believed that scheme was a little overrated and the thing that was most underrated was can you get your kids to play harder than their kids, can you get your kids to play tougher than their kids," Shafer said. "And that starts in the weight room, starts in how you play every day. I think that's why we had the ability to go into situations where kids maybe had their [heads] down and get them turned around. I always say, everything's overrated. The one thing that's not overrated is love, passion for the game and playing with great attitude and effort."
When Jim Harbaugh hired Shafer as the defensive coordinator at Stanford, Harbaugh referred to Shafer as "one of the most creative and innovative defensive minds in college football" in a release. Part of Shafer's success has been owed to tapping into the want of players coming off of tough seasons.
The Maryland defense is coming off a season in which it allowed at least 31 points in eight games. Bowling Green rolled up almost 700 yards of offense in September. Facing some of the Big Ten Conference's top offensive talent, the Terps couldn't always keep up.
"That Western Michigan group was a bunch of fine young men that bought in immediately because they were thirsty and hungry to win," Shafer said. "Same thing at Stanford. They were a beaten up group when we got there and they were excited that we were excited to coach football. Did some good things out there."
Shafer acknowledged that his career hasn't always been smooth. He referred to his one season at Michigan with Rich Rodriguez in 2008, when he was charged with running a system he wasn't comfortable with, as a "hiccup." But he knows what's expected of him with Durkin and said the staff is in "alignment."
With the variation of offenses in the Big Ten — Harbaugh runs a power-run scheme at Michigan, while Kevin Wilson has a high-powered spread offense at Indiana — Shafer refuses to pigeonhole the type of defense Maryland will run. Sometimes it might resemble a 3-4, other times the 4-3.
More than anything, Shafer is focused on getting back managing a defense on the granular level. He has a view of how he wants the defense to look, but he also knows how he wants the players to look on the field. And that's what he'll strive for building in College Park.
"It was less about the guy calling the defenses and more about the kids and the coaches believing in the cause," Shafer said. "The cause had less to do about the X's and O's and more about the mindset and playing as hard as you can for as long as you can and not worrying about the things that were not under your control. And that's the approach we'll take here."