- The Maryland Terrapins couldn't stop admiring their new defense during spring and summer practices. "That defense is something else," marveled senior quarterback Chris Turner in July. "It's really something to behold."
But something happened on the way to Maryland's becoming a defensive dynamo. Like a new computer with bugs in the hard drive, the system installed by new defensive coordinator Don Brown kept crashing at the most inopportune times.
After three games, the Terrapins had surrendered 119 points - nearly 40 per contest. At that point, it wasn't just the defense being tested, it was Brown himself.
The silver-haired assistant coach had left a head coaching job at Massachusetts to bring his pressing, blitzing defense to a bigger program and league. He was so accustomed to being a head coach that he had to be gently reminded to stop blowing his whistle during Maryland's preseason practices because that's not an assistant's task.
After three games, Brown was telling himself to be patient and have faith in his players and system. But, privately, he concedes there was some anxiety.
"I certainly had some concerns," Brown, 54, said this week as Maryland (2-3, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) prepared for its first ACC road game, against Wake Forest (3-2, 1-1). "It's funny. When I went in '98 to UMass [as defensive coordinator], it took us about six or seven games, and then over the last bit of the season right through the [Division I-AA] national championship game we played really well," Brown said.
Brown's defense relies on multiple blitz packages and jamming receivers at the line. It involves many players who don't start entering the game for specific schemes. "It's not like we're very simple," Brown said. "There's a lot of moving parts."
Players acknowledged there was a learning curve. "This is a tough defense to learn," said redshirt junior linebacker Adrian Moten, a team captain. "The Baltimore Ravens didn't become great just all of a sudden. It takes time."
By the fourth game, Brown had begun to see encouraging signs. The Terps held Rutgers in check until sagging at the end in a 34-13 loss. "For 57 of 63 snaps, we hold them to 155 yards, and then we give up 90 yards in the last six snaps," Brown said.
After last week's victory over Clemson, Brown appeared positively relieved. "I think through it all we're starting to figure out who we are and what we can do well, and kind of get comfortable in our own skin," said Brown, who looked tired and unshaven - he puts in long hours - but relaxed.
The defense held potent Clemson running back C.J. Spiller - the ACC's career leader in all-purpose yards - to 72 rushing yards and held the Tigers to 4-for-16 on third downs. The defense made the game's signature play when linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield forced a fumble on a blitz with Clemson threatening to tie the score in the final minute. Maryland won, 24-21.
The Terps surrendered an average of 261.5 yards against Rutgers and Clemson - its fewest in a two-game stretch since September 2007. It's a noteworthy accomplishment since the defense has often been placed in tough positions by the offense turning the ball over. Maryland has 15 giveaways this season.
"We were a young defense coming in," Moten said. "We hadn't played with each other yet. We're getting a feel for each other now."
The Terps have improved despite playing a number of untested defensive lineman, including redshirt freshmen A.J. Francis and Carl Russell, and true freshmen Zachariah Kerr and Isaiah Ross. "Francis, Kerr, Ross and Russell were on the field together against Clemson in a meaningful game. You put the tape on and it's like" wow, Brown said.
Last week, Clemson started a freshman quarterback, Kyle Parker. Even when Maryland's blitzes didn't result in sacks, they usually forced Parker to hurry or throw the ball away.
Against Wake Forest, the Terps face a fifth-year senior, Riley Skinner, who excels when the pocket is pressured. "When he gets out of the pocket and begins to ad-lib, that's when bad things happen to you on defense," Brown said.
Skinner passed for a career-high 361 yards last week in Wake Forest's 30-24 win over North Carolina State. He is first in the ACC in passing efficiency and second in touchdown passes (11) and passing yards per game (266.8).
Asked whether his defense has completely arrived, Brown said he won't know the answer after it faces Skinner tonight.