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Manning up: Why playing ‘dirty’ is a compliment for Maryland’s blossoming cornerbacks

They’re not the “Legion of Boom” or “The Wolfpack” or anything catchy like that. But among the cornerbacks for the Maryland football team, there is a term they use to refer to one another.

“We call each other ‘dirty,’” junior Jakorian Bennett said.

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The label is the brainchild of cornerbacks coach Henry Baker and is an objective more than an insult.

“Dirty just means playing with some grit,” Bennett said. “Just playing hard and playing with a lot of effort. We’re all we’ve got. So we’ve got to stick together and do what we do. … We just have to play with that savage mentality. Just go out there and be a dog.”

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The term has been embodied by a position group that might not be headlined by a star, but is developing into one of the more menacing units in the Big Ten.

The cornerbacks have contributed to a pass defense that ranks second in the conference in opponents’ completion percentage (. 563) and touchdown catches (five) and fifth in yards per game (214.0). They have allowed only one opposing quarterback to throw for 300 yards (Penn State redshirt junior Sean Clifford) and two receivers to cross the 100-yard threshold (Penn State junior wideout Jahan Dotson and Minnesota junior Chris Autman-Bell).

The cornerbacks’ emergence has been a welcomed sight for coach Mike Locksley.

“I think it goes back to the evaluation process of recruiting,” he said. “We’ve recruited to how we want to play defense around here at Maryland. [Defensive coordinator] Jon Hoke and his defensive staff have done a great job of making sure that we do things on defense that fit what our players can execute, and you’ve seen an uptick in the production of our players based on those decisions we make.”

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The cornerbacks for the Terps (2-2) have performed especially well in man-to-man coverage schemes with a single high safety crafted by Hoke and Baker. The alignment requires the cornerbacks to mark their assigned opponents throughout their routes until the plays are over as opposed to zone coverage, which asks cornerbacks to patrol certain segments of the field and read quarterbacks’ eyes and body language.

Big Ten Network analyst Jeremy “J” Leman said man coverage is the easiest to teach, but does require a certain amount of athleticism from its cornerbacks. And the former Illinois linebacker said man coverage is an increasingly popular counterpunch to offenses that rely on the run-pass option.

The run-pass option is very deadly against a zone because you are trying to read the quarterback’s eyes, and you’re trying to read a lot of other things, and in man coverage, my first responsibility has to be to my man, almost to a fault in that run support can almost be a second priority,” he said. “And to Maryland’s credit, when you do man coverage, you’re also able to challenge some of these quarterbacks. A college quarterback might be able to throw it into zone coverage where it’s a little bit softer. But in man coverage, the windows are tighter. So you’re challenging the college quarterback to be more accurate with his passing.”

Bennett said the defense’s man coverage fits the cornerbacks’ mindset.

“I feel like any DB that plays football, they want to play man coverage,” he said. “You just want to have that one-on-one battle. You want to have just the mentality just to win against your guy. I feel like it kind of makes the game better in a sense, just to know that your job is to stop your guy from catching the ball and just shut him down for the whole game. I feel like every DB we have on the team has that same mentality.”

Maryland defensive back Kenny Bennett (24) celebrates with Nick Cross (3) and Antwaine Richardson (20) after intercepting a pass intended for Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) during a game Nov. 7, 2020.
Maryland defensive back Kenny Bennett (24) celebrates with Nick Cross (3) and Antwaine Richardson (20) after intercepting a pass intended for Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) during a game Nov. 7, 2020. (Barry Reeger/AP)

Junior cornerback Kenny Bennett (no relation to Jakorian) said the cornerbacks have embraced the weekly challenge.

“It’s just us really going out there and having the confidence that we’re going to be able to do our jobs and do them well because of how hard we practiced and the time we put in,” he said. “Our confidence just comes from our preparation, and that’s something we take extremely serious as a defense and as a team in general. And right now, all we’re seeing is the fruits of our labor.”

The secondary was especially suffocating in Saturday’s 27-11 loss at No. 12 Indiana. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. entered the game leading the Big Ten in passing yards (1,561), completions (118) and touchdown passes (14), but was limited to six of 19 passing for 84 yards and zero touchdowns before suffering in the third quarter what would later be determined a torn right ACL.

What is even more remarkable is that the defensive backfield played without a pair of starters in sophomore safety Nick Cross, the only player with an interception, sack and forced fumble this season, and freshman cornerback Tarheeb Still, the leader in pass breakups.

Senior safety Antwaine Richardson started for Cross, while Kenny Bennett started for Still. Jakorian Bennett shifted from his outside corner spot to play the slot, and sophomore Deonte Banks started in the latter Bennett’s place.

“I thought defensively, they made Penix look pedestrian before Penix got injured later,” Leman said. “I think we can all agree that if the Maryland offense had played like we had seen them before, that would be much more of a game. I think the depth on the back end is pretty impressive.”

Senior safety Antwaine Richardson credited Baker and Hoke with reinforcing the defensive plan of taking away the deep and over routes that Penix had exploited against No. 3 Ohio State on Nov. 21 for a career-high 491 yards and five touchdowns.

“The whole week was, take away the shots,” he said. “The game before that, they had a lot of explosive plays against Ohio State. So that was our key in the secondary. Just take away all the shots and make them run.”

Locksley said the defense’s reliance on man coverage is a nod to the players asked to uphold it.

“We’ve got skill guys at the corner position, and it allows us to play more aggressive up front, and it allows us to make the quarterback a little more uncomfortable,” he said. “I’ve been pleased with the way we’ve covered and stayed in front of people. We still have a couple of these pass interferences where we get grabby and we kind of panic when the ball’s in the air. Just the experience of being in that position, eventually you’ll get comfortable there. But I kind of like where we are on defense.”

The next test for the Maryland cornerbacks is Dec. 12 against Rutgers and senior quarterback Noah Vedral, who ranks fourth in the Big Ten in completion percentage (. 642) and passing yards per game (220.8) and is tied for fourth in touchdown passes (eight). Jakorian Bennett said he and his position mates embrace the assignment.

“We have a lot of confidence,” he said. “We feel that we can shut down anyone in the conference, and we feel like we have one of the better secondaries in the country. So we’re just trying to get better every day and stay humble and hungry. We’re just continuing to work and grind.”

RUTGERS@MARYLAND

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