COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — Maryland’s defense can expect to play a far bigger role Saturday against No. 21 Syracuse after spending the season opener in the background of a record-setting offense.
The focus of the Terrapins’ 79-0 rout of Howard last weekend was Josh Jackson throwing four touchdown passes in his debut, the Terrapins breaking the school mark for points in a half with 56 and an attack that garnered 623 yards in its first game under coach Michael Locksley.
All that obscured a defense that rang up eight sacks, allowed only 1 yard rushing and never permitted the Bison to cross midfield in the Terps’ first shutout since 2013.
Hired at Maryland after a successful run as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, Locksley loved seeing the Terrapins score 11 touchdowns. But he can also appreciate the value of a stout defensive effort.
“No matter the opponent, anytime you pitch a shutout, those are tough to do in this day and age,” Locksley said Tuesday.
Syracuse did the same in its opener, 24-0 over Liberty.
“Defense has the well-deserved reputation of being a strength for those guys,” said Locksley, who hopes the same assertion can soon apply to Maryland.
The potential is there. The backfield features three seniors, most notably safety Antoine Brooks and cornerback Tino Ellis. Transfer Shaq Smith, who started every game for national champion Clemson last year, heads a solid group of linebackers.
The starting 11 includes five seniors and two grad students — Smith and linebacker Keandre Jones, formerly of Ohio State.
“We have a little more leadership, more experience on that side of the football,” Locksley said.
In his first game with Maryland, Smith had three tackles and a sack. His value to the defense, however, cannot be solely determined by numbers.
Moving to the outside after playing middle linebacker for Clemson, the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Smith is counted on to jam tight ends, shrug off offensive tackles and seal the corner from runners looking to get outside.
“It’s not necessarily a glamorous position,” Locksley conceded. “Because of his size and strength, he’s able to do those type of things. But the thing I was really pleased with was his third-down pass rush. We were able to get some hits on the quarterback, able to get some sacks.”
Perhaps the only notable flaw of the defense’s performance against Howard was a lack of communication in the backfield.
“I would say the No. 1 thing we need to do as a defense is communicate more,” Smith said. “Once we get that down, we’ll be just that much better and will be able to take the next step.”
Defensive coordinator Jon Hoke confused Howard with multiple coverages and disguised blitzes. The plan is more of the same against Syracuse in a game that could go a long way toward enabling the Terps to establish themselves as a team — and a defense — to be reckoned with.
“The chemistry we have on defense and the guys we have, we have a chance to be very special, one of the best,” Smith said. “It all depends on us.”