Mike Locksley commonly calls Maryland football a “developmental program.”
When he says that, he’s usually discussing the program’s ability to recruit high schoolers — perhaps even those who are not highly touted — and turn them into productive players. But that internal growth has extended past the Terps’ roster and into their coaching staff.
Defensive coordinator Brian Williams joined Locksley’s inaugural staff in 2019. At that point, he’d been a college coach for only five years. He was named the Terps’ outside linebackers coach. He would later become the defensive line coach, and he assumed the co-defensive coordinator role in 2021.
All the while, Maryland was rotating through a host of defensive play callers. First was Jon Hoke, who left after the 2020 season. Locksley hired Brian Stewart ahead of the 2021 campaign but turned to Williams to call the team’s plays for the last two games of that year — including the Pinstripe Bowl win, in which the Terps gave up just 10 points to Virginia Tech.
After the season, Locksley looked outside the program for a replacement and found Kevin Steele. The move made sense. Steele started his coaching career in 1980 and had stints at Alabama, Auburn and LSU. But Steele, who reportedly had a verbal agreement and an office in College Park, left for Miami.
That allowed Williams — finally — to stand at the helm of the defense. He presided over a unit that surged up the charts in 2022 in most advanced defensive statistics in part because of Williams’ increased use and disguise of zone defense with the innovative looks he used to flummox offenses.
“We play multiple coverages,” Williams said at the team’s media day. “We play press man on the outside, we play off man, we play every zone known to man, we play a lot of man coverages, and we mix it up. So it gives our guys a chance to show their abilities through different schemes and techniques.”
In 2021, the Terps ranked 92nd among FBS teams in CFB Graphs’ expected points allowed per play metric. EPA is a stat that models the points an offense gains or loses on a specific play based on a variety of factors such as score, down and distance.
Last season, Maryland jumped to 24th in EPA per play. The rise is largely attributable to improvements in pass coverage — the Terps ranked 15th in EPA per pass play in 2022 per CFB Graphs, compared to 59th against the run. They also didn’t have an elite pass rush, ranking sixth in pressures among Big Ten teams, per Sports Info Solutions. .
The return of Deonte Banks from injury and the rise of Beau Brade and Dante Trader Jr. at safety certainly helped. But Williams also had to contend with the loss of All-Big Ten honorable mention safeties Nick Cross and Jordan Mosley.
He did so by reducing how often his team played man coverage or blitzed. Opposing quarterbacks who faced Maryland saw man coverage on just 30.5% of drop-backs in 2022, compared to 44.8% in 2021, per SIS.
“When I first got here, it was no secret. We ran a lot of man coverage,” senior cornerback Tarheeb Still said in December. “So it was nothing but man coverage every game, didn’t really hide it. People knew what we were doing.”
The Terps were also better in advanced metrics when they played man in 2022. That could be because of how Williams dressed up those coverages.
If you watched Maryland’s defense in 2021, Trader explained, you’d see Cross standing in the middle of the field 30 yards away from the snap almost every time. That told other quarterbacks the Terps were in man, allowing them to check to route concepts that beat such coverages, Trader said.
That wasn’t the case for last year’s squad. Trader and his partner at safety, Brade, were interchangeable parts Williams could swap around. Both players commonly lined up as free safeties, in the box and even in the slot, per Pro Football Focus tracking.
“It was really complex systems … it was a lot more thinking, a lot more moving parts,” Trader said ahead of the Terps’ bowl game. “... We [tried] to disguise and mess up a lot of quarterbacks throughout the year.”
Maryland also blitzed less frequently — opposing quarterbacks saw five or more rushers on just 28.8% of drop-backs in 2022, a nearly 11-percentage-point drop from the 2021 figure, per SIS. In fact, Locksley noted that Williams and his unit found great success when they rushed three and dropped eight into coverage, flooding passing lanes with zone defenders.
Quarterbacks facing the Terps saw eight or more defenders in coverage on over 24% of their drop-backs in 2022. That figure was under 8% in 2021, according to SIS.
The varied looks Williams presented offenses required strong communication. Much of that came from Brade and Trader, who grew mightily in their first years as full-time starters. Locksley said the duo often helped other players get in the right position.
The two safeties return in a secondary that’s experiencing change. The Terps used five or more defensive backs on over 78% of snaps last year, per SIS. Brade, Trader, Jakorian Bennett, Banks and Still were the team’s top five in defensive snaps per PFF.
Banks and Bennett are gone. Ja’Quan Sheppard, an incoming transfer from Cincinnati, will likely fill one of those spots at outside corner. Opposite him could be Still, who was primarily a slot player in 2022 but will see more time outside this year, per Locksley.
Still has primarily practiced outside during fall camp, largely to allow Maryland to develop his replacement at the nickel position, the coach said.
Who fills that spot remains an open question and could vary depending on matchups.
Maryland could put a third corner on the field — Gavin Gibson filled in at the slot last year when Still was injured — or employ a “big nickel” package by putting a safety in that spot. Locksley pointed out Glendon Miller as a potential name; Miami transfer and former four-star recruit Avantae Williams could also factor into Maryland’s plans.
The Terps have some versatility to plug in pieces depending on the team they face and the resulting situation. The man making those decisions — Williams — had to wait extensively as Maryland courted others before settling on him to captain its defense. But he’s got it now, along with the trust of his head coach, who noted Williams’ “best football is still ahead of him.”
“He’s become more comfortable,” Locksley said of his defensive coordinator. “... I think he’s one of the shining stars in this profession and will very soon have an opportunity to hopefully run his own program.”