COLLEGE PARK, Md. —Some kids spend their childhood reading “Where’s Waldo?”
The University of Maryland will be trying to use a similar concept this season.
Basically, it’s called “Where’s Mike?”
The Terrapins have made a big defensive switch, moving to a 3-4 defensive alignment, for the 2012 season. The objective will be to make every opponent find Maryland’s “Mike,” the football nickname given to the middle linebacker, on every play.
Coach Randy Edsall brought in Brian Stewart as defensive coordinator and architect of the scheme he learned while working as a defensive coach in the NFL.
“With six or seven guys on the line of scrimmage at all times, it is hard for the offense to check, protect and find the Mike,” Stewart said.
In other words, Stewart will be preaching a form of controlled chaos on the defensive side of the ball.
“This gives us a lot of flexibility in formations and takes the opposition a lot of time to prepare for,” Stewart said. “I’m sure there are some little things that the offense can look for and pick up on, but the quarterback doesn’t have this time to prepare during the game and we will be able to take advantage of this.”
It’s the style of defense that has become prevalent in the NFL, which Stewart has worked with in coaching stints with the Texans, Chargers, Cowboys and Eagles from 2002 to 2009. He comes to Maryland after three years at the University of Houston, where the Cougars were in the top 15 in five different defensive categories in 2011.
“Both our linebackers and the defensive line have players that can play on the inside of the field, as well as on outside positions,” Stewart said.
For Maryland, it’s an important change on a couple of levels.
First, the Terps allowed 411 points — an average of 34.2 per game — during a 2-10 season in 2011. Maryland allowed 457 yards per game with 51 percent coming through the air.
Secondly, the switch of schemes will allow Maryland to better use its assets.
“This isn’t a normal 3-4, two-gap scheme that people will think about,” Edsall said. “Taking a look at personnel, I think we are better suited to doing the things we want to do defensively.”
Maryland is long on linebackers and short on linemen. The move will allow the Terps to feature the linebackers because they have the most talent at the position, while conserving linemen by using one less, which will make the position deeper.
“You can look in the NFL where the 3-4 is taking over on defense,” said Maryland linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield. “Most of the best teams in the NFL run a 3-4. It’s so hard to find good defensive ends. They are the hardest position to recruit and so they usually convert kids to linebacker who can rush the quarterback or drop back into coverage.”
Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis are Maryland’s only seniors on the line and have different looks in the 3-4. Vellano, a preseason All-Atlantic Coast Conference pick, will go from tackle to defensive end while Francis will remain at tackle but will move over to the nose. Three players are vying for the other defensive end slot.
But the Terps show most of their experience at linebacker.
Kenny Tate will play the strong side (SAM), Darin Drakeford will be on the weakside (WILL) and Demetrius Hartsfield — all seniors — will be one of the men in the middle (MO). Sophomores L.A. Goree and Cole Farrand will vie to start at MIKE, the man every team will be trying to find.
The linebackers will lineup in different positions — creating that “Where’s Waldo?”, or in this case MIKE, situations — as the defense will be looking to pour in from the edges on quick hitting attack. The defense could be described a free-form in many situations.
“As far as for players, you love to be able to walk around and freelance sometimes — we call it schoolyard. We’ll be all over the place,” said Hartsfield. “It’s just the evolution of the game taking over. Linebackers are a lot more versatile today. There are linebackers who can rush, some linebackers who are specifically run-stoppers, and then a few who can do both of these things.”
The beauty of the 3-4 is it will allow Maryland to be picky and specific when it comes to recruiting talent.
“When we are out recruiting, we know exactly what we want in our players,” Stewart said. “If we want a 6-foot-1 player and there is a 5-6 player out there who is fast, we won’t go after him because we want a 6-1 player to fill a specific positional need. NFL teams draft players to fit their defenses. We want to find and get a certain profile to fit our schemes.
“Our defense will be good, but it is only the starting point of what it can be because we’ll be drafting better and better players to fill the roles.”
But for now, while opponents will be looking to find “MIKE,” Maryland is just looking to change its defensive culture to win games now.
“Just like Coach Stewart said, freelancing causes confusion for the opposing offenses. That’s what he has been preaching to us. We will be doing a lot of disguising on sets to force offenses to spend all their time looking around for the MIKE.
“But you have to be smart. You can’t take stupid risks and put your responsibilities and assignment in jeopardy, which could lead to big plays.”