Maryland defensive end A.J. Francis grew up a huge Cowboys fan and remembers watching Brian Stewart lead the Dallas defense back in 2008 and 2009.
Francis loved the way Stewart coached. So imagine his surprise when Stewart was named defensive coordinator at Maryland back in January. Francis could hardly believe his luck, and was eager to get coaching advice from somebody he had grown to admire.
Their relationship blossomed in the months that followed, so much so that Francis said of Stewart, "He’s the best defensive coach I’ve played for and my favorite coordinator I’ve played for." It is hard to argue with the results Stewart has gotten out of Francis and every other Terrapins defender this season.
The worst defense in the ACC has blossomed into one of the best, this despite a coordinator change and a defensive scheme shift. Headed into their game at Virginia (2-4, 0-2) on Saturday, the Terps (3-2, 1-0) rank No. 2 in the ACC in total defense and No. 7 in the nation. That group is a big reason why Maryland has already surpassed its win total from a year ago.
"Usually it takes at least a year to be comfortable in a new defensive scheme, but this scheme we have this year, I’ve never seen us get as comfortable as we have been as a team," Francis said in a telephone interview. "I feel like everybody feels great in their role, and everybody’s willing to accomplish anything that’s put ahead of them. There’s no task too tall. We feel we can make all the plays."
Francis points squarely at Stewart, along with the return of nearly every position coach on the defense. Both have allowed players to feel good about what they are doing on the field.
"Playing for the same guy who coached my favorite player, DeMarcus Ware, I felt like that was an honor that not a lot of people get to appreciate and so I knew as soon as I got the chance, anything he told me to do I’d be willing to do it without hesitation," Francis said.
He is not alone. Consider these outstanding stats:
For the first time since 1999, Maryland has held its opponent under 300 yards of total offense in four of the season’s first five games. West Virginia was the only team to go over 300 yards. But, consider Maryland held the Mountaineers to a season-low 363 total yards of offense and a season-low 31 points.
The Terps rank seventh nationally in total defense (257.2 ypg), seventh in rushing defense (81 ypg) and 15th in passing defense (176.2 ypg). They are holding opponents to 2.3 yards a carry to rank third nationally.
Last week, Wake Forest managed just 45 yards in the second half, including only 4 in the entire fourth quarter. Maryland has been at its best in the second half all year, giving up an average of just 121.4 yards in the second half.
When asked whether he thinks Maryland has the best defense in the ACC, Francis said, "The stats say Florida State is the best in the ACC. Until the stats say so, we’re not."
Maryland is considerably better than a year ago, when it ranked last in the ACC in total defense (457.2 ypg) and scoring defense (34.2 ppg). But nobody is allowing themselves a moment to look ahead at a possible bowl berth. There are too many areas of concern that remain, particularly an inconsistent offense that has turned the ball over too much and cannot get its ground game going.
Still, the headlines out of College Park these days are not the negative ones that filtered out at a rapid pace a year ago. Coach Randy Edsall seems to have his team looking ahead, not back. If they keep up their current pace, the Terps could end up being one of the most pleasant surprises in the ACC this season.
"You don’t go to a bowl game off three wins," Francis said. "Everybody told us we were going to be bowl bound after getting back to 2-2 last year. Things didn't work out the way we thought they would and I think that’s still fresh in everyone’s mind. It’s hard to win football games. Every game from here on out is an ACC game -- everybody is going to be familiar with us and our personnel. They’re going to be pretty good teams. We have to be ready to go out and get the wins."