Terps Football: 2017 Season Preview – The Linebackers
While head coach DJ Durkin’s defensive scheme often only calls for one or two linebackers, it does not diminish their importance on the field. With more and more offenses moving to spread offenses featuring three or more wide receivers with regularity, linebackers are typically the first players to come off of the field in favor of an extra defensive back or two. However, the Terrapins’ defense will feature one of the conference’s best at his position, and he doesn’t come off of the field very often.
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Jermaine Carter, Jr. (Redshirt Senior)
2017 Projection: Starter (Middle)
2016 Statistics: 106 tackles (9.0 for loss), 6.0 sacks, 1 INT, 2 fumbles forced, 4 pass breakups
During his career in College Park, Carter has solidified himself as one of the better linebackers in the Big Ten Conference. During the off-season, he was named to numerous award watch lists, including those for the Bednarik and Butkus awards. He is a perfectly prototypical middle linebacker, a defensive leader, excellent tackler, and solid in pass coverage.
Carter will start at middle linebacker in his final season with the Terrapins, and will not leave the field when the defense shifts into nickel and dime personnel. He will undoubtedly be one of the more popular members of this program among NFL scouts this season.
Shane Cockerille (Redshirt Senior)
2017 Projection: Starter (Weak-Side)
2016 Statistics: 108 tackles (8.0 for loss), 3.0 sacks, 0 INT, 0 fumbles forced, 1 pass breakup
Despite moving from quarterback to fullback to linebacker, Cockerille seems to have found a home in the second level of Maryland’s defense. He led the team in tackles last season, and showed he had the skills to succeed against both the run and the pass.
Unfortunately, Cockerille’s 2017 season is still an uncertainty. He was suspended indefinitely before the team’s bowl game against Boston College, and was unable to participate in spring practice. Head coach DJ Durkin said recently that he has done everything necessary to be reinstated, but that has not yet happened. It was recently announced that he will participate in summer practices, but his suspension has not yet been lifted. If eligible, he should be the clear starter on the weak side of the Terrapins’ defense. However, Jalen Brooks is an excellent second choice here, and Durkin won’t hesitate to play him instead.
Isaiah Davis (Redshirt Sophomore)
2017 Projection: Second-Team (Middle)
2016 Statistics: 17 tackles (0.0 for loss), 0.0 sacks, 0 INT, 0 fumbles forced, 0 pass breakups
Davis didn’t see the field much in 2016, and is probably best known for being ejected from the team’s game against Penn State for an illegal hit on Joey Julius. He is the brother of former Terp and current Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Sean Davis, and is the primary reason why Sean stayed in College Park for his senior season.
I have projected Isaiah to serve as Carter’s primary backup at middle linebacker in 2017. He could be pushed for this job by Junior College transfer Nick Underwood, but should be able to hold onto this job. His time to shine will come next season, after Carter has graduated.
Jalen Brooks (Redshirt Senior)
2017 Projection: Second-Team (Weak-Side)
2016 Statistics: 28 tackles (2.0 for loss), 1.0 sacks, 0 INT, 0 fumbles forced, 2 pass breakups
Brooks lost a lot of playing time due to the excellent play of Cockerille last season, but was able to get on the field when Durkin went into a more traditional 4-3 defense against teams like Michigan and Michigan State. He is a more prototypical strong-side linebacker, a strong run stopper who comes off the field in nickel and dime personnel.
If Cockerille’s suspension is lifted, I project Brooks to play a similar role to last season. However if it isn’t, Brooks will likely step into a starting role. Regardless, he will be the starting strong-side linebacker against teams who run more traditional offensive schemes.
Nick Underwood (Redshirt Sophomore)
2017 Projection: Third-Team (Middle)
2016 Statistics (Riverside Community College): 71 tackles (11.0 for loss), 1.5 sacks, 2 INT, 0 fumbles forced, 1 pass breakup
Underwood comes to College Park after spending two seasons at Riverside Community College. He enrolled early, and was able to participate fully in spring practices. He is a versatile linebacker, solid against both the run and the pass. He has impressed the coaching staff during his short time on campus, and could be poised for a big role sooner rather than later.
I have projected Underwood to serve as the team’s third-string middle linebacker, but with an impressive summer he could surpass Davis on the depth chart. Either way, his best chance for playing time will come in 2018 when he competes for the starting job.
Nnamdi Egbuaba (Redshirt Sophomore)
2017 Projection: Third-Team (Weak-Side)
2016 Statistics: 4 tackles (0.0 for loss), 0.0 sacks, 0 INT, 0 fumbles forced, 0 pass breakups
This will be Egbuaba’s third season with the Terrapins, with the majority of his playing time thus far coming on special teams. His agility and pass-coverage abilities make him a good fit as a weak-side linebacker in Durkin’s hybrid defensive scheme.
I have projected Egbuaba to serve as the team’s third-string weak-side linebacker. He is blocked on the depth chart by Cockerille and Brooks, but could step into a bigger role if the former doesn’t return from his suspension.
Matt Gillespie (Redshirt Junior)
2017 Projection: Fourth-Team (Middle)
2016 Statistics: Did Not Play
Gillespie is in his fourth season in College Park, and has yet to see game action. His best chance for playing time this season will come on special teams.
I have projected Gillespie to serve as the team’s fourth-string middle linebacker. With Carter, Davis, and Underwood ahead of him on the depth chart, his path to the field is very congested.
Brett Shepherd (Sophomore)
2017 Projection: Fourth-Team (Weak-Side)
2016 Statistics: 2 tackles (0.0 for loss), 0.0 sacks, 0 INT, 0 fumbles forced, 0 pass breakups
Shepherd received a lot of playing time as a freshman last season. While it didn’t result in many statistical milestones, he was able to get onto the field in eight of the team’s thirteen games. He gained 15 pounds during the offseason, which should help him when going up against the big tight ends and running backs of the Big Ten.
I have projected Shepherd to serve as the team’s fourth-string weak-side linebacker this season, but he could jump over Egbuaba on the depth chart. His best chance for regular playing time will come in 2018, when he competes for the starting job.
Steve Baca (Sophomore)
2017 Projection: Fifth-Team (Middle)
2016 Statistics: Did Not Play
Baca didn’t see game action as a freshman last season. He came to College Park as a preferred walk-on from South Carroll High School where he played both linebacker and running back.
I have projected Baca to serve as the team’s fifth-string middle linebacker this season. He could possibly see some playing time on special teams.
Antoine Brooks (Sophomore)
2017 Projection: Fifth-Team (Weak-Side)
2016 Statistics: 5 tackles (0.0 for loss), 0.0 sacks, 0 INT, 0 fumbles forced, 0 pass breakups
Brooks saw playing time in six games on special teams last season, and made a spectacular diving interception in the team’s Red-White Spring Game earlier this year. He is a fantastic athlete, and finished his high school career as one of the more electrifying players in the Washington, DC area.
I have projected Brooks to serve as the team’s fifth-string weak-side linebackers this season. However, if Durkin is looking for players to use in a hybrid linebacker/safety hybrid role in nickel or dime schemes, Brooks would certainly be on the short list.
Ayinde Eley (Freshman)
2017 Projection: Redshirt
2016 Statistics (High School): 66 tackles (0.0 for loss), 0.0 sacks, 0 INT, 0 fumbles forced, 0 pass breakups
Eley is the lone freshman linebacker in Maryland’s 2017 recruiting class, and he comes to College Park as a 3-star recruit from nearby Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, MD. He likely slots in as a weak-side linebacker for Durkin’s defense.
I have projected Eley to redshirt this season, primarily due to the talent above him on the depth chart. However, with Cockerille and Brooks set to graduate after this year, he has a chance to compete for playing time in 2018.