By Eric Prisbell
Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen was ready to begin a scrimmage last week, just as soon as the defense finished rotating through personnel groups. But instead of taking a few moments, the defense shuffled through one unconventional 11-man configuration after another as Friedgen watched and waited for nearly 20 minutes.
"How many personnel groups you got?" Friedgen hollered at Don Brown, Maryland's first-year defensive coordinator. "Anytime you're ready, we'd like to get on with this thing." Even for the man who hired Brown eight months ago, the defense remains shrouded in mystery. Maryland's coaches believe the defense is difficult enough to decipher if you see it every day in practice, much less if you get no sneak preview, as will be the case for 12th-ranked California in Saturday's season opener.
Throughout each summer, coaches across the country study hours of video of a particular defense or offense, hoping to learn every idiosyncrasy and quirk for their respective season-opening matchups. With Maryland's new-look defense, the Golden Bears had no such luxury.
While Brown ran a version of this attacking 4-3 defense during his five years as head coach at Massachusetts -- which finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense in three of those seasons -- 75 percent of what Brown has installed this season is new.
When told that California will have no video of the defense, one Maryland coach quickly placed his index finger over his lips and said, "Shhhh!" Strong safety Kenny Tate added: "Nobody has tape of it. That's the beauty of it."
The element of surprise could be among the few advantages Maryland has in a game in which the Terrapins are significant underdogs. California Coach Jeff Tedford, who possesses an offense that averaged 32.6 points per game and a running back (Jahvid Best) who averaged 8.1 yards per carry last season, is concerned about the challenge of facing a complex defense his team has not seen.
"You just do not know what to do," Tedford said. "I know there is going to be an element of surprise there, so you are a little bit uncomfortable going in wondering what is going to happen because there is no background. They are not the same team."
Billed as creative, aggressive, unorthodox and a "pain in the butt for offenses," according to Friedgen, Maryland's defense has been the talk of preseason camp. Excitement among players and coaches has grown because of the schematic mind of a 54-year-old coordinator who admittedly has no hobbies other than to confound offenses. "He's got it figured out," Friedgen said.
The defense's calling card is aggression. While interviewing Brown for the position, Friedgen recalled taking him out to dinner and then challenging him with game scenarios. Finally, Brown said, "If you're looking for a guy who is going to sit back, play coverage and gap control, I'm not the guy for you."
That piqued the interest of Friedgen, who then talked to several references, including Miami offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews and William & Mary Coach Jimmye Laycock, who told Friedgen to hire Brown so Laycock would not have to face his defense anymore.