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Sharp corners make Maryland's new defense dangerous

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The outlook for Sean Davis' final year at Maryland changed in a flurry this February. Within the space of a few days, the Terps’ top returning tackler picked up a new position, a new coach and a new defense. All three were welcome changes.

The night that Maryland coach Randy Edsall informed his defense that former coordinator Brian Stewart was leaving the program, Edsall pulled Davis aside to tell him his prayers had been answered -- he would get to play his senior season as a cornerback. Davis racked up more than 100 tackles in each of his last two seasons as a starter at safety. Yet he did well enough in a late-November audition at corner to convince Edsall he could best serve the veteran secondary at his new spot next fall.

“At first I was shocked,” Davis said. “It was a dream come true .… I knew it was going to be a lot with my senior year and a new defense, but I embraced the challenge. I loved it.”

Davis’ size (6-foot-1, 206 pounds) allows him to be physical at the line of scrimmage in press coverage. His move is one of several that Maryland made this year while switching to a 4-3 defense designed to help crowd the line of scrimmage and better stop the run. He and his all-conference counterpart on the opposite side, Will Likely, give Edsall the confidence to commit more players to the run and leave the defensive backs to fend for themselves.

Together, Likely and Davis give the Terps a pair of cornerbacks that is as experienced and productive as any duo in the Big Ten.

“The one thing that we want to be able to do is to be able to play a little bit more man coverage,” said Edsall, who introduced a brand new package of coverages and techniques to the defensive backfield this spring. “Those guys have to be confident. They have to be fundamentally sound, and if they do that it helps your defense quite a bit.”

Maryland recruited Davis to play cornerback originally, but moved him to safety almost as soon as he arrived on campus. He stayed in the middle of the defense until last November when a few injuries forced the team to shuffle the secondary and move him outside. He was thrilled. Davis said he missed “the action” of going head-to-head with receivers -- apparently his 115 tackles and a handful of running-back-crumpling highlights in the middle of the field weren’t enough to keep him occupied.

Davis got antsy watching Likely rack up six interceptions and a pair of touchdowns (both of which were the highest totals in the conference) during the 2014 season. Now, he’s trying to play catch up. Both players kept close tabs on how many interceptions and breakups the other made during each practice this spring. The post-practice recap and trash talk became a daily ritual.

“That’s how we push each other,” Likely said. “We come out every day saying I’m going to get more picks than you. That’s what you need to build that competition. When the rest of the secondary sees that they want to jump in too.”

Likely, who will be a junior in 2015, has helped Davis get reacclimated with the footwork he needs to play corner again this spring. He’s picked up a few tips on tackling and reading formations from the former safety that he says made him faster and tougher than a year ago.

Both corners took an immediate liking to new assistant coach Darrell Perkins, who replaced Stewart midway through spring ball. Perkins previously coached with Edsall at UConn and together they tried to convince Davis to play for the Huskies early in his recruitment process. Davis said he loved the way Perkins coached his defensive backs to be physical. (At times, they wear boxing mitts at practice to get used to jamming receivers.) But the D.C.-area native wasn’t sold on moving all the way up to Connecticut at the time. Now, he gets to play close to home and learn from Perkins on a daily basis.

“I could tell when we had our individual meetings with him the week he came that it was going to be a good fit,” Davis said. “We sat down and had one-on-one time and got to feel each other out. I already knew him and he knew me. It was a smooth transition.”

The move to cornerback has been almost as seamless, Davis said. The initial shock of the position switch wore away after one night, and Davis was in the film room the following morning homing in on what he would need to do to play closer to the line in the new 4-3 scheme. He said his stint at corner late last season helped shake off a little rust, but mostly he was relying on athleticism while squaring off with future NFL receivers like Michigan’s Devin Funchess and Michigan State’s Tony Lippett.

“I thought he really progressed quite nicely during that time,” Edsall said. “Sean would probably be a little faster straight line speed (than Likely). Will is a little bit quicker. Will is a little bit more explosive off a first step, but Sean can do some things coming off the corner in the blitz game because of his size that Will wouldn’t have the ability to do just because his body type.”

The smaller, quicker Likely’s 5-foot-8 frame is brimming with football instincts. His explosive ability makes him a good fit for the field corner spot with more space to cover. Davis’ size and his comfort with playing against the run makes him a good fit in the boundary spot. Both say they are capable of playing either role, but complement each other well when on the field at the same time.

Davis and Likely each brings a wealth of experience and playmaking potential on his own. As a pair, they are only making each other better, which is a scary thought for opposing quarterbacks throughout the league.