COLLEGE PARK -- University of Maryland defensive coordinator Greg Williams pauses for a moment, knowing the pressure this one statement could bring. But he can't hold back any longer.
"The best way to put it is that we have nine five-year seniors on this defense, and that gives us 45 seasons of experience," said Williams, whose defense returns six starters. "That's a heck of a lot of experience. We haven't had that type of experience in my 10 years at Maryland.
"Right now, I wouldn't trade a lot of our players for any other players in the league. These seniors have been with us through the bad times, and now this is just like old times. We're loose and confident. Last year, we came into camp and kind of giggled. Now we're at a roar."
There. He said it. He said what everyone else around the Maryland campus has been saying. Forget the preseason publications and forecasts. Maryland won't have the worst defense in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year. The Terps may have the best.
Maryland has great size and experience on its defensive line, and two sleepers at outside linebacker who could become the best tandem in the conference. The Terps also are riding the momentum of their first winning season (a 6-5-1 record and a Poulan/Weed Eater Independence Bowl appearance) since 1985. Now if the secondary ever finds its niche, well . . .
"We're a very capable group," said Larry Webster, Maryland's 6-foot-5, 268-pound senior defensive tackle who is an All-America candidate. "We have experienced people and players who can make the big play. Now it's just a matter of performance on the field. Potential doesn't win ballgames."
Several of Maryland's defensive players talked big before last season, and for the first half, the Terps delivered -- holding their first four opponents to an average of 13 points before being routed by Michigan, 45-17, and Georgia Tech, 31-3, in games 5 and 6.
The Terps found their level again by holding Wake Forest to 13 points and Duke to 20 in the next two weeks. But Maryland allowed an average of 32 points in the last four games.
"In some cases, you have to look at who we were playing," said 6-foot-8, 260-pound Lubo Zizakovic, Maryland's other senior defensive tackle who already has been drafted in the third round by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. "We were playing Penn State and Virginia, two pretty good football teams. We also had some injuries."
OK, so the Terps were missing two starters and they did play one of the toughest schedules in the country. But 34 points to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl?
Williams also noticed similar second-half crashes in 1988 and 1989.
"There's some truth to it, and I think we've all noticed it," said Williams. "We have had some injuries and we do play some tough teams down the stretch, but it's something I can't explain, and something we need to work on."
Maryland's conservative defensive philosophy won't change much this season. The Terps still will use a 3-4 alignment as their base defense, trying to attack and penetrate at the line of scrimmage. Maryland also will stay predominantly in zone coverage, playing man-to-man only about 30 to 40 percent of the time.
But with the Terps' defensive experience and offensive inexperience, Maryland probably will blitz and stunt more this season.
"We want to improve on the things we did last year," said Williams. "We don't have the gun [former quarterback Scott Zolak] we had last year, but other teams do. We can't afford to give up good field position. Therefore, we're going to be more aggressive and take more chances."
Maryland is particularly strong on the front line with Webster (75 tackles) and Zizakovic (45 tackles), but senior nose guard Ralph Orta saw limited action last season. Also, the Terps' depth is questionable. Senior defensive tackle Derek Steele has to pass summer school classes to be eligible, and junior tackle Darren Drozdov hasn't fully recovered from back surgery a year ago.
Linebacking was supposed to be the Terps' weakest point this season, but this is where the Terps could surprise some teams. Neither junior Michael Jarmolowich (82) nor sophomore Dave Marrone (45), both inside linebackers, started last season, but both were impressive during their substantial playing time.
Senior outside linebacker Greg Hines (6-2, 240) was the team's sack leader (four) until a knee injury caused him to miss the last four games. He will team with senior Joel Goode (6-2, 222), who sat out last season because of academic problems.
"I like those two," said Williams. "I think they're going to be quite a pair."
Maryland's situation in the secondary isn't as settled, with senior Scott Rosen the lone regular starter. Senior Mike Thomas had considerable playing time at safety the past two seasons, but the Terps have moved him to the other corner. Junior Ron Reagan should start at strong safety, and juniors Bill Inge and Andre Vaughn compete for the free safety position.
"We need a few things to fall into place," said Williams. "If that fTC happens, and we play to our ability, then we should be in most ballgames. Plus we have to win early [the first three games are at home]. You know what they say -- you like to fight in your own living room because you know where all the furniture is located."
Terps 1990 defensive stats
First downs 203
Rushing attempts 496
Rushing yards gained 1,597
Yards per rush 3.2
Rushing yards per game 145.2
Passes attempted 307
Passes completed 168
Passes intercepted 6
Pass completion percentage .547
Passing yards 2,180
Yards per pass completion 13.0
Passing yards per game 198.2
Total plays 803
Total players per game 73.0
Total yards 3,777
Yards gained per play 4.7
Yards gained per game 343.4
Fumbles/fumbles lost 20-11
Third-down conversions 56 of 168