Kenny Tate, an All-ACC safety in 2010, has moved to linebacker… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
Of the many changes new coach Randy Edsall and the Maryland football team face this spring, one position seems to be undergoing a larger transformation than any other.
The linebackers — one of the team's strongest units in 2010 — will have to adjust to a new scheme and replace two starters. But the challenge does not end there.
Even veteran players will face unfamiliarity. The only returning starter, junior Demetrius Hartsfield, is moving to inside linebacker from the outside. Darin Drakeford, a reserve last year who is projected to start this season, is expected to make the same move. And All-Atlantic Coast Conference senior safety Kenny Tate is moving to a hybrid linebacker position.
"There are so many changes, and we didn't expect to see that," Hartsfield said. "We were all excited. The reason [Edsall] did it was to have his best 11 players on the field. I think the decisions he made were real good."
Edsall expressed confidence in the positional changes the team made this offseason.
"We're trying to get the best guys on the field we can," he said. "The guys we did move, we feel good about. We like our personnel and how it's set up."
Despite the challenges of learning a new defense, Tate is optimistic about the unit's future.
"I don't know how [the coaches] came about it. They just told me they made some changes," Tate said. "Me and [Hartsfield] were together at the time, and we were looking at it and we were like, 'This could work.'"
Replacing longtime starters Alex Wujciak and Adrian Moten, both of whom are hoping to have their names called in the NFL draft this month, will be an additional challenge. Wujciak was the team's leading tackler the past three seasons; Moten was fourth in tackles and led the team with four interceptions in 2010.
Furthermore, the defense's philosophy is going to change, along with the skill sets required of the players.
Drakeford said this year's defense is likely to be a bit more conservative than last season's.
"I don't know how much we're going to blitz yet," Drakeford said. "It is going to be attacking, but only at certain points. Last year, it was attack from play one till the end of the game."
But the players expect the unit to be faster and more athletic this year.
"I dropped about five pounds since last year," Drakeford said. "Everyone being that much faster than last year, it's going to help having 11 athletes across the board. That's always a plus."
Efforts to become faster up front may explain why Tate has switched positions.
But Tate doesn't see the switch to linebacker as significant.
"I don't see it as a change at all," he said. "I see it as me moving to a different position, which will just cause offenses to do something different."
Tate said he is prepared for Edsall's scheme.
"I did a lot last year," Tate said. "I really wasn't playing a traditional safety. I did play linebacker some downs, played on the D-line and everywhere else. I can still do the same things, just closer to the line of scrimmage."
Drakeford suggested that moving Tate to linebacker will be harder on opposing offenses than on Tate himself.
"Last year, Kenny was all over the field," Drakeford said. "Offenses are always going to have to spot where Kenny is, and now offenses will change the way they approach us."
Meanwhile, Hartsfield, who was third on the team with 88 tackles a season ago, has charged himself with becoming a team leader and elevating his game for his junior year.
Moving to inside linebacker, Hartsfield sees chances to make a bigger impact on the game.
"You have the opportunity to make plays all over the field, not just on your side," Hartsfield said. "Being an outside 'backer, you are kind of limited to what kind of plays you make."
Hartsfield said he is ready to become a team leader at his new position.
"The great linebackers that come through here, it's a long list of them," he said. "They taught me to stay in the weight room, make sure I do extra, to make sure I watch film. And they just always had an emotional energy around them which I can now bring to the rest of the younger guys."
Edsall expects Hartsfield to be a key player on his defense.
"He's a big guy who can run and he has a lot of athletic ability," Edsall said. "He will step up and be vocal, talk and communicate. He's got the skill set and size you look for in a middle linebacker."
Much attention has been given to the new coaches and schemes this offseason. But Tate reminded a slew of reporters that the defense's success will depend on the performance of the players in crunch time.
"It's definitely a team effort," he said. "Ultimately, we're the people on the field; we have to execute. We've worked so hard the last couple of years. Coaches are definitely part of the game, but we're the ones playing. If we exert our efforts, we should come out on top."