COLLEGE PARK — — Titus Till was the next Terp up.
When starting safety Matt Robinson had shoulder surgery following the Sept. 24 Temple game, Till figured it was his turn. The redshirt freshman — who grew up in Italy and Japan and played soccer as his primary sport — had never started a college game.
"It was heartbreaking to me because I've known Matt since high school. We were Maryland all-state together and played in the Crab Bowl together," Till said. "He had a face-to-face talk with me to just say, 'Yeah, you're ready, do your thing. Go out there and ball.'"
When Maryland (2-2, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) takes on No. 13 Georgia Tech (5-0, 2-0 ACC) and its potent option offense Saturday, Till will be making his second start. And he won't be the only one learning on the run against a Yellow Jackets team with the nation's top rushing attack (378 yards per game).
As the result of injuries and lack of depth, first-year Maryland coach Randy Edsall is in the unenviable position of having to adjust his defense from week to week and plug in inexperienced players.
The reshuffling comes as the Terps face a stretch of three games against ranked teams (Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State) that could define their season.
Maryland started three first-year defensive players last week for the first time in 11 years. Four freshmen have started on defense this season — Till, defensive lineman Keith Bowers, linebacker Lorne Goree and defensive lineman Andre Monroe.
Maryland now has 18 freshmen on the two-deep depth chart, most in the ACC.
Robinson's shoulder injury was among the biggest early-season jolts. His progress had allowed Edsall to move Kenny Tate — the All-ACC safety — to linebacker before the season. Tate was listed as "doubtful" for this week by Maryland, which did not specify the reason.
Robinson (Atholton) had 13 tackles in the Temple game while playing hurt.
"I'm pretty sure he hurt it earlier on in the season and kept playing on it," Till said. "It got worse and worse. Matt didn't tell anybody. I guess he was told to keep it away from the team so we didn't have any distractions going into Towson [on Oct. 1]. That Monday we found out that he was going into surgery."
After the injury, Edsall sought to make a positive example of Robinson, telling the media: "He lays it on the line for Maryland, he lays it on the line for his teammates."
Edsall said Maryland only hopes to slow Georgia Tech's offense.
"You're not going to stop them. Nobody has stopped this [triple-option] offense going back to when it was invented," the coach said. "If you can keep them under about 300 rushing [yards] you've done a pretty good job."
The other part of Maryland's defensive equation is limiting big pass plays by quarterback Tevin Washington. Even after Washington's subpar game in a win over North Carolina State last week, Georgia Tech ranks first in the nation in passing efficiency.
Edsall is counting on Till, who had 11 tackles in Maryland's 28-3 win over Towson.
"I kind of had it in the back of my mind that I felt like I would be happy to step up," said the soft-spoken Till, unaccustomed to being surrounded by a cluster of reporters as he was last week in the Gossett Football Team House. "I felt like I had a pretty decent game. [My teammates] trusted me, they had confidence in me."
Much of Till's childhood was spent in Italy, where his father, Durward Till III, was stationed at the Aviano Air Base. For sport, Till turned to Italy's national pastime.
"Soccer was my first sport," Till said after pledging Maryland in 2009. He was born in Alaska but his family eventually settled in Upper Marlboro.
"When I was a child I used to go to the playground. We lived in an Italian neighborhood. Just as you see on TV and movies, I'd be playing [soccer] with the Italian kids. That's all they do. So I always thought I would play on a professional scale as a soccer player."
He said his parents never imagined he'd be playing American football, much less starting for the Terps in a big game.
Maryland (2-2, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 13 Georgia Tech (5-0, 2-0 ACC)
Site: Bobby Dodd Stadium
Radio: 105.7 FM,1300 AM
Series: Georgia Tech leads, 13-6.
Last meeting: Maryland beat Georgia Tech, 28-26, on Nov. 6, 2007 in College Park.
Maryland offense vs. Georgia Tech defense: Maryland is making its first road trip of the season. Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson appealed to fans during the week to support the team at home. Johnson has expressed concern about Georgia Tech's rushing defense, ranked seventh in the ACC (145 yards per game). Maryland has declined to reveal whether it will use its no-huddle offense or try to slow things down to increase its possession time and keep the ball away from Georgia Tech's potent offense.
Maryland defense vs. Georgia Tech offense: Opponents have learned that Georgia Tech starts quickly on offense. In three straight games to open the season, the Yellow Jackets scored on their first offensive play. Overall, they average 51.6 points and have 40 plays of at least 20 yards. Their triple option leads the nation in rushing offense and passing efficiency. Quarterback Tevin Washington has 10 touchdown passes and one interception. The Terps started three first-year players on defense last week. Injured linebacker Darin Drakeford and defensive lineman Andre Monroe did not practice this week and are unlikely to play. Linebacker Kenny Tate was listed as "doubtful" by Maryland, which did not specify the reason.