Maryland's defense was a big area of concern entering the season, with just four starters returning to a 3-4 set, including just one linebacker.
Two of those returning starters are injured -- senior cornerback Dexter McDougle was lost for the season to a shoulder injury after the third game and junior cornerback Jeremiah Johnson was lost for up to eight weeks after suffering a broken toe in the season opener.
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So how come Maryland ranks second in the ACC and sixth nationally in total defense, allowing just 263.8 yards per game? Truthfully, the main reason is the schedule has been easy. But another is that the players are comfortable in second-year coordinator Brian Stewart's aggressive scheme.
No one is more comfortable than senior outside linebacker Marcus Whitfield (6-feet-3, 250 pounds), who is a fulltime starter for the first time in his career. Whitfield has responded with 5.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss; he is second in the league in both categories and he has exceeded his career output in both categories through the Terps' first four games. He is a big reason Maryland is first nationally in sacks (17).
"The coaches expect something from me," Whitfield told The Diamondback, Maryland's student newspaper, earlier this season. "They know that you can play. That's why they put you in that position as a starter. There's also the person behind you that's pushing you so you can continue to play the way you have been playing."
Whitfield's backup is junior Yannick Cudjoe-Vigil, who has three sacks.
Stewart arrived at Maryland after two seasons as Houston's defensive coordinator. While he was with the Cougars in 2011, linebacker Sammy Brown set a school single-season record with 30 tackles for loss and added 13.5 sacks.
Before that, Stewart spent eight seasons as an NFL assistant, including two years (2007 and '08) as Dallas' defensive coordinator under coach Wade Phillips. The Cowboys led the league with 58 sacks in 2008 and ranked third in 2007 with 46. He also has coached with the Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers and Houston Texans.
Whitfield might be able to parlay his success this season into an NFL shot. Whitfield always has run well, but he finally is playing with consistency and focus. If he continues to pile up the sacks against a schedule that will toughen in the coming weeks, he could become a third-day pick.
A litmus test for Whitfield and Maryland comes Saturday at Florida State. The Seminoles might have the best offensive line in the ACC and they are the most talented team in the league. Maryland also has a game with Clemson at the end of October.