Maryland defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson is hoping opponents don't remember him. The redshirt junior is the first to tell them he's still coming off an ACL injury that ended his 2014 season, and that the Terps' defense is only returning four starters, three of which are in the secondary.
Jefferson will scream it all from the rooftops if it means opposing blockers will overlook him and his teammates. In fact, he's counting on it.
"I took a year off, so people probably did forget about me," said Jefferson, affectionately called "Q" by his teammates. "I like that. Then, I can shock people. I want people to be sleeping on me, because when I shock them, they're going to respect me."
After tearing his right ACL against West Virginia last September, Jefferson is one of a number of Terps playing key roles this season after missing most of 2014. Junior quarterback Perry Hills is under center, despite not taking meaningful snaps since 2012. Redshirt junior wideout Levern Jacobs is the offense's most dangerous weapon after missing last year due to suspension.
It all adds up to what should be an interesting second season in the Big Ten for the Terps, and 6-foot-3, 289-pound Jefferson might be the most fascinating case. The Terps are relying on the former defensive end to anchor the interior of Maryland's new 4-3 defense. He looked capable prior to his injury, racking up 47 tackles (7.5 for a loss) and three sacks during a 2013 sophomore campaign in which he started all 13 games. He was on a similar track through two-plus games last season, and he recorded two sacks and six tackles during his 2015 season debut against Richmond Sept. 5.
Although Maryland's defense lost seven starters -- essentially the entire front seven -- Jefferson points to the new scheme and a newfound camaraderie as reasons why the defense might look better than the unit that gave up more than 30 points per game last season. He is the elder statesman of the new defensive front, outranked only by graduate senior Jefferson Ashiru, a linebacker who transferred in from the University of Connecticut this season.
"We have a lot of guys who missed plenty of time last year," Jefferson said. "We were all hungry just to get back out there. We've seen what it feels like to sit down. It humbled all of us. We needed that. I know when I am out there, I'm not going [to leave] any plays on the field. You're going to see a lot of guys playing hard."
Jefferson, 21, pushes his young teammates at practice, and afterward invites them to his College Park, Md., apartment, shared by his wife and three daughters. Sophomore defensive tackle Kingsley Opara, who is right behind him on the depth chart, calls "Q" his big brother and credits Jefferson with helping him to stay focused. He's not the only one to do so. In short, Jefferson has done a lot to cultivate that camaraderie of which he speaks so fondly.
He had surgery last September shortly after his injury. Jefferson missed all of spring practice, and Maryland head coach Randy Edsall listed him as one of the guys who would be closely monitored in training camp. But the junior now feels stronger and faster after the year off and only needed to sit out the live-action scrimmages in August. He was dubbed "ready to go" by all of his coaches, and even had one convinced that he would be the team's breakout player.
"The first guy that comes to mind is Quinton Jefferson, shockingly," defensive line coach Chad Wilt told PressBox Aug. 10 at Terps media day. "I think he is going to have a really good year. He has worked his stinking tail off to come back and be ready to have a great season. We know he's a good player. But how good is he going to be? Is he going to be a guy that can take over a game? I'm excited to see it."
Jefferson's emergence would be a coup for Maryland's rebuilt defense. After losing heavyweights Darius Kilgo (6-foot-3, 319 pounds) and Keith Bowers (6-foot-1, 285 pounds), the Terps, under new defense coordinator Keith Dudzinski, converted to a 4-3, mainly to emphasize their speed and athleticism upfront. As one of those pieces, Jefferson, now at defensive tackle, can concentrate on getting into offensive backfields rather than occupying blockers.
The Terps' 3-4 scheme wore down during the team's first season in the Big Ten, ranking 12th in the conference against the run. Ohio State piled up 269 rushing yards in College Park in October. Wisconsin ran for 311 yards three weeks later. Finally, Michigan gashed the Terps for 292 yards in late November in Ann Arbor, Mich. Those are elite programs with elite offensive lines, but that is what the Terps will see in the Big Ten. They better get used to it.
"I definitely think we're better equipped to stop the run this year," Jefferson said. "The defensive lineman, with this 4-3, they're putting us in position to be playmakers at the point of attack. Penetrating, getting in the backfield and making plays, whereas last year we had guys 280 pounds trying to eat up space and taking up double teams."
Jefferson and his defensive cohorts have lofty goals. Leading up to the season, they wanted to become the best defense in the Big Ten, a conference that includes defending national champion Ohio State. The Terps certainly have enough talent to make noise. Edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue and cornerbacks Will Likely and Sean Davis are good bets to earn all-conference honors.
Opposing offenses know about those guys, though -- they'll scheme for them and prepare for them. Meanwhile, Jefferson was granted a medical redshirt in the spring, which means he'll be back in College Park for another go-around next season. He plans to graduate this spring and then start on a master's degree next year. But he claims to have plenty of football left in him before any of that happens.
Even if his opponents don't know it.