Maryland senior safety Denzel Conyers, who suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during the Terps' game at Central Florida in September 2016, was elated last spring when he found out he was
awarded a sixth year of eligibility
, but his return hasn't gone as smoothly as planned.
Conyers has dealt with what he said "definitely hasn't been a straightforward recovery." And he's had to watch two of his friends develop into playmaking safeties for the Terps.
But Conyers, who made his season debut during a blowout win against Towson Sept. 9 and has played sparingly since, is now ready to take on a bigger role in the defensive back rotation, defensive coordinator Andy Buh said. The process of recovering from a torn ACL wasn't foreign to Conyers: he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in high school, and that experience helped him during the past year.
"I think mentally it was easier to deal with because I wasn't 17 years old," Conyers said Oct. 25. "I knew that the world throws adverse moments at you, and then you decide if you want to get stronger from it or you just shrivel up and feel sorry for yourself the rest of your life. It definitely helped me mentally and physically.
"I knew the steps I had to take, and I knew if I wanted to get back better and faster and stronger than I was before, I had to do a little extra. Mentally, I was blessed to know that this wasn't the end, from my high school aspect. And physically, I knew that I'll be back and I'll be better than I was before."
Conyers, according to Buh, "felt good coming into fall camp but had some setbacks with the injury." Buh said the Terps feel Conyers is now 100 percent healthy, but he conceded Conyers probably won't fully round back into last year's form by the end of this season.
"Every week, I feel a little faster. I'm feeling stronger, breaking on passes in practice and stuff," Conyers said.
Meanwhile, senior Josh Woods (McDonogh) and junior Darnell Savage Jr. have formed a productive safety duo for the Terps. Woods has recorded 41 tackles, picked off two passes and forced a fumble. Savage has recorded 40 tackles and intercepted two passes, including one for a touchdown. Savage also recovered a fumble at Wisconsin Oct. 21.
"I just see a lot of growth and development, both on and off the field," Conyers said of Woods and Savage. "Both guys are really dedicated, critical of themselves when they watch the film and making sure they know where the route's going to hit versus our defensive scheme. Both are very willing and capable tacklers when it comes to making open field tackles, especially Josh.
"Josh is just a monster. He's one of my close friends and to see him grow up so much and just using his frame the way that I always knew he was capable [of] is a great thing to see. Savage is being his last name right now. He's being a savage right now. … I came in with Josh when I transferred here [from Butte College in 2014], and then I watched Savage develop over the years, so it's kind of like a big brother just watching his younger brothers develop and living up to the potential that they always had in them."
Conyers said he'll talk football with Woods and Savage away from the facility -- "It's like a battle of the minds," he said -- about how they'd play certain situations on the field. Conyers also said Woods and Savage have gotten more diligent with their nutrition, hydration and sleep habits.
While the success of Woods and Savage has meant less playing time for him, Conyers has played more in recent weeks. Conyers had four tackles during a loss at Ohio State Oct. 7 and two tackles at Wisconsin. While he's also played some on special teams, earning more snaps in the defensive backfield remains a goal despite sharing a position with friends who are having productive years.
"Obviously, everybody's competitive, everybody wants to play, everybody wants to make plays," Conyers, a native of St. Petersburg, Fla., said. "I just have to do some more. It just encourages me to practice harder, to prepare better every week. …We put in the time to help each other at some point, so it's just putting aside your own personal feelings and our goals for the next man. I can't be mad at someone. I bleed, sweat and tear with these dudes over the summer and over the winter training. It can be challenging, but at the same time, it's very gratifying seeing them shine. Those are my brothers."
Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell indicated the biggest differences in how the Terps' offense has operated since sophomore quarterback Max Bortenschlager took over as the starter have come in the running game.
Since opposing edge defenders don't have to account for the read option like they did with sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome and freshman Kasim Hill, those defenders can crash more freely toward a running back without fear that the quarterback might pull the ball and take off. Bortenschlager isn't nearly the runner that Pigrome and Hill were.
Bell explained that a running threat at quarterback freezes a defender, making it easier to run the ball. Without that threat, offenses have to account for that defender some other way on a running play. Offenses around the country have taken to using a running threat at quarterback; Bell noted that sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts is one of Alabama's leading rushers.
"Modern college football is turning into NFL football," Bell said. "It's getting harder and harder and harder and harder to run the football, unless you make a commitment to doing what Wisconsin does. It doesn't matter how many people you put in there, you've got just giant O-linemen and tight ends and fullbacks everywhere, and you make yourself different that way.
"Or the way you make yourself different as a 10- and 11-personnel team is to have the ability to gain the extra hat back by the quarterback. When you lose that aspect a little bit, you've just got some reconfiguration to how you're going to manage the free hitter, how you're going to manage the extra hat, and if there is going to be an extra hat there, how can you manipulate him in a way where he's not right on top of you right now?"
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox