COLLEGE PARK, Md. - When Randy Edsall took over as the head coach of the Maryland football team, one of the first on-field stamps he put on his new team was to change the positions of some of his returning players. This included a handful of of impact players on the defensive side of the ball, but none more important to the performance of the team than Kenny Tate.
Tate was a first team all-ACC free safety in 2010, when he registered nine tackles for loss, three and a half sacks and three interceptions. His biggest contribution to the defense came when he mixed things up around the line of scrimmage, blowing up running plays on the edge and applying pressure to the quarterback.
But there were times, however infrequent they may be, where Tate had his problems. Most of the time, those struggles were in coverage, where he sometimes couldn't stay with receivers over the middle. That prompted Edsall to make a major -- and somewhat bold -- decision. Edsall moved his best defensive player from free safety to a hybrid linebacker/safety position known as the "Star," which will put Tate closer to the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.
It may seem like a big move. To Tate, though, it's not that big of a deal.
I'm not learning anything different," Tate told me recently. "It's definitely a hybrid position, so you can see me doing the same things I pretty much did last year. I'm just closer to the line and lining up in the linebacker position."
Tate said he will still be asked to do what he does best: fly around the field and make plays. The only difference is he's just going to do it from closer to the line of scrimmage. One has to assume that his responsibilities will change a little, with more of an emphasis on stopping the run game and less on deep coverage (even if this wasn't his main focus before) in the new defense installed by Edsall and defensive coordinator Todd Bradford.
Keep in mind: this is not the first time that his head coach at Maryland has changed Tate's position. He was recruited out of nearby DeMatha High School as a wide receiver, but moved to safety as a true freshman in 2008 because the team lacked depth at that position. As a freshman, he contributed as a backup and on special teams, even returning a few kicks, which should tell you how unique his athletic skillset is going to be for the linebacker position.
But unlike his last position change, this new role was not necessitated due to lack of depth at linebacker. This time, Edsall really believes he is putting Tate in a position to make the most of his abilities. When Edsall first moved Tate to linebacker prior to spring practices, he was quick to mention that he believed linebacker would be the position that gave him the greatest opportunity to succeed beyond Maryland.
"When you watch the tape of Kenny from a year ago, 80 percent and almost 90 percent of the time he was playing down," Edsall said. "He wasn't playing back in the deep half. He wasn't playing quarters, he wasn't playing a post player. When you take a look at Kenny and you take a look at his abilities, he's better suited to be a linebacker and he's better suited to be a linebacker for his future after he's done playing here."
All of this begs the question: what was Tate doing lining up at free safety in the first place? If his greatest impact came close to the line of scrimmage, why would the former coaching staff put him further away from it to start each play? Having him at free safety prevented the Terps from putting someone on the field in that position who can contribute more in coverage, which is really what the role of the free safety should be.
When put that way, Terps fans should be optimistic. Last year, Maryland ranked in the middle of the pack in Division I-A in both passing yards and completions allowed on defense. With another player on the field who is focused specifically on preventing passes as opposed to just making plays, they should improve considerably in this area.
Tate himself said it best.
Defense is defense," he told me. "I'm doing the same things. The coaches put together a defense that utilizes me the way they did last year, and I'm able to do the same thing this year."