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Maryland Defensive Player to Watch: Defensive Back Nick Cross

Cross leads a much-improved defensive unit, albeit one that was run over and around by Iowa last week. The Maryland defense, led by Cross, will be looking for a rebound against an even more potent offense.

If Cross and his guys in the secondary can slow down the OSU passing attack, it would allow an aggressive pass rush to potentially make life difficult for C.J. Stroud and Co.
Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

Maryland comes to Columbus on Saturday, intent on exercising Week 5 demons. The Terrapins raced out to a 4-0 start to begin the season, before running into a buzzsaw of a team commonly referred to as the Iowa Hawkeyes. Last Friday will not be remembered fondly by Maryland’s players and fans, as the Terps were blown out 51-14 by a far superior team. The offense committed six turnovers, and the defense had no answers for Iowa’s suddenly balanced attack.

In fairness, some of the defensive struggles and points surrendered can be attributed to turnovers and short fields for the Hawkeyes. The defense was put in a precarious situation early and often, and likely got worn down as the game progressed. That being said, the Terps did little to slow down a very pedestrian quarterback in Spencer Petras, and the backfield duo of Tyler Goodson and Ivory Kelly-Martin accounted for 225 total yards on 7+ yards per touch.

It was a rude awakening for a Maryland unit that only gave up 14 points per game in September. However, if you looked below the surface, there were signs that this group was bound to come back down to earth. Their PPG average was propped up by a shutout of FCS school Howard and a low-scoring affair against Illinois. They also benefitted from their opponents coughing up two turnovers per game, and there was a bend but don’t break aspect to their early matchups. Despite only giving up the equivalent of two touchdowns per game during the first month, they ranked outside the top-40 in yards allowed.

What better way to try and rebound from a blowout loss, than a trip to The Shoe? Maryland’s defense will have its work cut out for it against an even more potent offense than the one they just surrendered a 50-burger to. If there is a silver lining, it is that they are not reliant on one defensive stopper, and the team is relatively healthy coming in. Maryland is a by-committee, equal opportunity defense, and an aggressive one at that. The by-committee nature of their approach has not thus far allowed for one standout – but arguably a few. The front seven has already totaled 18 sacks, and Tarheeb Still is a very talented cornerback, but it is an experienced leader in the secondary that I will have my eyes on.

Nick Cross is a highly regarded teammate at Maryland, a steadying presence in the back end of their defense, and capable of patrolling the entire field. While guys like Sam Okuayinonu, Lawtez Rogers, and Durell Nchami (that’s the last time I will be typing those names) have the sack numbers, I personally feel like they are more one-dimensional players… pass rush or bust. Cross’ ability to support in both the running and passing game(s), and well as his veteran leadership, is what makes him this week’s Defensive Player to Watch.

A “hometown” kid from DeMatha Catholic High School, Cross was a consensus four-star recruit and the top ranked player in the state of Maryland coming out of high school. Interestingly enough, he was coached in high school by current Maryland running backs coach, Elijah Books. Cross is just one of many current and former players Brooks coached during his time at the local powerhouse. The safety chose to stay home, and made an immediate impact for the Terps as a true freshman.

It took roughly half a season for Cross to earn a starting spot in the secondary. He ended up starting five games as a freshman, including a memorable one against Ohio State. Buckeye fans will remember a 73-14 dismantling of a really poor Maryland team, but Cross was all over the place in that game. He finished with a career-high nine tackles and one pass breakup of Justin Fields. On the year, Cross totaled 45 tackles, five pass breakups, and two interceptions… not bad for a five-game starter.

2020 was obviously an odd season for all who played, but Cross continued to show out for the Terps. In just four games, he tallied 23 tackles, one sack, three pass breakups, and a forced fumble. In so few games, it would be hard to gauge Cross’ effectiveness solely by looking at a stat sheet. However, awards are handed out come hell or high water, and he was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten after the shortened season. Coaches and media recognized Cross’ overall impact on the game, and for that he earned postseason honors — as well as recognition on preseason all-conference and award watch lists heading in to the 2021 season.

2021 has been more of the same from Cross, as he is second on the team in tackles (22) and tied for first with two interceptions. Up until the Iowa game, he and Still were leading a Maryland secondary that had allowed 212 passing yards per game and only two touchdowns through the air. Petras more than doubled the number of passing TD given up by the Terps, but even five in five games is an impressive stat.

Cross’ ability is not limited to the passing game… not by a long shot. He is more than willing to support in the run game, and he packs a bit of a punch when doing so. At 6’1”, 215 pounds, he technically profiles as a strong safety and has adequate size for the position. He will approach the line of scrimmage when anticipating run, but makes his living in “center field”. He is omnipresent in the minds of opponents, because not only will he announce his presence with a hit in the middle of the field, but he also possesses 4.4 speed to get to the boundary or make a play over the top. I’m not saying the kid is Ed Reed, but he’s a nice combination of speed, size, and athleticism.

Because of Ohio State’s willingness and desire to maintain balance on offense, I expect Cross to be involved all over the field — just like he was two years ago. If the Terps are going to slow down the Buckeyes, I think it starts with eliminating big plays downfield. Cross and Still (you have no idea how much I wish Maryland had a “Nash” in their secondary) will play a pivotal role on Saturday, because if they are able to keep a lid on the OSU offense, it will provide the group in front of them with more time and opportunities to make plays. The Terps love to blitz and bring pressure from their 3-4 base, and if Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are struggling more than usual to get open, it would give the pass rush time to get home and make life uncomfortable for C.J. Stroud.

Honestly, after what we saw against Rutgers, I feel good about the Maryland game. Call it overconfidence, but it seems as if the Buckeyes are hitting their stride. It doesn’t mean they are untouchable. Taulia Tagovailoa, Rakim Jarrett, Tarheeb Still, and Nick Cross are all good players for an improving team under Mike Locksley. Tagovailoa and Cross especially are the maestros of their perspective units, so keep an eye on these guys. Go Bucks!