Last season, the Terrapins football team’s outside linebackers were a youthful group led by just one senior, Marcus Whitfield. The depth chart was dotted with freshmen, sophomores and juniors who played major roles in a 7-6 season that ended in a loss at the Military Bowl.
This fall, it will be a senior-heavy group supplemented by seasoned sophomores. And outside linebacker Yannick Ngakoue, whom the Terps will be counting on to help replace some of Whitfield’s nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss, is expected to be in the thick of the pass rush.
“A lot of times, when you look at it and you see sophomores, your first impression is to think that they’re young, but all my guys have been out there,” outside linebackers coach Lyndon Johnson said in February. “They’ve played in critical situations. When you look at Cavon Walker and Yannick Ngakoue, those guys have made big plays for us. It helped us to get some serious wins, so although they’re sophomores, I don’t treat them that way. I treat them as if they’ve been in this program for 10 years.”
Ngakoue appeared in all 13 games last season and finished with 10 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. The coaching staff played him early and got results — his interception came in the second game of the season against Old Dominion — and his role only increased after outside linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, one of the team’s best pass rushers, suffered a season-ending injury against Virginia on Oct. 12.
Through spring practice, coach Randy Edsall was impressed with Ngakoue’s production. Cudjoe-Virgil sat out while continuing to rehab, giving the bulk of the work to Ngakoue. In Friday’s spring game, the sophomore had four tackles and one tackle for loss.
“He’s been very businesslike; he’s been very attentive to doing the things he’s been coached to do,” Edsall said after the Terps’ open scrimmage at North Point High School on March 28. “So it was good to see him come out and play the way he can. I think he knows he’s got to do that because he still has Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil coming back from the injury. So if he wants to challenge him at that position then he needs to come out, and that’s the great thing: He’s taking advantage of every opportunity.”
Ngakoue, a product of Friendship Collegiate in Washington, arrived in College Park after choosing the Terps over South Carolina and Florida State. Rivals.com ranked him as the top player in the district and as the fourth-best outside linebacker in the country.
While Ngakoue was a prized recruit with plenty of potential, he was still buried on the depth chart when he arrived. Whitfield and Cudjoe-Virgil occupied the top spots on the chart, and both players were producing as a fearsome pass-rushing duo. Ngakoue played significant time in season-opening blowouts over Florida International and Old Dominion, but not until the games were largely decided.
“I was used to playing a lot, and when I came here, I played, but I didn’t play as much as I wanted to,” Ngakoue said in March. “So it made me humble, to work harder, so I could be what I wanted to be.”
Putting Whitfield, Cudjoe-Virgil and Ngakoue on the field in different combinations made last year’s linebacking corps unique, Johnson said. Sometimes players who began the game on the sideline would play as many snaps as the starter.
This fall, the Terps will once again have options at outside linebacker. On the weak side, there’s Cudjoe-Virgil, Ngakoue, Clarence Murphy — who had five tackles and two sacks in the spring game — and incoming freshman Jesse Aniebonam, a four-star recruit from Good Counsel in Olney. On the strong side, Matt Robinson, Alex Twine, Walker and Avery Thompson each bring something different to the field.
“These kids, it’s the age of the Internet, and they all want to turn the Internet on and turn on Xbox and all that stuff and see their name on there and see their name on the depth chart as being No. 1,” Johnson said. “So you always have to deal with that in this age, but you have to sit them down and educate them on that you may not be No. 1 on the generic depth chart, but third-down situations, red zone, short-yardage, goal-line, that’s another 20, 25 plays a game that you’re going to be in there.”
So while Ngakoue and Cudjoe-Virgil likely will be competing against each other for the starting spot this fall, it’s not that big of a deal to the younger Yannick. He understands his place on the team is to contribute wherever he plays and wherever he is in relation to Cudjoe-Virgil on the depth chart.
“He taught me some stuff, like a little bit about how to use my hands more in pass rushing and stuff,” Ngakoue said. “But I’m not really worried about it. I just feel like we’re both going to help the team regardless, so it’s not really [a] big deal.”
While the Terps graduated one of their most experienced players and best pass rushers, they have even more experience, both young and old, to fill the void left by Whitfield. And while Ngakoue has been impressive this spring and should be a top contributor this fall, Johnson is confident any combination of his players can get the job done.
“I expect a lot of good competition there, and I don’t know who the guy is going to be to fill Marcus’ shoes,” Johnson said. “I’m just fortunate I’ve got a couple guys who are working hard and they understand what the situation is.”