Yannick Ngakoue knew exactly where he was supposed to be and exactly what he was supposed to do Saturday in the Terrapins football team’s game against Old Dominion. The outside linebacker was going to rush the B-gap between the Monarchs’ left guard and tackle to try to pressure quarterback Taylor Heinicke.
But then he saw fellow outside linebacker Marcus Whitfield break into the Old Dominion backfield and throw his arms up in front of Heinicke’s pass. Ngakoue backed off and watched as Whitfield tipped the ball into the air. The freshman tracked it and pulled it in for his first career interception.
While Ngakoue, a Friendship Collegiate Academy graduate who was rated Washington’s top player by Rivals.com, has been used in more of a specialist role with the Terps, he’s seen his limited chances as opportunities to make an impact on the coaching staff.
“It was a great moment because right there, I showed the coaches what I could do, so they could build more trust in me,” Ngakoue said Tuesday. “So they could trust me in the field, and I could have more playing time on the field, so that was basically a great experience.”
Ngakoue — who said his mother named him after French tennis player Yannick Noah — has appeared in both games so far for the Terps and has recorded one tackle and a pass deflection in addition to his pick.
“It’s tough coming from high school and playing as a freshman,” coach Randy Edsall said. “It really is. I got a lot of respect for these kids that are doing that. I think it’s a great compliment to them in terms of how hard they work and how hard they have to study to get themselves on the field as a true freshman.”
Edsall said Ngakoue’s role isn’t likely to change, as the Terps have a wealth of talent and experience ahead of him. But the coaching staff has shown no qualms about putting the best talent on the field, no matter the experience level.
And Ngakoue knows this. So despite his youth, there’s a chance for him to be a contributor.
“It’s just motivation for me to work harder each day at practice to ultimately get more playing time and eventually become the starter,” Ngakoue said. “It’s just motivation. I don’t look at it like a downside or anything like that. It actually humbles me from being one of the top high school recruits in the area and country, so it’s a humbling experience. All the great ones had to go through it.”
Cornerback Jeremiah Johnson will be sidelined for the next seven to eight weeks with a broken left toe, but thanks to quality depth at the position, Terps coaches don’t seem to be fretting over the loss of the returning starter.
Isaac Goins and Will Likely, two of the Terps who will assume larger roles in Johnson’s absence, impressed in the Terps’ 47-10 victory over Old Dominion. With Johnson sitting out, Goins had an interception on the Monarchs’ first drive, and Likely got the game ball after totaling a team-high 11 tackles in his first career start.
To defend Old Dominion’s spread offense, though, the Terps dipped even deeper into their secondary depth, playing reserves, such as safety A.J. Hendy and cornerback Alvin Hill, for long periods. The Terps responded by holding Heinicke to 18-of-34 passing for 166 yards and three interceptions.
“I think we have some depth,” Edsall said. “We’ve had to reach into some of that depth already, but it’s been good.”
While the overall depth is key, coaches may rely on Goins and Likely the most to replace Johnson. Goins, a senior who was originally slated to be the nickel back, will now start at corner, opposite Dexter McDougle, while Likely, a highly touted freshman from Belle Glade, Fla., will slide into Goins’ old spot.
Edsall and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart appear confident that both Goins and Likely will be able to effectively fill in for Johnson. Likely especially has garnered the admiration of his coaches.
“I always thought he was a special player,” Stewart said when asked if he had expected Likely to perform the way he has. “When you got [wide receiver] Stefon Diggs, did you expect him to do the things he did? You kind of did. Will, he’s doing a great job. I think he’s a special player.”
Last season, the Terps had four interceptions in 12 games. This season, they’ve already matched that total after two.
McDougle had a juggling interception in the opener against Florida International, and Goins, safety Sean Davis and Ngakoue all picked off Heinicke on Saturday.
“I think it’s just guys doing their jobs and putting themselves in position,” Edsall said. “I think guys are playing a little bit faster. I think they’re playing a little bit confident because they know what they’re doing.”
The four interceptions have come from four different players in several different situations. Goins and McDougle made plays on the ball in one-on-one coverage, Davis jumped in front of an errant pass that Heinicke threw while on the run from Terps defenders and Ngakoue snatched a ball after it was tipped at the line of scrimmage by Whitfield.
“Definitely think the way we’re practicing, we’re attacking the ball a lot better,” outside linebacker Matt Robinson said. “We’re putting a lot more emphasis in 7-on-7 drills on making sure we at least leave the drill with an interception.”