COLLEGE PARK, Md. – It was, quite literally, a painful end to an altogether promising 2013 campaign. After emerging from the Division II ranks at Seton Hill and having to sit out all of 2012 upon transferring to the University of Maryland, and after an improbable rise from the bottom of the Terps’ depth chart to co-starter alongside outside linebacker Marcus Whitfield, then-junior Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil’s breakout season came to a halt. Just like that.
The Terps, recall, had seized a hard-fought 27-26 Week 6 victory against former ACC rival Virginia, but it came at the cost of the man head coach Randy Edsall had previously called the “best pass rusher on the team.” Cudjoe-Virgil only vaguely remembers when he tore his pectoral muscle, noting that it’s not something he wants to dwell on.
“I kind of remember [the play], but I try to put it out of my mind and forget it. It’s in the past. I was just pass rushing, trying to make a play and unfortunately I got hurt,” said Cudjoe-Virgil, a Terps fan growing up who played his high school ball at Towson High. “In sports, the hardest part [mentally] is being injured. But … It’s in the past. Right now I feel really good, and I’m looking forward to getting the pads on and getting better every day.”
He can say that now, but Cudjoe-Virgil’s rehabilitation process was long and laborious. He spent a couple months in a sling before progressing to stretching, then flexibility work, then light weights and finally heavy weights -- all before taking the field and attempting to run full speed. It wasn’t until the middle of July, some nine months after said torn pec, that Cudjoe-Virgil felt 100 percent healthy.
“It took a lot of patience, [which] is something I don’t have a lot of. I’m the kind of guy where I want it, I want it, I want it. It was definitely a humbling experience, but a blessing in disguise,” Cudjoe-Virgil said.
By blessing in disguise, Cudjoe-Virgil meant all that downtime allowed him to learn the game from a coach’s perspective, thus giving him a better understanding of defenses, tendencies, techniques and the like. In other words, he took the J.J. Johnson and Dexter McDougle approach, two Terps who recently suffered long-term injuries and who Cudjoe-Virgil sought advice from.
“Basically you look at the big picture [of the defense]. You don’t really just look at one spot, you see the defense as a whole,” Cudjoe-Virgil said. “I even sat in the booth a couple of times. So it was a great experience and it’s going to help me a lot this season.
“And [before getting injured] you take the little things for granted. So, like, extra stretching, extra rehabilitation, extra injury prevention stuff, I’m [doing more of] the little stuff. I definitely see that as helping me coming into this season.”
Even though Cudjoe-Virgil remained positive during his rehab, he admitted it was a mental challenge for him. He said he needed all the outside support he could get during some of the more frustrating downtime.
“With the support of my family, my teammates, my coaches, it helped me cope with the mental side,” Cudjoe-Virgil said. “And just realizing this year coming up could be my last potentially ever playing football, that was a motivating factor to get back into things.”
He said he’s conquered any on-field mental detriments as well. Although he’s yet to put the pads on or absorb a double-team block from some burly Big Ten offensive linemen, Cudjoe-Virgil insisted he won’t be thinking about reinjuring his pectoral.
“I feel like if you think about it, that’s what’s going to affect your game. You’re going to be playing slow and not be making plays,” he said. “So just put that [injury] in the past, act like it never happened and just play… that’s just a mental [thing] you have to take over where you [tell yourself], ‘I’m good and ready to play.’”
Before the injury, Cudjoe-Virgil (6-feet-2, 255 pounds) had accumulated 18 tackles, three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and an interception, to go along with numerous quarterback pressures. He likely would have been among Maryland’s sack leaders, along with Whitfield, had he seen 2013’s final seven weeks, but it’s not as if his half-season went unrecognized. As testament to his potential, he earned a spot on several all-Big Ten watch lists – and even more importantly, plenty of praise from his head coach.
Randy Edsall said Aug. 5 it was “great” to have Cudjoe-Virgil back and 100 percent healthy, and then proceeded to laud the senior, who has ascended to the starting role with Whitfield graduated.
“Cudjoe is everything that you want from a coaching standpoint. Here’s a guy who just goes hard all the time,” Edsall said. “[He] doesn’t say a whole lot, very focused, very passionate about playing the game and doing things the right way. I love being around the guy. His work-ethic is off the charts. He’s the kind of guy where you have to almost tell him, ‘Hey, you’ve got to slow down a little bit.’ … Plus he’s a good leader too.”
And a mentor on top of that. Although Cudjoe-Virgil could be battling to keep the No. 1 outside linebacker job with former All-American and four-star recruit Yannik Ngakoue, now a sophomore, the former has apparently taken the ex-Friendship Collegiate Academy (Washington, D.C.) star under his proverbial wing.
“[Ngakoue] has definitely been like a brother to me. We definitely got close in the past year,” Cudjoe-Virgil said. “We always talk in the weight room, the film room. We try to feed off each other’s games. There’s no secrets between us, and we know we can make each other better.
“He’s a pass rusher and he’s got a motor. [Ngakoue] kind of reminds me of myself, just going out there with a nonstop motor. And just his desire to get better. That’s what I like about him is just coming out in summer workouts, we’re out competing -- who’s coming in first? So it’s a blessing to have him, him pushing me and me pushing him.”
A lead-by-example type who needed to demonstrate all the intangibles in order to catch the coaching staff’s eye, Cudjoe-Virgil is a known film-room and weight room junkie.
Now, it’s true most footballers don't watch as much tape as Ron Jaworski, and there’s nary a negative word uttered about players’ pregame preparations. But evidently Cudjoe-Virgil has that veteran’s knack for recognizing tendencies, such as what play the offense will run when the tight end lines up tight, or when the slot receiver shifts further wide.
“I try to talk before the coaches talk, you know? Just letting the coaches know that, yeah, I’m paying attention, I’m watching film,” Cudjoe-Virgil said. “I just try to work hard and do the extra stuff, so the coaches can see I’m doing the extra stuff … [more than] the average player. The little stuff – that’s just what I’m about.”
That’s become apparent during practices and workouts, to both Edsall and Maryland’s defensive staff.
“Cudjoe has a little more experience, and understands how to watch film and study tape. Young Yannik, I wish we weren’t in a situation last year where we had to play him… He would have been much better off had he redshirted. He’s still learning how to play the game, how to prepare to play the game, and being a better guy at studying film will put him in a position to be better [on the field],” Edsall said. “Having a guy like Cudjoe ahead of him and being able to teach him, and for [Ngakoue] to be able to watch how Cudjoe goes about his business, [Cudjoe-Virgil] is a great mentor and teacher for Yannik [Ngakoue].”
Although Ngakoue may have more apparent talent than Cudjoe-Virgil, Edsall seems to be favoring the heady leader who excels at those “little things.” The outside linebacker competition, therefore, may not be a competition at all unless Ngakoue makes up some serious ground between now and late August.
“I think young Yannik has matured and is getting better, but he’s going to have a long way to go to overtake older Yannick, because of the work ethic and how important it is to Cudjoe to make sure he’s on the field,” Edsall said. “But it’s great to have that competition and we’ll see how it continues to play out… maybe there [will be situations where] both can be on the field at the same time.”
Competition isn’t something Cudjoe-Virgil is worried about, nor is he all that concerned with the starter-sub storyline. After all, he hasn’t overcome odds and risen to the top of the depth chart by dwelling on what he can’t control.
“Anything I can do to help the team and make the team better. Just doing my part, that’s all I’m worried about,” Cudjoe-Virgil said. “Just doing what has to be done, by any means, I’m going to do that.”
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