COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland sophomore outside linebacker Yannick Ngakoue got a text from his past on the eve of the season, and a timely one indeed.
His former high school coach at Friendship Collegiate Academy (Washington, D.C.), Aazaar Abdur-Rahim, now a special defensive assistant coach at Alabama, reached out to his former prep All-American on the eve of Maryland's 2014 season and coming bout with West Virginia, who Alabama happened to tangle with two weeks ago in its opener.
"He's my guy and he still keeps my head on right," Ngakoue said with a smile. "He just said to keep grinding and stay humble and to make a lot of improvements in practice so you can be ready for West Virginia week."
Ngakoue, the star pupil of a three-year wave of five players that Abdur-Rahim sent to College Park before departing for the college ranks, has been absorbing everything he can these days after being a precocious, upstart freshman a year ago, playing only on raw physical ability and not much technique.
Ngakoue has begun to fully blossom this season, leading the Terps after two games with three TFLs as well as a sack last Saturday at USF in the hard-fought game in the stifling Florida heat. He also provided the quarterback hurry and pressure on Steven Bench which resulted in cornerback Alvin Hill's late interception to help seal the game for Maryland. Through two games, filling in for injured senior starter and national honors candidate Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, Ngakoue has eight tackles. His three tackles for loss have resulted in losses of 22 yards for opponents.
"I really feel like all my work with Coach [Lyndon] Johnson, working on my moves and technique and really listening to what he has to say when he is coaching me, has really improved my pass rushing skills," Ngakoue said on Sept. 9.
A year ago, Ngakoue thought he could just rely on his thick, 6-foot-2, 240-pound frame, packed with power and athleticism, that earned him Under Armour All-American honors and dozens of top-shelf offers as a senior at FCA. Now, he says he's all about technique. He says he's also benefitted from new Terps defensive line Coach Chad Wilt, who has helped him with his hips in trying to get to the quarterback quicker. In two games, Ngakoue has been in the face of the quarterback countless times, disruptive on the edge just like the man he is filling in for, which is becoming a hallmark of Terps defensive coordinator Brian Stewart's unit.
"Just pass rushing at the level of the quarterback. And just learning that sometimes you might not be able to get to the quarterback so you just got to always put your hands up to stop the throw," Ngakoue noted of his technique improvements. "Things like that."
Ngakoue was young and naive as a freshman, perhaps more concerned about a starting job and racking up sacks. He and then-junior Cudjoe-Virgil had a very competitive battle for the starting gig, and Ngakoue got down on himself and his role when he did not win the job.
Now, it's a complete 180, and he can't wait for his senior mentor to return from an ankle injury. Cudjoe-Virgil missed the first two games and Randy Edsall would not comment on him on Sept. 9 as far as his status for Saturday and WVU.
"Man, we talk a lot. We often meet with each other a couple times a week and just break down film with each other, and talk about what moves we'll make against certain tackles and stuff like when we got into the games. I feel like we complement each other very well. I personally want him to get back so he can make an impact in his senior year," Ngakoue said of Cudjoe-Virgil.
"Young Yannick" said he has even taught 'Old Yannik' some moves, like club and rips to get to the quarterback, while 'YCV' has taught him, he said, speed and power moves to the quarterback. Fittingly, Ngakoue is now breaking in another headstrong freshman outside 'backer, Jesse Aniebonom, a four-star All-American out of Good Counsel (Olney, Md.), another local power. Aniebonam, the only true freshman to have played so far this season, is showing a lot of similar promise on the edge for a newbie.
"No one is surprised," said Terps senior 'backer L.A. Goree, who says Ngakoue has a "warrior mentality." "He has definitely come on as a player, stepped up in a role, but we already knew what caliber player he was. He has stepped in and did everything he needed to. I mean the sacks, well they could pile up with him."
Terps sophomore tight end Andrew Isaacs took it a step further, the transformation Ngakoue has undergone, which he sees each day in practice on the edge.
"One of the hardest working guys I have played against," Isaacs said. "I mean, he is relentless with his rush, and he is one of the hardest guys on our defense to block. He really switches it up because he is really strong and if he wants to get into your body, he will get into you. But at the same time, he's quick enough and has enough finesse to get his moves in and out. Going against him freshman year and going against him now? You see just tremendous improvement. Before it was just raw talent, but now you see the technique and what he is trying to do and how he is trying to set people up in different ways."
Last year Ngakoue remembers the Terps-West Virginia game in Baltimore well, likening it to "a huge arena-like deal, and all the fans cheering us on. It was a great experience, for real," he said. He noted it is the closest game the Terps have to a rivalry, and last year's game "was very chippy. A lot of trash talking and a lot of animosity."
This year he is honing in again on their spread offense, and being disciplined and playing assignment football against WVU's red-hot quarterback Sept. 13 at Byrd.
"Oh, he is very good and makes great decisions and throws," Ngakoue said of senior Clint Trickett. "I tip my hat off to him because I see him as a very good quarterback when it comes to a decision maker. He's the type of quarterback who can let the ball go any minute and it will be a nice decision."
Said Randy Edsall on Sept. 9 of Ngakoue's emergence this month:
"Yannick is a young guy that the more he plays, the more comfortable he gets," Edsall said. "And understanding everything. He's a great kid, he's a hard worker, and he wants to do well. The biggest thing for us is just to get him to continue to play within himself, just continue to do your job and go out there and do what's expected of you. And plays will come to you....just keep your emotions in check. And if you do that, then you will be productive and you'll fit in well to the scheme and plays will come to you. And you will have the opportunity to make them."
Ngakoue says the Terps defense is tracking right now at "8" on a scale of 1-10, improving since last year in areas like pressure and helping the offense more by getting off the field and giving them more opportunities. He said there is still room for improvement, of course, but the pressure from both edges is better now.
Off the field, the two "Yannik/Yannicks" hang out a good bit, but still it's mostly football talk.
"We just work to make each other better and the entire defense better," Ngakoue said.
Ngakoue is at College Park with former prep teammates Albert Reid, Cavon Walker, Derwin Gray and Jermaine Carter, Jr. Walker and Carter are roommates.
"We all still hang out a lot together," Ngakoue said. "Nothing has changed with that. It's a great feeling having us all together here."
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