COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- "Young Yannick" Ngakoue sure has grown up.
Just a second-year player, Maryland head coach Randy Edsall lauds the former Under Armour All-American and four-star signee out of D.C.'s Friendship Collegiate Academy the second-most on the team -- next only to junior placekicker Brad Craddock -- in terms of preparation, performance and, in his particular case, the complete 180 since his freshman year when he was a bit headstrong and unsure of his role at UMD.
Now 6-3 and 3-2 in the Big Ten, Maryland, bowl qualified with the win at Penn State Nov. 1, is looking for more as it forges deeper into BIG territory with No. 12 Michigan State rolling into town Nov. 15 for yet another stiff challenge in Maryland's first night game of 2014.
The Terps' defense mostly won the game in Happy Valley two weeks ago, keeping Maryland in it until offense and special teams arrived late to notch victory. And Ngakoue has made his presence felt on the unit more each week as the stakes get higher.
Ngakoue has become one of the Terps most feared edge rushers, and ranks third in the Big Ten with 12.5 tackles for a loss. The sophomore is averaging 1.39 tackles for a loss per game, which ranks second in the conference. He also rates second on the team in sacks -- 5.5 -- to senior defensive end Andre Monroe, who has 7.5. Ngakoue is ninth on the team with 31 total tackles.
But belying his youth, Ngakoue was poised, stoic and focused as he met with the media Nov. 11 in Maryland's first session of MSU week and coming off the bye. There was no hype, superlatives, just matter-of-fact business-like talk. It's a long way since last year when as a rookie he was a bit too precocious, wondering why he wasn't starting at outside linebacker, and grumbling at times. But the 180 occurred almost overnight, and he's now become not only a fixture for this season, but has All-American upside looking ahead.
Fittingly, Ngakoue spent the bye week looking over more film, helping out young teammates, while also scouting some games on television like the Nov. 8 Ohio State-Michigan State tilt while chilling with his girlfriend at his dorm. Low key. Business-like. And he said MSU will be the most physical team they have faced this year.
"They have a nice solid running back. Nice O-line. And I like their quarterback a lot. He can throw the ball, make good reads, so they have a pretty good offense," Ngakoue said.
And for a guy who needs little emotional motivation these days, seemingly crashing into the backfield and pressuring quarterbacks much of the season, Ngakoue took time over the bye to visit FCA for its homecoming game on Nov. 8.
"I stopped by homecoming, they had a nice little ceremony for my teammate that passed away, Marquise Meadows, at halftime. So I went by to show my respects there," Ngakoue said.
Meadows, who died in late August two weeks after feeling disoriented at a Morgan State football practice, was a former FCA teammate of Ngakoue's and a one-time Maryland Terrapin recruit target. The defensive lineman attended Terps camps and games over the years, and was close to many players in the UMD program.
Ngakoue knows the opportunity before him now as an emerging star at Maryland, but also how fleeting life can be. So he is soaking up everything he can and takes nothing for granted. He's absorbed everything from senior outside linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, who a year ago was more an adversary battling for the top spot, but now his closest friend. They have been seemingly connected at the hip since summer camp, and both lean on the other constantly for pointers and help.
They'll need it this week as Michigan State's mighty offense is on track to become the school's most prolific ever. They have already scored 401 points through nine games, which is fifth-most in MSU single-season history (the school record is 434 points in 2011). The Spartans are also close to scoring the most offensive touchdowns in school history, with 52 so far. The school record of 54 was set in 1978.
Meanwhile, MSU ranks second in the Big Ten and sixth in FBS in scoring, averaging 44.6 points per game (school record is 37.4, set in 1978). MSU also leads the Big Ten and ranks ninth in the FBS in total offense, averaging 516.7 yards per game (school record was 497.3 in 2005). In addition, MSU ranks among the FBS Top 20 leaders in yards per play (13th with 6.74), passing efficiency (14th with 156.5 rating) and rushing offense (18th with 246.3 yards per game).
Individually, most daunting is MSU quarterback Connor Cook, who has 19 touchdown passes to just 5 interceptions and can move around the pocket as well, while in the backfield Jeremy Langford is almost to 1,000 yards this season (178-978 yards, 5.5 average, 13 touchdowns), and broke OSU's back a few times last week with a 137-yard performance. At receiver, Tony Lippert leads Sparty with 47 catches for 953 yards and nine touchdowns. But it starts up front with some of the best lines Maryland will see all season.
"Cook, he just makes good reads. He throws the ball well, so he's very impressive," Ngakoue said. "[Langford], I look forward to competing every Saturday, so it's just another good test to play football. He makes good cuts, has good speed, and is a physical runner."
Ngakoue and his defensive mates are still riding the momentum of the win at Penn State, and getting bowl qualified for a second straight year. But he wants to keep peaking, his play and the unit's, and this week both will face a whole new challenge in the smash-mouth Spartans.
"A lot of people are happy that we won," Ngakoue said of the feeling around campus and town since PSU. "I just feel like we got to keep winning to keep that base strong here. I thought we are doing well so far [in the Big Ten inaugural season], but the season's not over yet. But I feel like we are doing well so far this year and then we can be something special next year."
Ngakoue said the team mantra is not on bowls yet, simply the next game and scheming up the opponent.
"It's the same old thing: stop the run and execute against the pass," Ngakoue said of this week's challenge MSU presents.
The Terps have said the message from Edsall this week has been clear, according to senior quarterback C.J. Brown:
"The biggest thing is just go out there and don't hold back," Brown said of the looming contest with No. 12 MSU. "It's a great opportunity against a top ranked team in the country. You can control your own destiny being the clear-cut number two in the East division. Go out there and make a stand, leave your mark, don't hold anything back. It's a night game, primetime, just go out there and leave it all out there."
And that's doubly true this week, a week when all the players at the media session gave props to fallen teammate Stefon Diggs, who is suspended from this game and out for now with a mid-section injury.
"We just got to hold it down for him and play hard, play hard because we know he'd want to be out there with us," Ngakoue said. "So we got his back, and we are just going to go hard for him until he gets back."
Ngakoue, in wrapping up, said he is never satisfied and still has much work to do, be it his feet, hands and speed. Seemingly just a young pup, scratching the surface still in so many ways.
"I am not satisfied. I am never satisfied," Ngakoue said.
'Young Yannick' All Grown Up
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