COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland junior BUCK Jesse Aniebonam knows he has big shoes to fill as the successor to Yannick Ngakoue.
Although Ngakoue never had a chance to man the hybrid BUCK position in UMD’s new-look 3-3-5 scheme, he spurred the Terps’ defense from his edge-rusher spot, forcing double-teams and wrecking havoc in opposing backfields. Aniebonam studied his good friend even as the underclassman was improving his own game, and that practice continues to this day. Even now, Aniebonam, who has claimed a starting spot, chats with Ngakoue every so often, picking the current Jacksonville Jaguar’s brain for training tips.
“I just talked to [Ngakoue] the other day, actually,” said Aniebonam, who had about four tackles in Week One against Howard. “He was like a mentor and someone I could bounce things off of. I learned a lot from him not just on the field, but how to carry myself off the field too.”
The Silver Spring, Md., native hasn’t had to rely too much on the pro’s advice, however. Aniebonam has been so taken with the Terps’ coaching staff, headed by the defensive-minded D.J. Durkin and assisted by guru Mike London, that he believes his game has improved more since the spring than it had during his first two years combined.
“I think the change in the coaching staff has been a really good thing for our program, It’s opened me up a lot more to different techniques and ways to shape my body and getting in the best shape I can be in,” Aniebonam said. “Right now, I’m in the best shape of my life… and I think that’s because I’ve been given the best opportunity to do so.”
Many of the Terps have lauded the offseason strength program under Rick Court, and while Aniebonam has certainly noticed an uptick in power, he said his speed has improved the most. Furthermore, he said his hand placement, rush moves, footwork, play recognition and overall knowledge of the game have markedly increased after multiple meetings with the defensive line coach London.
“Especially at the BUCK, being able to get off the ball and work fast, that’s one big aspect of my game I needed to get up even more,” Aniebonam said. “I really focused a lot on my speed work and my technique.”
Yes, the defensive-end-outside-linebacker-edge-setter-pass-defender-jack-of-all-trades spot does take plenty of speed . . . and pretty much everything else a defender could be asked. Aniebonam admitted it took him awhile to acclimate himself to the multitude of responsibilities and finer points of the position. It didn’t help that he had to adjust to his third position switch and third defensive coordinator in three years.
It does take a lot of assimilating,” Aniebonam said. “I can’t tell you it was never difficult, but I can say the coaches here now are putting us in the best position to be successful as we can be.
“On a personal level, I really do enjoy our defense right now and my role in that defense. I feel as though we can do great things in this defense and it can help lead us to a great year in the Big Ten.”
First and foremost, Aniebonam loves the versatility the BUCK spot affords. He said it allows him to use his full complement of talents rather than just those needed for outside linebacker or defensive end.
“There are many different things I do as a player that are strengths, from speed to rushing the passer to playing the run… I feel like the BUCK is a textbook hybrid position, and I couldn’t be happier to be at that spot,” Aniebonam said. “My freshman year I was more of a WILL linebacker and sophomore year I was strictly an end. This is like the perfect medium between those two. It’s definitely the direct middle of those two. It’s a fun position.”
The ex-Good Counsel (Olney, Md.) four-star stud may be having the time of his life heading into his third season, but he hardly has a stranglehold on the spot. Melvin Keihn and he locked in an intense battle during fall camp, and heading into Week 2 the Virginia Tech transfer has made a strong bid for significant playing time.
“It’s good competition. When you have more than one guy playing well at a spot, it does nothing but help your team, because competition is the greatest motivator,” Durkin said. “A guy behind you that’s pushing you is worth a thousand words a coach can tell you. Those guys are doing a great job, they both have different strengths in some areas, but they’re both guys that can definitely help us. They both play hard.”
Aniebonam had naught but praise for his former high school rival from Gilman (Baltimore, Md.). He dubbed Keihn a “workhorse” and noted his relentless motor.
“[Keihn] is a developing player, but he’s a good player and he’s my boy too,” Aniebonam said. “We like to compete against each other, and that competition allows the defense to get better.”
Defensive coordinator Andy Buh said regardless of who earns the “starter” label, both should see the field often enough, and sometimes at the same time. Buh discussed the Terps’ various sub-packages that will feature two BUCKs at one time, giving the defense even more speed.
“They both know going in every week they’re both going to play,” Buh said. “Obviously we chart how they’re practicing and that’s how we determine who’s starting. But we have two dynamic players there at that position, and as a defensive coach I’m pretty excited about it.”