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Maryland football has bright future at outside linebacker

Maryland outside linebacker Yannick Ngakoue chases down Stanford's Christian McCaffrey during the Foster Farms Bowl.
Maryland outside linebacker Yannick Ngakoue chases down Stanford's Christian McCaffrey during the Foster Farms Bowl. (Ezra Shaw, Getty Images)

Maryland's defense was backed up, trying to prevent Michigan from scoring on a third-and-goal from the Terps' 5-yard line.

This was an opportunity for the Wolverines to build some early momentum in the Nov. 22 game and to take a seven point lead midway through the second quarter. Instead, Terps outside linebackers Yannick Ngakoue and Jesse Aniebonam each worked around their respective blockers, converging on Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, who sandwiched and sacked by a combination of Ngakoue, Aniebonam and safety Anthony Nixon.

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Plays like that are why Maryland is so enthusiastic about what it has at outside linebacker.

Ngakoue is an emerging star, a former four-star recruit who was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore this season.

Terps coaches and teammates believe Aniebonam has similar potential.

One of the highest-rated members of the Terps' 2014 recruiting class, Aniebonam contributed as a situational pass rusher as a freshman this season.

"I just know that we're going in, and we're all just going to try to get together and keep working hard and just try to make this defense the No. 1 defense in the country," Ngakoue said.

After playing a limited role as a freshman in 2013, the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Ngakoue finished this season tied for eighth in the Big Ten with 13.5 tackles for a loss.

The former Friendship Collegiate Academy standout also had six sacks.

"A guy like Yannick Ngakoue, how far that kid has come and what he's done with everything, it's just a pleasure," Terps coach Randy Edsall said. "It just brings joy to your heart when you see a kid that comes in and buys into it and to see the success he's had in all phases."

Ngakoue posted a shared tackle for a loss or more in nine of Maryland's final 12 games, including two tackles for a loss and a sack during the Terps' 20-19 win over Penn State on Nov. 1. He had three tackles for a loss against both South Florida and West Virginia.

"When I first got here, [coach Edsall and I] used to bump heads a lot because I felt like I knew everything, and I didn't know everything," Ngakoue said, "and I just had to sit down and just took the time to just listen to the coaches and hear what they had to say."

Aniebonam has gone through his own acclimation process.

During one of Maryland's first sessions of preseason practice in August, Aniebonam and fellow freshmen outside linebacker Nnamdi Egbuaba were sent to do a lap around the practice field after a collective lapse left the defense a player short during an 11-on-11 drill.

However, Aniebonam had standout moments as a pass rusher as camp went on and provided several pressures during the season in addition to 14 tackles, a tackle for a loss and a shared sack.

"Fall camp, that was really where the roller coaster ride started for me," Aniebonam said. "It's been a big curve I had to get over, a big learning curve, and it was a little hard to get acclimated at first. But with following people ahead of me and getting the right advice and guidance I needed, I was able to come a long way and was able to keep progressing and getting better each and every day. So that's what I've been doing. I've been getting better."

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Coaches and players such as Edsall and linebacker L.A. Goree have said since the summer that Aniebonam is the fastest and most athletic of Maryland's linebackers and has the potential to be a star.

Those feelings, Edsall said, were validated by Aniebonam's freshman season.

"He's growing," Edsall said. "He probably should have been redshirted this year to tell you the truth. But we had to play him. But he's got tremendous upside. It's all depending on how hard he wants to work, and he is a worker. That's not the problem. [It's] just grasping things, experiencing, reps and all those things. That's what he's just got to continue to do. He's got to continue to get those reps and continue to grow and do all the things that you have to do to get better. But he's got tremendous upside."

Aniebonam will have an opportunity to compete for an expanded role next year with Maryland losing senior outside linebackers Matt Robinson and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil.

Robinson was a starter. Cudjoe-Virgil was a rotational player who started three games.

Aniebonam said one of his primary goals will be to get bigger. After weighing around 240 pounds this season, the 6-foot-3 Aniebonam said he would like to bulk up to 255 pounds.

"What I'm going to be working most on is my technique and my knowledge of the game, my knowledge of what exactly I have to do," Aniebonam said. "That's the main thing I need to work on and just making sure I stay focused. Other than that, it's all technique. That's all I'm going to be working on for the winter leading into the spring."

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