The feeling Jesse Aniebonam had after Maryland’s double-overtime win at Central Florida early last season was a little different than any he experienced in his first two years as a Terp.
It wasn’t that he had three tackles for loss, including a sack. Or that his deflection in the second extra period at his team’s 5-yard line was part of the defensive stand that set up the winning touchdown.
What Aniebonam enjoyed most was the sheer exhaustion he felt as well as the exhilaration of the road victory, which was Maryland’s third straight win in what became a 4-0 start.
Part of it had to do with the fact that the Terps were missing Aniebonam’s backup, Melvin Keihn (Gilman), who was left home for disciplinary reasons. It also was because of the fast-past offense that first-year Central Florida coach Scott Frost brought with him from Oregon.
“In terms of really pushing myself to the limit … I think I had over 90 snaps,” Aniebonam recalled. “That day was really a test of how I know I can really push myself in terms of effort and accountability. That day was a real eye-opening day for me. It gave a glimpse of what I know I can do. That’s something I still have to put into action.”
Despite playing what coach DJ Durkin referred to last week as a “part-time” role in sharing the Buck linebacker spot with Keihn and Chandler Burkett, Aniebonam wound up leading the Terps with nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss. He also led all Big Ten linebackers whose teams played in a 3-4 defense with 30 quarterback pressures.
Durkin said he is expecting the 6-foot-3, 259-pound Aniebonam to play an expanded role when the regular season begins Sept. 2 at Texas.
“I think Jesse can and should be a dominant player,” Durkin said. “If you look back to last year, he really was a part-time player for us and he would tell you that the snaps that he had, there’s a lot he’d like to have back and do things differently. He was a productive player.”
Aniebonam’s growth during spring practice — what Durkin called “the best couple of months of his life in terms of his focus and training” — coincided with the arrival of new co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh.
A former All-Southeastern Conference defensive tackle at Auburn, Brumbaugh has helped develop several future NFL players as a college coach, including Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree and Ravens linebacker Za’Darius Smith at Kentucky, and Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones at Syracuse.
Brumbaugh said during spring practice that he can see the same type of potential in Aniebonam, comparing his “speed off the ball” to Dupree’s.
As for the rest of the front seven, Brumbaugh said, "It's some good talent. They're really raw, but they understand how to do things, and that's where we're going with it. They want to work and they want to listen and that's important to me."
Durkin has noticed how Aniebonam “has really gravitated toward [Brumbaugh] and has seen how he can help him with some of the fundamentals and techniques he brought with him.”
“We need to improve our pass rush on defense and [Aniebonam] can certainly help us,” Durkin said.
Said Aniebonam: “He’s a fast-paced worker, once we have that grasp [of fundamentals], he’s moving onto the next thing. He’s always keeping us busy, keeping our minds running. That’s the best thing I like about him. He helps you have that mentality, to elevate your game to a point where it will really help us win games.”
Still, there was more for Aniebonam to improve upon in trying to become more than basically a pass rusher, with many of his biggest plays coming in passing situations.
Asked the biggest difference going into this year’s season opener compared to when he started the season opener a year ago against Howard, Aniebonam said, “It’s definitely my focus.”
“The only difference between being a good player and a great player is giving enough effort and having focus,” he said. “As a senior and an older guy on the team, I feel like I have that steely-eyed focus that was lacking in areas. I’m going to need to be that guy.”
Aniebonam is not only listening to and learning from Brumbaugh, whose brief pro career was spent in the short-lived XFL, but to a family member who had a long, distinguished career in the NFL.
In a recent conversation, Aniebonam said Umenyiora’s main piece of advice was “focusing on one day at a time.”
“He always tells me I can’t think too far ahead,” Aniebonam said. “In terms of what I want to do, it’s all about effort. At the end of the day, I want to have my production right. He was an effort player himself. … You have to have ultimate effort all the time.”
Aniebonam, who was a high four-star prospect out of Good Counsel, said he doesn’t get caught up in his stats, as impressive as they were last season. He said he wants to play with more of a “savage mentality” this year.
“In terms of putting up those type of numbers, that’s an individual thing that goes a long way, but I definitely want to elevate my game,” Aniebonam said. “I feel like I’ve elevated my game already just in terms of my summer training, but collectively as a team we have to work together to get wins. That’s the biggest thing.”