COLLEGE PARK — By the time Jesse Aniebonam reached the middle of his redshirt junior year at Maryland in 2016, opposing offenses were often designed to stop him from getting to their quarterback.
After recording six sacks in the first five games while playing mostly in second or third-and-long situations, Aniebonam typically found himself double- and sometimes triple-teamed.
“The only difference between being a good player and a great player is giving enough effort and having focus,” Aniebonam said a month before the 2017 opener. “I’m going to need to be that guy.”
Before Maryland’s 51-41 season-opening upset over then-No. 23 Texas ended in Austin, so had Aniebonam’s season. A badly broken ankle left the Terps without their most disruptive defensive player.
Flash ahead to Saturday’s 45-14 win at Bowling Green. In the midst of a second-half in which the Terps overcame a 14-10 deficit, Aniebonam registered his first sack since the injury.
It came with about 10 minutes to go in the game and resulted in a 9-yard loss. Asked what he was feeling after sacking Falcons quarterback Jarret Doege, Aniebonam called it “crazy excitement.”
He then smiled broadly.
“A sack is the greatest feeling in football to me,” he said. “I missed that feeling and being able to get it right off the bat in the second game, it’s the best feeling in the world. I’m just ready for more.”
A week after the Terps had just two sacks in a 34-29 win at FedEx Field in their rematch with the Longhorns, who were again ranked 23rd, Maryland had five against Bowling Green.
The difference in average size of the two offensive lines certainly had something to do with that, but so did the fact that Aniebonam was starting to feel comfortable again.
“I felt loads better,” he said. “[Texas] was my first game getting back in a long time and I was really trying to focus in on all my assignments. In any football game, the biggest change and biggest differences are made from the first week to the second week.
“I felt I made the biggest difference from Week 1 to Week 2. Getting all that rust off, from not playing for so long, is what really helped me at the end of the day. I’m really getting back to my normal self and getting better every day.”
Maryland interim coach Matt Canada, who in his role as the team’s offensive coordinator is usually trying to gameplan against players such as Aniebonam, saw a big difference too.
“I’m sure he felt like he was back home. That’s where he wants to be,” Canada said during his Tuesday news conference. “I think it was an exciting time for him.”
The addition of defensive end Byron Cowart, a former top-ranked high school player who transferred after two frustrating years at Auburn, and the maturation of junior linebacker Isaiah Davis, has helped Aniebonam.
Cowart had his first sack as a Terp and Davis had two among his team-high 10 tackles.
“I think our [defensive] front is getting good pressure right now,” Canada said. “They’ve played very well the last two weeks. Jesse being back helps. You can't double-team one guy. I think it all ties together."
A year ago, the injury to Aniebonam was nearly as devastating as losing the team’s top two quarterbacks, then-sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome and then-freshman Kasim Hill, with season-ending knee injuries in the first three weeks.
The defense recorded just 16 sacks, last in the Big Ten and next-to-last among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The lack of a pass rush also led to the Terps being ranked 120th out of 130 FBS teams last season in scoring defense, allowing 37.1 points per game.
Going into Saturday’s home opener against Temple, Maryland is 22nd in total defense.
Aniebonam said that defense’s performance throughout the first half Saturday against Bowling Green, as well as early in the second half, helped the offense, which, after struggling with penalties, scored five touchdowns in as many possessions in the last 20 minutes of the game.
“I think we picked it up for them [the offense] a lot, we held our own,” Aniebonam said. “We did our job and we’re expecting them to do their job and they came out in the second half swinging. I think our momentum and our drive and our focus really helps them too. We feed off of each other.”
The Terps — on offense, defense and even special teams — feed off a player as emotional and potentially dominant as Aniebonam can be.
“He’s playing with a lot of energy,” Canada said. “He’s leading. I think now, the uncertainty we all have [about him] coming off an injury, which as much as we may not want it to be is real, he’s pushed through that now and he’s played in two games and he’s playing well.”
The old Aniebonam, the player who many believed was the heir apparent as a pass rusher to Yannick Ngakoue, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, is starting to emerge.
Aniebonam led the team with 8 ½ sacks in 2016 and ranked first among Big Ten outside linebackers playing in a 3-4 defense with 30 quarterback pressures.
“I’m seeing a personality that everyone knew from the past. I’m seeing his personality come out a little bit more now because now he is 100 percent, even though we knew he was,” Canada said. “Until you do it, you’re not quite sure.”
So is Aniebonam’s father, a retired university professor.
Manny Aniebonam always told the youngest of his four children, and his only son, that he would be faced with some adversity in his life. It was not if, but when.
Despite what he called a “privileged” upbringing, the younger Aniebonam said “ironically I’ve gone through some things in my life that has really calloused me more to be like who I am today.”
Until last year’s Texas game, the most frightening thing that had ever happened on a football field took place five years ago, when Aniebonam was a senior at Good Counsel.
Playing against Gonzaga, Aniebonam suffered head and neck injuries after a helmet-to-helmet hit that were serious enough to get him admitted to a local hospital for 24-hour observation. His father said Tuesday that the injury was more “scary” than serious.
Recalling the injury toward the end of the Homecoming game, Aniebonam said Tuesday, “The scary part was that I got a quick whiplash and my body stiff for awhile and I really couldn’t move much. I started getting my movement back when I was in the ambulance.”
The ankle injury, which was similar to the one that nearly derailed the NBA career of recently inducted Naismith Hall of Famer Grant Hill, could have been a much bigger hurdle for Aniebonam to overcome.
This time, a potential pro career was suddenly in doubt.
Aniebonam was undeterred.
“I had already dealt with so much in my life I had to sit and think when it all happened that it’s just another roadblock,” Aniebonam said. “That helped me keep a positive attitude the whole time and I was able to really push through.”
His father wasn’t surprised, since his youngest child always considered himself “the man of the house” among his siblings and even some of his relatives.
“It’s always been his character ever since childhood to overcome adversities,” the elder Aniebonam said Tuesday. “We are people of very serious faith. We tried to find a way to explain to him that this is part of life …We expect him to come back every game stronger and stronger.”