COLLEGE PARK — The only time Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil has stepped foot inside M&T Bank Stadium was before his senior year at Towson High School. A former running back who once emulated San Diego Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson, Cudjoe-Virgil was then a linebacker who idolized Ravens icon Ray Lewis.
Cudjoe-Virgil did not imitate either of his football heroes that summer afternoon in 2009 at a college scouting combine in Baltimore.
He didn't even look like himself.
"I didn't have a good day," Cudjoe-Virgil, now a 6-foot-2, 250-pound junior linebacker for Maryland, recalled Tuesday while sitting in the cafeteria at the Gossett Team House. "My numbers were nowhere near all the big-time guys."
So began Cudjoe-Virgil's college football odyssey.
Barely recruited out of high school, Cudjoe-Virgil wound up at Seton Hill, a Division II program near Pittsburgh, for his first two years of college. He transferred to Maryland after his sophomore year, joining the team as a walk-on. He paid his own way during his first semester, taking classes and working a campus security job over the summer to help pay for tuition, rent and food.
"It was definitely tough going from being on scholarship to being off scholarship," Cudjoe-Virgil said. "It was definitely a financial burden for me and my family. It was just a matter of time, and I knew if I worked hard, I'd show the coaches I was worthy of a scholarship. I just took the chance, prayed and I got this opportunity. It's all worth it. I'll never think twice about what I did."
On Saturday, Cudjoe-Virgil returns to his hometown, to a stadium he has only seen from Interstate 95 while driving from home to College Park the past two years.
He has transformed himself, taking what he did in the weight room and on the practice field last year to become a key member of Maryland's defense going into the game against West Virginia (2-1), the biggest test so far this season for the Terps.
"That's always been a goal of mine," Cudjoe-Virgil said about playing at M&T Bank Stadium. "In high school, I never thought I'd get a chance to play in college at the Ravens' stadium, so it's definitely going to be a big deal for being a Baltimore guy. It's going to be a crazy experience. I can't explain it right now."
Going into the game against the Mountaineers, Cudjoe-Virgil has 16 tackles — including 3 1/2 sacks, which ranks second in the Atlantic Coast Conference behind senior linebacker Marcus Whitfield, the nation's leader with 5 1/2. Cudjoe-Virgil said with a smile that he and Whitfield "definitely try to compete. We say stuff like, 'Meet me in the backfield.' It helps you get better."
Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart isn't surprised at what Cudjoe-Virgil has done so far at Maryland.
"When we first saw him last spring, and he was a walk-on player doing the things he was doing on the scout team … we knew he was going to give us everything he had," Stewart said Wednesday. "And now you see the benefits of his effort."
Stewart believes the fact that Cudjoe-Virgil didn't have a Division I scholarship offer out of high school has led to his success.
"He sure practices and plays like he has a chip on his shoulder," Stewart said. "He does always bring energy to practice, energy to meetings and his play."
Harry McNeir, who coached Cudjoe-Virgil during his first three years at Towson, said that his former star has always played that way.
"He's an incredible athlete, but in terms of recruiting, he's probably considered a late bloomer," McNeir said Tuesday. "What separates Yannik is that he has an unbelievable work ethic. He's willing to do all the extra stuff that it takes to be successful."
Cudjoe-Virgil said: "All my coaches always say I worked hard. I get that from my mother, too — she's always worked hard. Just always going out there with a chip on my shoulder, saying, 'I can be better than this.' "
After initially going to Seton Hill, Cudjoe-Virgil never thought he would play in Division I — either for a Football Bowl Subdivision team such as Maryland, or even a Football Championship Subdivision team such as Towson University, which recruited him "a little" when he was in high school.
The Division II team at Seton Hill for which he played wasn't very good, winning just two games in the two years he was there. Cudjoe-Virgil had a knack for blocking kicks — including a school-record six as a sophomore — but he did little else to make the Division I college recruiters think they had missed on him.
Yet something in Cudjoe-Virgil pushed him to send a highlight tape to Maryland assistant coach Greg Gattuso.
"I just felt like I could be better. I wanted to be coached better. I didn't belong there," Cudjoe-Virgil said. "I felt like I was able to play Division I football. I took that chance."
If not for Gattuso, Maryland's defensive line coach, Cudjoe-Virgil would likely have finished his career at Seton Hill. But Gattuso had spent 25 years in the area coaching at the high school and college levels near Seton Hill, including at the University of Pittsburgh.
Cudjoe-Virgil said his "heart dropped" after gettting a telephone message one night from Gattuso telling him to call back.
Cudjoe-Virgil, who had already been accepted to Maryland as a transfer student, drove down the next day and accepted Terps coach Randy Edsall's offer to be a walk-on. Looking back on being overlooked in high school despite the fact that he was also one of the top 200-meter sprinters in the state, Cudjoe-Virgil knows that recruiting is as much politics as it is a perfect science.
"Recruiters go certain places, the Good Counsels and the private schools where they think all the good athletes are," he said. "If a team has a bad record, they assume a player's not worth their time. I can't do anything about it. I'm here right now, and I have great coaches that coach me up. I'm just taking that and seeing where I can go with that."
Based on his performance, NFL scouts will likely make up for what college coaches initially failed to do with Cudjoe-Virgil. Playing behind and alongside Whitfield at outside linebacker, Cudjoe-Virgil has displayed the power and speed that Gattuso first saw on the tape he received after the 2011 season.
"I'm excited for him and about him," said Stewart, who came to Maryland last season.
Not that Cudjoe-Virgil will ever need anyone to motivate him. He spent the early part of his childhood in Trinidad, where his father still lives. His mother, Marilyn, moved the family to Baltimore to give her children a chance at a better life. Her oldest child is not satisfied yet.
"I don't think I've proved anything. We're only three games into the season, and we have nine games left," Cudjoe-Virgil said. "I want to go out there every week and prove myself. It starts with practice. I've got to practice hard and take it a week at a time. Just take it a day at a time … I just want to prove to myself that I was right and that I could play at the Division I level."