In the 2013 football recruiting class, Maryland brought in four star football players from the same school - Friendship Collegiate Academy in the nation's capital. Yannick Ngakoue, Derwin Gray, Cavon Walker and Jermaine Carter will all be joining former high school teammate Albert Reid in College Park, and a lot of the credit for that can go to head coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim. A former cornerback at San Diego State who went to Dunbar, Abdul-Rahim has quickly managed to turn Friendship (a relatively new school in the District) into a local power.
That recent surge in talent at Friendship has worked out well for Maryland, who have signed five of Abdul-Rahim's players over the last two years, including three prospects consistently rated at four stars or higher. The coach spoke of his affinity for how Maryland runs their program, and thinks the pipeline of sorts helps all parties involved.
"I'm a Randy Edsall fan, I'm a Maryland coaching staff fan, Brian Stewart and Mike Locksley, so, you know, I always want to be able to guide some kids to quality people, off-the-field quality", he said. "You know, some programs don't really care about the kids, they care about the product. [Caring about the kids] is definitely evident at Maryland, because of the increase in education over there, from GPAs to kids graduating class-to-class over the past two to three years."
Besides the coaching staff and educational opportunities, Abdul-Rahim also saw Maryland's location as a key drawing point for the local players.
"It's a no-brainer," he said. "The proximity to our school I think is important, both for our kids and their families so they can stay connected in case any issues or family emergencies...I think that's an overlooked process".
Of the 2013 Friendship players coming to Maryland, three are linebackers - Ngakoue, Walker and Carter - with Derwin Gray standing in at offensive tackle. Abdul-Rahim was unable to pick a single player out of that group that he felt had a better chance at succeeding on the field as a freshman than the rest.
"You know what? Honestly, I don't think there's one kid that can't make an impact", he said. "I know that's not answering your question, but I don't feel like one just sticks out, but I think all of them have a chance.
"All of them are college ready players - physically, on the field and mentally. They're very mature kids, none of them suffer from a lack of maturity or poor decision making, I really feel like they're quality kids. I was just up at Maryland yesterday, and I saw Cavon, Yannick and Jermaine walking in their Maryland gear, getting ready to walk to class. I felt pretty good about that."
Coach Abdul-Rahim then went through each of the three linebackers, and spoke to their strengths. He said Walker is good in coverage and plugging any kind of seals, "but he can pressure". Abdul-Rahim called Ngakoue "more of a defensive end type of deal" who will come off the weak side to pressure the quarterback. He also said Carter, playing on the inside, will simply "run around and make a lot of tackles".
Out of the group of four, it has been lineman Gray who has been talked about the most, and Abdul-Rahim thinks "the sky's the limit".
"Talent-wise, you don't see many people looking like him and moving like him," he said. "He's a big, agile individual - he could be a tight end, that's how agile and athletic he is. So that's not really going to be his issue, it's more going to be bringing that intensity every day, not just sitting back on his talent, but striving to be great. And I think the next level is going to help him."
Although Abdul-Rahim thinks all four of the Friendship players are physically and mentally ready for the next level, he said the inherent challenges of moving up to the college level are ones that all the players will have to deal with.
"We try to have competition, but it's not like you're going to have four Yannicks on your team, you know?" he said. "It's keeping that intensity up to a higher level, because you're coming outside and practicing against kids who were four stars, or kids who were three stars, or grown men who are hungry for their last year. Just bringing that intensity and fire to practice every day, I think, will be the toughest deal."
Abdul-Rahim doesn't expect them to run into too much trouble in the adjustment process, as the coach was able to sit down with Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart and talk shop about the 3-4 defense and ended up using quite a bit of Maryland's terminology. The coach also pointed to the fact that the incoming freshmen were able to sit in on some meetings this past spring, making them more familiar with the program.
In terms of the future of the pipeline, Abdul-Rahim expects it to keep growing, and says he hears more kids talking about the Maryland program within his team.
"I think familiarity is always a plus," he said. "Especially when you can go to someone you know already and ask questions that you just can't ask on your visit to a coach. Some of the underlying questions that you may need to be asking. So I think that's definitely a plus. And I think Under Armour is a value as well. It's never going to be the same. It's always something cutting edge."
With prospects like Jalen Tabor and Daejuan Funderburk in Friendship's 2014 class, Randy Edsall and co. will want to continue that growth this season.