On obvious passing situations this year, and especially lately, the Maryland defense has mixed the new and the old.
Sophomore and freshman outside linebacker Yannick Ngakoue and Jesse Aniebonam have been among Randy Edsall's most prized catches on the recruiting trail in the last few years. Though Ngakoue gained extensive starting experience this year, Maryland's usual starters - all upperclassmen - are healthy now, so Ngakoue is being used as a substitute and in special packages. Aniebonam, like Ngakoue an impressive athlete, has been used a pure pass-rusher
The Terps' current starters in the defensive front seven – three linemen and four linebackers – are all seniors. Andre Monroe, Darius Kilgo, Keith Bowers, Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree, Matt Robinson and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil will play their last home games on Saturday, when Maryland hosts Rutgers at Byrd Stadium. Once they leave, Ngakoue and Aniebonam will find themselves in pivotal roles in Maryland's defense. For now, their biggest job is to supplement the seniors ahead of them and harass quarterbacks. And on passing downs, they get that chance:
When it's clear that offenses mean to throw against Maryland, Ngakoue and Aniebonam take the field with Monroe (among others), and the the chase is on against the unfortunate soul at quarterback.
"It's always fun. It's almost like a race, a race to the backfield like track. As soon as the ball goes, that's the gun. 'Pow,'" Monroe said, shooting the ceiling with his fingers. "Who's going to get there first? A lot of times, we all talk to each other like, 'I bet I get there first, who's going to get there first this time?' So it's always fun. It creates competition within the competition."
If the situation is third down-and-a-mile, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart has shown a willingness to send Aniebonam, Ngakoue and Monroe on a blitz while dropping eight men into coverage. And even when a mobile quarterback escapes, Aniebonam or Ngakoue is often fast enough to eventually catch up with him.
Right now, Stewart's pass-rushing package is a luxury. Next year, though, Monroe and six other seniors in that defensive front will be gone. Injured end Quinton Jefferson will return and, along with Ngakoue and Aniebonam, figures to lead what will be a new-look Maryland front.
"They're definitely ready for it. I think they wouldn't be out there right now if they weren't ready for it," Monroe said of Aniebonam and Ngakoue after the Terps beat Michigan last Saturday.
Monroe went out of his way to point to Roman Braglio, the pass-rushing redshirt sophomore who has been his backup at defensive end this year, as another future contributor.
"He knows how to rush the passer as well, and I know that next season he'll be able to hold it down," Monroe said.
Braglio has 2.5 sacks this year, impressive for a reserve and ranking him third on the team behind Monroe (9) and Ngakoue (6). Aniebonam and Ngakoue were both highly sought recruits, ranking at the top of Maryland and Washington recruiting boards in back-to-back years. Jefferson, when he is healthy, figures to re-take the defensive end spot occupied for most of this year by run-stopper Bowers.
So there will be lots of turnover, but reinforcements with pedigree are already in place, particularly on the edges. On the line's interior, freshman David Shaw figures to slide into nose tackle Kilgo's place. Shaw is currently listed at 6 feet 4 inches and 290 pounds, which is a bit lanky for a Big Ten inside lineman, but he hasn't looked noticeably out of place in limited work behind Kilgo.
Nkagoue and Aniebonam should start next year at the outside linebacker spots, replacing Robinson and Cudjoe-Virgil, and the Terps will be in capable hands at those spots. Farrand has quietly been one of Maryland's best players this year, and replacing him and Goree on the inside will be trickier. Braglio, Shaw and Jefferson are likely to start on the line, although a lot can change between now and the start of next season.
The current Maryland front has had its issues all year, particularly in defending the run. The Terps are second-to-last in the conference with 207 rushing yards allowed per game, though their 29 sacks are tied for fifth in the league. As the year concludes, look for more integration of old and young – and remember that a full changing of the guard isn't all that far off.