One of Maryland football’s most interesting, long-term position battles this season has been at the buck spot on defense. In junior Jesse Aniebonam and redshirt sophomore Melvin Keihn, the Terps have two players pushing one another day in and day out.
Aniebonam is listed as the starter for Friday’s game against Florida International on the team’s depth chart, but Keihn will get plenty of playing time. This has been the dynamic seemingly since fall camp started, but the gap between them has been small the whole time, and Maryland’s game plan includes both.
“We were going to have two players at that position in every game,” defensive coordinator Andy Buh told reporters Wednesday. “It gives them both opportunities to compete for that starting spot, but they both know going into every week that they’re going to play.”
Aniebonam assisted on two tackles, including a sack (which was half-credited to him), in Saturday’s season opener against Howard. Keihn played most of the second half and recorded four solo tackles, with two of those coming behind the line of scrimmage. He also assisted on one other tackle in his first college game in 661 days.
“It felt great to be back out there, especially with my teammates,” Keihn said after Saturday’s game. “It felt good to jump on Jesse when he finally got a sack, and it felt good that Coach was like ‘Melvin, come on, let’s go, you’ve got time left.’”
There will be packages in which the two see the field together, but for the most part they’ll be switching off and keeping each other fresh. It’s no secret that head coach DJ Durkin and his staff like to make everything a competition; he harps constantly on the good that comes from it.
“Competition is the greatest motivator,” Durkin said Tuesday. “A guy behind you that’s pushing to get on the field is worth a thousand words that a coach can tell you.”
It was Durkin who slotted these two at the buck in practice. The position is basically a hybrid between a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker. The player’s hand is in the ground sometimes, and he’s standing upright on other plays. Both Aniebonam and Keihn figure to be used primarily as a pass rushers opposite senior defensive end Roman Braglio.
For Aniebonam, the buck is pretty much a perfect fit. He saw time as a 3-4 weak-side linebacker as a freshman and as a 4-3 defensive end last season. This year’s defensive scheme is the third one Aniebonam has had to learn in College Park, but he has embraced his new role.
“I like the versatility of the buck position,” he said. “I feel like the buck position is the most versatile position of our defense. I know Durkin really likes the position as well, and I feel as though the buck position allows me to be more elusive in my technique.”
The Aniebonam-Keihn tag team carries the burden of “replacing” Yannick Ngakoue, one of the best pass rushers in Maryland history. But all three are close friends who still keep in touch.
“Just as me and Melvin push each other, me and Yannick used to push each other all the time in practice,” Aniebonam said. “I was able to learn a lot from him my freshman and sophomore year, and we kind of bounced off each other in terms of how we play the game and the different things that we do on and off the field. He’s a good mentor as well as a good friend.”
Another good comparison for Aniebonam is Dante Fowler Jr., who played the buck for Durkin at Florida. Fowler tallied 8.5 sacks in his junior season, after which he was selected third in the NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars (he’s now Ngakoue’s teammate). Aniebonam isn’t necessarily a top-of-the-draft talent, but he brings a similar game to the table.
Keihn, meanwhile, brings more speed to the position. He’s roughly 35 pounds lighter than Aniebonam, and that’s after gaining 15 pounds of muscle this offseason. It’s a thunder/lightning dynamic, and together the two could be a perfect storm for Maryland’s defense in 2016.
“[Aniebonam and Keihn] both have played well,” Durkin said. “They both have different strengths. So we’ll keep a rotation there and both of them will see the field.”