Maryland football’s secondary and defensive line are big reasons as to why the program knocked off West Virginia and Howard in the first two games of the 2021 season. There’s no doubt about that after Maryland has surrendered just 24 points through 120 minutes of gameplay thus far entering its road matchup with Illinois on Friday.
And while players like junior Nick Cross, sophomore Tarheeb Still, senior Jakorian Bennett and grad student Sam Okuayinonu have received an adequate amount of attention for their efforts on the field, it’s time to acknowledge the team’s bountiful, talented linebackers on the roster that have made a positive impact.
Maryland surprisingly relies on very few upperclassmen to carry the workload at the linebacker position, despite it being an area of depth, which makes it an intriguing aspect of the roster. Junior Durell Nchami is drawing a start this week alongside senior Lawtez Rogers, while junior Fa’Najae Gotay, who is one of the most talented linebackers on the roster when healthy, is dealing with an injury that will keep him out for the foreseeable future. Gotay has seen action in games since his freshman season in 2018 and started in three games at linebacker in five contests a season ago.
Without many upperclassmen to fill the linebacker position, along with an injury to Gotay, Maryland has relied on its young guns through two games, and evidently so.
Similar to the prolific duo of Cross and Still in the secondary, freshman Branden Jennings and sophomore Ruben Hyppolite II have been positive forces at linebacker for the Terps in the program’s two wins to kick off the year.
Jennings, who has totaled seven solo tackles, one forced fumble and one quarterback hit this season, is a budding prospect for Maryland.
“He’s coming along well, he’s starting to understand the game of college football and the speed of it, so he’s coming around, he’s understanding... there’s big things ahead for him,” Hyppolite said of the freshman.
After collecting four total tackles and forcing a key fumble in the second half against West Virginia, Jennings was upgraded to a starting linebacker spot with Gotay out of the lineup. He performed well in his first collegiate start and notched his second-straight four tackle game and had his first career tackle for loss.
“For him to be able to start a game as a true freshman, started a game versus Howard, it shows we believe in him as a player, he’s got some natural abilities and I think he’ll just continue to get better for us with the more experience he gains,” Locksley said.
What sticks out about Jennings is his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame that allows him to play with a different level of physicality than other freshman players might be able to exhibit in their first year of Division I football.
Jennings’ hard-hitting ability is the first thing that comes to mind when you see him play.
“His style of play is very physical, very heavy-handed, type of player where you saw him force a fumble in the first game against West Virginia, he throws his body around, he’s one of those guys that plays with a lot of energy, big energy guy, which you love to see,” Locksley said.
Hyppolite acknowledged that his counterpart’s hitting skills on the field make him an immediate difference-maker on defense.
“He has a lot of physicality, his style of play is very high, very physical at the point of attack, which I try to take pieces of his game and incorporate it into mine and we just feed off each other like that, so definitely his physicality,” Hyppolite said.
When senior tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo was asked if he’s ever seen a freshman like Jennings be so physical on the field at such a young age, he offered a simple response that shows just how impactful Jennings is as a player.
“Not really, he doesn’t look like a freshman out there, it looks like he’s been here for three years, it’s kinda funny,” Okonkwo said.
Besides Jennings’ hard-hitting ability, the reliable sophomore, Hyppolite, is right there next to him talent-wise as the starting middle linebacker on the depth chart heading into the matchup with Illinois.
Hyppolite has built off his freshman season a year ago and he’s turning into a formidable force for the Terps. In 2020, the linebacker out of McArthur High School in Florida had a high-quality season in his first collegiate year. Hyppolite came to Maryland as a four-star linebacker and appeared in four of five games with one start at the linebacker spot as a freshman. He ended 2020 with 18 total tackles, 10 of them solo, with two sacks as well.
Last year’s performance from Hyppolite has transformed the linebacker into a more versatile player this year.
Just through two games already, Hyppolite has four solo tackles, two assisted tackles and two pass breakups, both of which came against West Virginia on Sept. 4 in Maryland’s 30-24 home win. He has the second-most pass breakups on the team, just one behind Bennett’s three total.
But even looking past both Jennings and Hyppolite, Maryland’s diamond in the rough is freshman Demeioun Robinson, who came to the Terps’ program as a consensus four-star linebacker and the top-ranked player of Maryland in his class according to ESPN.
Locksley has already dubbed Robinson as “one of the best natural pass rushers in our program,” ahead of Maryland’s matchup against Illinois.
Robinson’s playing time has hovered around 20 to 25 snaps per game so far, Locksley mentioned, and he believes that the freshman will undoubtedly benefit from the in-game experience. Locksley also noted how Robinson is capable of playing both outside linebacker positions, and that a player of his caliber is critical to Maryland’s overall defensive depth.
Even though he has just two games under his belt, Robinson is another factor on this defense that is trending in the right direction early in the season.
“Played pretty well for a freshman so far,” Locksley said of Robinson’s play.
Of course, outside of Jennings, Hyppolite and Robinson, Maryland’s defense will also feature other young players against Illinois and beyond, such as redshirt sophomore Deshawn Holt, sophomore Osita Smith and sophomore Gereme Spraggins. Rogers and Nchami are both starting this week, but a whole lot of young players at linebacker will likely see the field once again.
Keep in mind, five-star freshman linebacker Terrence Lewis hasn’t even stepped onto the field for Maryland yet. Lewis was ranked as the tenth-ranked player in his class in the country, according to ESPN.
It’s safe to say that the future of Maryland’s linebacker corps is in good shape and it’s a positional group that aims to use its abundance physicality to take care of business.
“They bring extremely hard hitting, that’s what they bring everyday in practice, man,” Okonkwo said of the linebackers group. “When you know the plays called and you know you gotta fill the hole... you’re like ‘damn, am I going to get a concussion?’ Like of them are going to come down super hard and you know you gotta bring your stuff.”
Now, after shutting down two opposing quarterbacks and helping the Terps to a 2-0 record in 2021, the linebackers’ collective job once again will be to primarily stop Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters when Maryland visits the Fighting Illini on Friday evening.
“Very good quarterback,” Hyppolite said of Peters ahead of the matchup. “He’s poised, he runs the offense very well for them. You know, we’re just excited to get out there and ready to, you know, play against them and be ready for the competition... We’re just looking forward to playing our brand of football.”
For some of these young guys at linebacker, it will be their first Big Ten game on the road. A conference game in enemy territory at night is one way to get the young core acclimated to the Big Ten’s talent early in the season.
“Like I tell them every game, stay poised, take control, whenever you’re out there on the field, you know, take your opportunities and make a play that you need to make,” Hyppolite said of what he tells the young guys at linebacker. “It’s nothing different than playing at home, you know, we just had a different scenery, it’s still the same routine.”