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After a frustrating 2021, Maryland football’s linebackers look to take a step forward in 2022

Maryland’s linebackers will aim to stay healthy and play a major role in the Terps’ defensive success this fall.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Maryland at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Having previewed Maryland’s quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and offensive and defensive lines, we continue our position previews with a look at what to expect from the Terps’ linebackers this fall.

Last season was one to forget for the Terps’ linebackers, as injuries and inconsistent play plagued a unit that will look to make a positive leap under new leadership in 2022. With James Thomas Jr. on board as the team’s outside linebackers coach and Lance Thompson arriving to coach inside linebackers, there is reason to believe that there will be improvement.

Maryland did lose a few pieces to the transfer portal, but with the linebacker room back at full strength — aided by the arrival of some potential playmakers — there is optimism that the position that hindered the Terps’ defense a year ago may see improvement this season.

Maryland’s 2022 linebacker depth

Ruben Hyppolite II Junior 62 tackles, 2 TFL
Jaishawn Barham Freshman High School (4-star recruit)
Vandarius Cowan Senior 15 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack (with WVU)
Ahmad McCullough Senior (RS) 29 tackles
Gereme Spraggins Senior 25 tackles, 1 TFL
Durell Nchami Senior (RS) 11 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 sacks (4 games)
Fa'Najae Gotay Senior (RS) Suffered season-ending injury in first game
Kobi Thomas Senior 11 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack (6 games)
Andrew Booker Freshman High School (3-star recruit)
Caleb Wheatland Freshman High School (3-star recruit)
Sean Greeley Senior 6 tackles (4 games)
TJ Kautai Senior 1 tackle (2 games)
Terrance Butler Jr. Freshman (RS) 1 tackle (1 game)
Kameron Blount Junior (RS) 1 tackle (1 game)
David Brownlee Senior N/A
Alex Simet Senior N/A
Josh Morris Junior N/A
Raymon Brown Jr. Freshman High School
Ian Maloney Freshman (RS) Transfer from Louisville
Jordan Cannon Freshman High School (3-star recruit)
Kellan Wyatt Freshman High School (3-star recruit)

After a handful of departures, some new names enter the mix

Last offseason was certainly not what head coach Michael Locksley was hoping for from a personnel standpoint for the Terps’ linebackers. Four players that played significant roles in building the unit for the future transferred out of the program.

A pair of Floridians — Branden Jennings and Terrence Lewis — both transferred back to their home state to play for UCF after their freshman years at Maryland. Jennings jumped into a starting role after a season-ending injury to Fa’Najae Gotay in the opener, making 23 tackles in eight games. Lewis didn’t see the field in 2021 as he was still recovering from an ACL injury. He was a five-star recruit out of high school that was the third-highest ranked recruit ever to commit to Maryland when he did so.

Deshawn Holt also left the program following his sophomore season and transferred to Toledo. He appeared in eight games in 2021 but missed the final five due to injury.

And, perhaps the most disappointing departure last offseason for Maryland fans was Demeioun Robinson, a former four-star recruit from Gaithersburg, Maryland who will continue his college career at Big Ten rival Penn State. Robinson, who appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman, showed glimpses of his ability to be a centerpiece for Maryland’s defense to build around, but instead will be on the opposing sideline when the Terps and Nittany Lions square off on Nov. 12.

Despite Robinson’s absence, Maryland may have another talented youngster ready to take his place in Jaishawn Barham. A four-star freshman out of Baltimore, Barham looks to have all the tools necessary to contribute in a major way as a freshman. He was the highest-rated recruit in the Terps’ 2021 recruiting class.

In addition to Barham, freshman Caleb Wheatland may see early playing time in his rookie season as well. Wheatland was rated as a three-star recruit out of high school and primarily played inside linebacker, a spot where he could find himself playing major snaps as early as week one.

“The young freshman linebacker coming in, Caleb, as well as Jaishawn, those guys benefited obviously from being here from January up until now,” defensive coordinator Brian Williams said. “They got spring practice under their belt. They showed more instincts than I anticipated.”

“I learn a lot from those young guys,” junior Ruben Hyppolite II added. “They’re very special talents. What they bring to the linebacker room is, like I said, something very special.”

Three-star freshmen Andrew Booker, Jordan Cannon and Kellan Wyatt also join the program as ranked recruits that could provide key depth as the season goes on, assuming they don’t redshirt.

Not all the transfer news for Maryland’s linebackers was bad, though. West Virginia’s Vandarius Cowan opted to come to College Park after four seasons with the Mountaineers. He has experience playing with Locksley on staff, as he began his career at Alabama and played seven games for the 2017 national championship team while Locksley was the co-offensive coordinator. Cowan’s senior presence will be key in a room that could see some lesser experienced faces get playing time.

“Vandarius is a guy that brings a lot of position flexibility,” Williams said. “He’s a guy that can be a DPR — designated pass rusher. He’s a guy that has the ability to play behind the ball as a box linebacker. He brings a lot of versatility on third down.”

Familiar faces will look to put together full seasons in 2022

While there was turnover at the linebacker position during the offseason, Maryland still returns a fair share of players that will look to build on their 2021 seasons. Unfortunately, many had their years cut short due to injury.

Not one full game into the season, Fa’Najae Gotay went down with an injury that brought his season to a close. Gotay, who started that game against West Virginia at weakside inside linebacker, will likely reclaim his spot as the Terps’ go-to at that position.

Also lost for the season was Durell Nchami, whose season ended after the team’s sixth game against Ohio State. Nchami, statistically speaking, is one of the Big Ten’s best edge rushers when healthy and is looking to make a splash in his redshirt senior season that could lead to him landing a job in the NFL. Since the 2020 season — which is admittedly a small sample size for Nchami — he has the highest pass rush win rate in the Big Ten, per Pro Football Focus, and owns the conference’s second-best grade among edge rushers, second only to Aidan Hutchinson, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Nchami’s biggest weakness has been his ability to stay on the field — he also missed the 2019 season after an injury in the preseason — but if he can maintain his health and avoid injury, he can be a real playmaker for the Terps.

“We get guys like Fa’Najae Gotay back, Durell Nchami… guys that we lost last year during the season. They are very impactful players for us talent wise, leadership wise and guys that have been around here and helped [build] this thing,” Williams said.

Two others who received boosts in their playing time last season due to injuries are Gereme Spraggins and Ahmad McCullough, who both enter their senior years (McCullough redshirted in 2018). Both Spraggins and McCullough saw improvement in their games as the season went on, and they have the potential to grow into more reliable options for the Terps and play important roles in 2022.

Kobi Thomas, a walk-on who started last year’s game against Iowa due to the pileup of injuries among linebackers, also returns, but it is more than likely his role will diminish from that starting gig in 2022.

Ruben Hyppolite II enters his junior season and is looking to break out after a 2021 season that saw him finish third on the team with 62 tackles and assume a leadership role after many of his teammates missed time. Hyppolite’s play was inconsistent last season after a solid 2020, but he has the necessary abilities to take that leap and become a more consistent player in 2022.

“Consistency is what’s going to get all of us over the hump and get me over the hump,” Hyppolite said.

Regardless of what type of play Williams gets from returning players like Hyppolite, he is aiming to develop a group that can throw different looks at opponents and make personnel changes on the fly.

“We want to be able to play as many guys as we can up front,” Williams said. “We’re gonna play teams that are gonna try to snap the ball 80-100 times in a game, and you’ve got to have fresh legs out there for four quarters. The only way, upfront, the only way you do that is to develop enough depth.”

The Terps may trot out a variety of players to try and see who fits best into their starting linebacker positions. There will likely be a mix of newcomers and veterans, both of whom will seek to step up to the challenge and prove themselves as a more-than-capable group that can be the anchor of Maryland’s defense.