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Maryland’s linebackers hold as much responsibility as they have potential

Sophomore Jaishawn Barham headlines the Terps linebacker corps entering the season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 15 Maryland at Indiana
Jaishawn Barham was named a Freshman All-American by The Athletic in 2022.
Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With football season fast approaching, it’s time to begin our annual Maryland position previews. Starting with the Terps linebackers, we will preview all nine position groups (quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, secondary and special teams) over the next three weeks.

Maryland’s defense as a whole surpassed expectations last season under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Brian Williams, but it will have plenty of production to replace this fall. Perhaps no position group on defense will have as much responsibility in putting forth a strong 2023 campaign as the Terps linebackers. They’ll need to showcase their ability to rush the passer despite some key departures and help plug gaps to avoid the troubles they had against the run last season.

Star sophomore Jaishawn Barham, although not much of a vocal presence, is the unit’s most valuable asset and projects to be among the team’s best players this season. But there are plenty of questions to be raised about the Terps’ linebacker room outside of his presumed success.

Will veterans lead the way, or will new faces step up?

Let’s take a look at what to expect from the Terps linebackers this fall.

Maryland 2023 linebacker depth

Jaishawn Barham Sophomore 58 tackles (35 solo), 6.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR
Fa'Najae Gotay Senior (RS) 37 tackles (25 solo), 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 FF
Ruben Hyppolite II Senior 24 tackles (9 solo), (9 games)
Caleb Wheatland Sophomore 17 tackles (14 solo), 2.0 TFL
Kellan Wyatt Sophomore 16 tackles (7 solo), 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks
Riyad Wilmot Junior (RS) 3 tackles (1 solo), (8 games)
Gereme Spraggins Senior 27 tackles (20 solo), 1.5 TFL
Neeo Avery Freshman High School (4-star recruit)
Michael Harris Freshman High School (4-star recruit)
Dylan Gooden Freshman High School (4-star recruit)
DJ Samuels Freshman High School (3-star recruit)
Daniel Wingate Freshman High School (3-star recruit)
Sean Greeley Senior 9 tackles (7 solo)
Kobi Thomas Senior 1 tackle (9 games)
Ian Maloney Sophomore (RS) N/A
Darius Grimes Freshman High School
Maryland 2023 linebacker depth

Jaishawn Barham leads a group of promising youngsters

After last offseason, it felt for a moment like the sky was falling for Maryland’s linebacker room, as a mass exodus of young prospects seemed to disassemble what promised to be a building block of the Terps’ defense, raising questions about the program’s ability to hold onto high-level talent. But now, led by the uniquely calm and dynamic Barham, Maryland looks to have a few promising pieces at the position eager to make an impact.

As a true freshman, Barham asserted himself last season as not only the best linebacker on his team, but also one of the best young players in the nation at his position. He finished third on the team with 58 tackles — the most among non-safeties — and garnered both Freshman All-American honors from The Athletic and an All-Big Ten honorable mention. His four sacks were also tied for the team lead, something that fans could be seeing more of this season if he is positioned in space rather than the interior more often with many of last season’s primary pass rushers gone.

“With Jaishawn, as long as he works like he works — because he’s a great worker, he’s a very intelligent football player — I put him on the field, let him do his thing,” inside linebackers coach Lance Thompson said ahead of spring practice. “... His leadership comes from the plays he makes.”

While Barham is certainly the most proven of any underclassman linebacker on Maryland’s roster, he is not the only one. Caleb Wheatland and Kellan Wyatt are also back for their sophomore seasons after seeing the field on a semi-consistent basis in 2022 and they’ll be looking to make greater impacts this year.

Plus, Maryland brought in a handful of freshmen to help bolster the unit moving forward. Four-star composite recruits Neeo Avery, Michael Harris and Dylan Gooden headline the group, with three-star prospects DJ Samuels and Daniel Wingate rounding out the class. Four-star freshman Rico Walker was also considered an outside linebacker during his recruitment but will begin his time with Maryland as a tight end.

Avery stands out as Maryland’s top overall recruit from its 2023 class, and one look at him in pads explains why. At 6-foot-6, 258 pounds, Avery possesses a rare combination of size and athleticism that could allow him to wreak havoc on the edge — something the Terps will need moving forward without an obvious impact player at the position heading into the season.

Gooden, a high school teammate of Avery’s, and Samuels also figure to be edge rushers, with Harris and Wingate more likely to line up in the middle. It’s likely that older players will receive more snaps to start the season, but Williams has never shied away from a steady rotation of fresh legs with the goal of developing greater depth.

Naturally, there will be growing pains for this group of young linebackers, but the upside is clear to provide hope for the future. Whether that potential will be realized in 2023 won’t be clear until the season begins, and potentially beyond that. It may not be until later in the season that, should they earn meaningful playing time, the Terps young linebackers will begin to come into their own.

No substitute for experience

Maryland’s young talent exudes promise, but unless older players can help cultivate it and make an impact themselves, it will still be an uphill climb.

Four notable linebackers from 2022 won’t be with the Terps this fall after either exhausting their eligibility or transferring. Greg China-Rose and Durell Nchami were Maryland’s primary outside linebackers last season, but each exhausted their eligibility. Ahmad McCullough looked the part of a starting Big Ten linebacker after having his role amplified due to injuries elsewhere, but transferred to Washington State. And Vandarius Cowan, while not a top-level performer in terms of statistics, brought veteran experience during his one year in College Park.

Now the spotlight shines even brighter on those that return with more than a few starts under their belt, and Ruben Hyppolite II fits the mold of a player looking to take a leap forward and lead the unit.

Hyppolite II entered last season as a leader in the linebacker room, and that is no different this year. In 2022, Hyppolite II was relatively effective in his role, but missed four games with an ankle injury. He figures to be one of the X-factors of the group — if he is on the field and productive, the Terps will have a potential veteran playmaker to lean on. If not, more responsibility will have to be placed on the shoulders of those less familiar with it.

“Ruben was one of those guys that jumped on board, jumped with both feet in and didn’t hesitate. … He’s been a stalwart in terms of the type of player we want to recruit to Maryland,” head coach Mike Locksley said.

Alongside Hyppolite is Fa’Najae Gotay, now in his fifth season with the Terps. He also provides a veteran presence to Maryland’s defense. Gotay missed essentially all of the 2021 season with an injury, but rebounded last year despite a spring injury and was the team’s second most productive linebacker.

“Before he got hurt in spring, he was our best linebacker. Wasn’t even close,” Thompson said of Gotay. “And by the end of the season, he was playing at that level again.”

Barham figures to be the centerpiece of the Terps’ linebacker corps, but Hyppolite and Gotay provide enough of a track record of prior success and valuable experience to help lead the charge both on and off the field.

Gereme Spraggins also has shown the ability to make plays when called upon, but will need to take a step forward this season and blossom into a more reliable contributor. Plus, Riyad Wilmot is mostly unproven, but may be ready for a more prominent role off the edge after playing the part of a rotation piece in 2022.

The linebackers may be a measuring stick for the Terps’ defense as a whole this season. Williams’ system asks a lot of its linebackers and places a lot of responsibility on them to perform. Whether or not they do so could be the difference as Maryland aims to make 2023 its most memorable season under Locksley.