Slightly more than five minutes into Maryland’s homecoming football game against Purdue, Terps linebacker Shane Cockerille inched towards the line of scrimmage. The Boilermakers, facing a 2nd-and-10, were 12 yards from getting on the board first thanks to a Perry Hills interception on Maryland’s first drive.
Cockerille blitzed. He wasn’t blocked by a lineman, and he dispatched running back Markelle Jones with ease on his way to quarterback David Blough. Cockerille arrived at his destination at the same time as defensive end Jessie Aniebonam, and the two combined on a sack. It was Cockerille’s first-ever takedown of a quarterback, a play he was eagerly awaiting since his big position switch this spring.
“I was definitely wanting a sack the whole time,” Cockerille told reporters Wednesday. “Before the game, I was like ‘I really need a sack right now.’ Then a few plays later, it came, so that was really exciting for me.”
The redshirt junior was Maryland’s leading tackler entering the game, so getting in on a sack seemed inevitable. But Cockerille has come a long way in a relatively short time. Just 10 months earlier, he was a fullback moonlighting as a quarterback for a 3-9 team. Today, the Terps are 4-0, and Cockerille has found a home at linebacker.
Cockerille was a four-star dual-threat quarterback at Gilman School in Baltimore; he passed for 1,106 yards and rushed for 1,305 as a senior. After a few semesters at Maryland, however, he stopped having fun at the position and requested to switch to defense. He was instead moved to fullback, where he first appeared as a redshirt sophomore. Cockerille had 37 rushing yards and two receptions in 2015.
He returned to his old position in the second half against Indiana after Caleb Rowe left the game with an injury. Cockerille went 11-of-23 for 82 yards. That’s not horrendous, but it’s not enough to save Maryland from the ribbing that comes with playing a fullback at quarterback over two healthy signal callers (Hills and Daxx Garman).
DJ Durkin gave Cockerille his chance on defense at spring practice. Linebacker depth was a question mark for Maryland before the season, but Durkin’s switch to a 4-2-5 alignment meant that the team would only need two starting linebackers. Cockerille’s emergence has eradicated what remained of those concerns. His play suggests he’s making up for lost time: He has a team-high 32 total tackles (15 solo, 17 assist) in four games, with 2.5 tackles for loss and the half-sack against Purdue.
“The kid just works his butt off every single week … he’s got like 14 tackles a game or something like that. He’s an amazing linebacker,” defensive end Roman Braglio said. “I think I kinda grabbed him and was like ‘You stole my sack,’ but it’s just a good feeling to see someone else get a sack, have a good play.”
Cockerille won a starting job alongside Jermaine Carter Jr., who’s played a role in his development. Carter is a third-year starter at linebacker, so he’s been a natural mentor for his new defensive partner.
“When I first started, I was watching every little thing he did,” Cockerille said. “Even now, in games, certain plays I’ll mess up or my eyes are not in the right place, I’ll look and see what he was doing, see what he was looking at, how his feet were.”
Cockerille, like most new linebackers, still struggles at times with footwork and play recognition. But his raw athleticism and all-out style of play have made up for that. He’s been one of many bright spots in a successful early season for the Terps.
“In his vision, his scope is starting to open up,” defensive coordinator Andy Buh said. “That’s really typical for a guy just playing that position. We start their eyes really narrow and as they get reps, their eyes start to open up and they see the bigger picture. I think that’s been the biggest growth. We’re willing to let that develop as he goes because he plays so hard.
“We haven’t seen the best of Cockerille yet. I think Shane is still developing, and probably always will be at that position. He’s getting better each week.”