Linebacker Ayinde Eley admits he was “kind of nervous” before his first start for Maryland football against Rutgers last October.
So he turned to older players on the team to help him prepare for the big moment.
“‘It’s just football,” Eley recalled linebacker Tre Watson telling him. “Once you get out there and get in the groove of things, it’s just like Pop Warner or just little league, just football all over again.”
The Silver Spring, Maryland, native, known by his teammates as ‘Big Ace,’ finished second on the team with four solo tackles in that game.
Nearly a year later and now a full-time starter, Eley once again found his groove against Rutgers, leading the Terps with a career-high 12 tackles and an interception in a 48-7 victory this past Saturday.
“Obviously he’s improved a lot of different aspects of his game. He’s taking it to the level from where he can be a splash play guy to being someone who can be relied on, be consistent,” Watson, now graduated, said “He’s continuing with his maturity and getting to a place where he really be an impactful player for the defense.”
In the second quarter with the Scarlet Knights on their 40-yard line, Eley had his eyes locked on quarterback Johnny Langan, trying to read his route. As soon as he saw the ball come out of his hands, the sophomore sprinted in its direction and leaped into the air to pick off the ball.
Eley faked out a Rutgers player trying to stop him and rushed up the right sideline before being pushed out at the 2-yard line. Running back Anthony McFarland Jr. scored for Maryland on the very next play. It was his second career interception and the longest interception return of his tenure as a Terp.
He also had a hand in Isaiah Davis’ interception in the third quarter, charging at Langan to force him to throw a bad throw before sending him to the ground. Davis jumped up to grab the ball — the first interception of his career.
The redshirt sophomore had been preparing for a moment like that all offseason. Aspiring for a bigger role on Maryland’s defense this year, he dedicated himself to studying offensive reads and improving his knowledge of the mental side of the game.
Eley spent extra time going over film and turned to Clemson graduate transfer Shaq Smith to help make adjustments.
“Ace just asked me, like what are some things that we did there that we could bring here you know, what could he do to make himself a better player,” Smith said. “So we had a lot of those talks over the summer and things like that, and his leadership is definitely coming out.”
His teammates describe him as an “all-time competitor.” After many practices, Eley will challenge other players to races, eager to prove he was the best.
Smith joked that he was “too old” to take up Eley’s offer. Running back Javon Leake hasn’t raced him yet, but is very confident in his own ability to win, saying,”‘For sure, I would definitely beat Ace.”
And though some other players who did race him might not admit it, Eley was able to take the win more often than not, according to Smith.
That competitiveness showed on Saturday, indicating just what kind of a playmaker he can be for the Terps. He already leads the squad with 35 tackles, 18 of which are solo.
“You see him working really hard and not just knowing what he has to do, but what the guys around him have to do,” Smith said. “He does that day-in, day-out at practice and it’s showing. It’s been showing a lot and I think Saturday was just him scratching the surface of the potential he has and what he what he has to come for this season.”