Last year, Yannick Ngakoue had a fine sophomore season for Maryland. He had 6 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss, grading out as one of Maryland's best players as a sophomore in a front seven otherwise made of seniors.
But Ngakoue wanted more, so he saved money and traveled south to Atlanta to train in the offseason with former Falcons and Tennessee end Chuck Smith. Over nearly a decade in the league, Smith had 58.5 NFL sacks, and Ngakoue calls him a "pass-rushing guru."
Smith worked with Ngakoue to refine his own game, practicing moves to "add to my repertoire."
"I just wanted to be satisfied with myself. I felt like last year, my sophomore year, it was a cool season and all, but I felt like I could've done more," Ngakoue said Wednesday. "After the season, I asked myself, 'What can I do more, where I can enhance my game?'"
A few months later, that seems to have happened. Ngakoue's placement on the midseason watch list for the Hendricks Award, given to the nation's best defensive end, is definitely a fun thing, but it doesn't quite get to how dominant he's been. Ngakoue is on his way to one of the best defensive seasons in Maryland history. He's been one of the five or 10 best front-seven players on any team in college football in 2015. He's been just about as elite as elite gets for a college defensive end.
"During the game, you can't really watch it," Maryland cornerback Will Likely said. "But as we watch film, he's having a great season. He's doing a great job putting pressure on the quarterback. They try to double-team him, but he's doing a great job getting to the ball."
Because of discrepancies in college football stats-keeping, it's not clear if Ngakoue is second or third in the country in sacks. Penn State's Carl Nassib has approximately 14, and Ngakoue has approximately 10, leaving him in what we'll call "basically a tie" with Texas A&M's Myles Garrett for second. There are a lot of college football edge rushers. Just in the Big Ten, there's Ohio State's Joey Bosa (the potential No. 1 pick in next spring's NFL Draft), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Iowa's Nate Meier. Ngakoue has more sacks than all of them not named Nassib.
Ngakoue will acknowledge he isn't perfect. Teams have appeared to run in his direction infrequently, but he hasn't been credited with a single non-sack tackle for loss. Defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski has said Maryland wants Ngakoue, in his first season as a 4-3 defensive end after being a 3-4 outside linebacker, to be more of a "complete football player."
"Going through the transition from being a stand-up guy and putting his foot in the ground, or putting his hand in the ground, it's been a little bit different for him," Dudzinski said. "But I think he's done a great job. Obviously his sack total's up, he's playing pretty well. All I can ask for him to do is be consistent from play to play. Just don't make everything a pass rush."
Ngakoue said he can still get better in a host of areas.
"That just comes from practice, repetitions. Just working on my footwork, hand placement, stuff like that," he said. "I feel like I have to work better against the run, but also, I can still improve on the pass rush as well. If you want to be a great player, you've got to work on all aspects of your game, doing smart things on and off the field."
It's possible Ngakoue is about to play his final four games for the program. He hasn't generated a lot of draft buzz – probably because he plays for a 2-6 team – but he's Maryland's best professional prospect by a country mile. He boasts a bruising combination of speed and strength, and he's clearly refined an ability to work past tackles and pressure quarterbacks. Especially in a pass-oriented NFL where edge-rushing ability has become so important, Ngakoue will have significant value whenever he enters that league, but he said he's not considering it currently.
"I'm just zeroed in right now," he said.
Whether Ngakoue joins the NFL in 2016 or 2017, he'll have left a serious mark on Maryland. He needs 3 sacks (or so) in the final four games to match the program's single-season record of 13, held by Bruce Palmer (1978) and Mark Duda (1982). If he decides to stick around next year and doesn't get hurt, it's little more than a formality that Ngakoue, with 18 career sacks already, will catch Andre Monroe (25) for the Terrapins' all-time lead.
"It would mean a lot, but at the end of the day, I want to go down in history as being a player that's been to a bowl game consecutive times, back to back," he said. "It would be great to go my junior year as well."
Ngakoue was a four-star prospect out of Washington's Friendship Academy in the class of 2013. He committed to Maryland in the summer of 2012 but decommitted by that September. He took visits to a couple of national powers, including Florida State, before resettling on Maryland by the following February.
"I never doubted that he would end up a Terp because of how he handled the recruiting process," Maryland interim coach Mike Locksley said last season. "He came here with a vision of ‘I want to do this as a freshman, this as a sophomore, I want to be an All-American by my junior year.' Those are things that he's always talked about."
Now, others are talking about them, too. But Ngakoue is not.
"I don't really think about that stuff," he said. "I always just wanted to put in the work to get where I wanted to be. Now, just being in this spot and situation we're in right now, we're 2-6, right? So I don't really care about that stuff. I just want us to win."