Old Dominion faced third and goal from the Maryland 2-yard line less than two minutes into the second quarter on Saturday. Maryland Linebacker Marcus Whitfield rushed first, curling off the edge toward Monarchs quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Fellow linebacker Yannick Ngakoue was supposed to follow, until he saw the ball rocket into the air.
Whitfield had burned past his blocker and stuck a hand in Heinicke’s passing lane. He tipped the pass, changing its trajectory and sending it skyward. Ngakoue stared up as it tumbled down. He, too, had altered his course, abandoning the B-gap while waiting for the ball to land. He thought an offensive lineman would hit him from behind. “Gracefully, the ball came into my hands and I intercepted the ball,” Ngakoue said Tuesday. “It was a great feeling.”
Ngakoue committed to Maryland this February, the last of 20 Friendship Collegiate prospects to announce their decisions at the last possible moment on National Signing Day. The Under Armour all-American chose College Park over Florida State eight months after he initially committed to Maryland, later reopening the process to welcome more suitors. But his gut – and the desire for his mother to watch him play – kept him home.
With the Terrapins, Ngakoue has enjoyed a gradual transition into college football that few five-star prospects experience. Kept away from the spotlight by virtue of Maryland’s linebacker depth, Ngakoue has nonetheless worked himself into the rotation, appearing extensively as a dime-package blitzer last Saturday. He wants to record at least five sacks this season. He believes this is realistic.
“Going against a lot of spread teams, we can be running a lot of dime personnel, which has me as a pass rusher,” he said. “In that personnel, I’m a pass rusher, so I’ll have better opportunities to get sacks.
But Ngakoue still fights for playing time with two experienced edge blitzers in front of him. That’s why the interception was so important.
“It was a great moment,” he said. “Right there I showed the coaches what I can do. So they could build more trust in me so they can trust me on the field and I can have more playing time on the field. That was basically a great experience.”
Coach Randy Edsall has played seven true freshmen so far, including two Friendship Collegiate alums in Ngakoue and fellow linebacker Cavon Walker. But, Edsall said, Ngakoue is “barely scratching the surface.”
“We have high expectations for him,” Edsall said. “We think he’s going to be outstanding as he continues to play and gain experience. He’s a guy that wants to be good.”
Breaking into a backup role might be difficult this season. Ahead of Ngakoue sits Whitfield, tied for the team lead with 2.5 sacks, and Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil, tied for third in tackles. In two games, Ngakoue has recorded just one tackle, but appears on special teams in addition to his role as the third “Will” linebacker.
Having two Yannicks on the field at the same time could get confusing, but Ngakoue says it shouldn’t be a problem. His mother named him after the French tennis player Yannick Noah. (Noah pronounces his first name “Ya-neek.” Both Ngakoue and Cudjoe-Virgil go “Yahn-ick.”)
“It’s not confusing,” Ngakoue said. “It’s pretty funny, actually. I never knew somebody’s had my name. I thought my name was very unique. It’s alright. It’s not confusing. They call him Cudjoe, they call me Yannick.”
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