Their differences, the Maryland football team hopes, will be limited to a single letter. If everything proceeds accordingly, if the “next man up” mantra indeed proves true, the Terrapins will not lose anything when Yannick Ngakoue takes over for Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil at outside linebacker. Maybe they’ll even figure out how to correctly spell the backup’s challenging last name.
A Division II transfer in his third year of college eligibility, Cudjoe-Virgil had started just one game for Maryland before tearing his pectoralis muscle, a season-ending injury that will require surgery on Friday. But he brought more to this Terps team than any backup. In five games, he had 3.5 sacks. He also represented the linebackers on the team’s leadership council, reflective of the respect Cudjoe-Virgil earned since arriving from Seton Hill (Pa.) University last year.
The injury, however, hasn’t lessened his presence on the team. Cudjoe-Virgil still patrols the sideline during practice, assisting those tasked with replacing his production. With surgery days away, he still hasn’t needed a sling, or a brace, or anything to inform the outside world of his condition. He misses playing, his teammates concede. They can tell, because during those workouts, they see it in his eyes.
“Cudjoe will be missed,” inside linebacker L.A. Goree said. “Just talking to him, he’s always in good spirits, so to see something like this happen to him, I hope he responds well to the injury. I really am concerned with what happens to Cudjoe. His presence will be missed on the field, vocally and physically. I hope he bounces back.”
Said defensive end Zeke Riser: “It’s kind of weird. He’s the guy. Mr. Reliable. You know he’ll always try to get to the quarterback, always running full speed. He was my guy whenever I first got to camp. Running with the second group, he was always making sure I had the call, we were on the same page with blitzes. To see him go down, it hurts, because he’s one of the guys we really count on to make plays, keep working hard and give everything he’s got every play. It’s really going to hurt missing him.”
But playing at Maryland means moving past injuries, and quickly.
And so on Tuesday, those Terps who appeared before reporters at Gossett Team House teetered along a delicate tightrope, wavering somewhere between sentimentality over losing Cudjoe-Virgil and confidence over Ngakoue’s ability to replace him. Nose tackle Andre Monroe called Ngakoue somewhat of a meeting-room braggart, a byproduct of his playbook knowledge and passionate film study, but acknowledged the void created by Cudjoe-Virgil’s departure.
“It hurts to have Cudjoe off the battlefield with us,” Monroe said. “We’re not going to have a step-off. The next guy will be ready. That’s our whole philosophy. When one guy goes down, the next guy will be ready. There’s no real drop-off, because everyone knows what they need to do, and they’re prepared.”
In six games, appearing mostly on special teams, Ngakoue has recorded one tackle. But as Cudjoe-Virgil exited in the first quarter on Saturday against Virginia, the former Under Armour all-American from nearby Friendship Collegiate slipped right into the fray. He finished out the Terrapins’ 27-26 win and earned a formal promotion onto the two-deep depth chart this week.
On Saturday against Wake Forest dual-threat quarterback Tanner Price, backfield pressure will again be crucial. Marcus Whitfield, with a team-high 5.5 sacks, will anchor the edge blitz, but Ngakoue will take on Cudjoe-Virgil’s role as Whitfield’s mirror image on the other side. On Tuesday, after a slew of questions about Cudjoe-Virgil’s ripped chest muscle and the timetable for its recovery — unknown, at this moment — Coach Randy Edsall praised Ngakoue’s preparation as an incoming freshman this summer, “as well as he could be prepared for the situation.” But, the third-year coach conceded, the learning curve is still steep.
On Tuesday, players seemed more concerned for Cudjoe-Virgil’s well-being than the abilities of his successor. Monroe, who spent last season rehabilitating a knee injury, knows the duality football teams face in these situations, between remembering a fallen teammate and moving onto the next man. Goree, a redshirt junior, has seen teammates suffer season-ending injuries then recuse themselves into their dorm rooms, lights off and stares blank, wishing they were back on the field.
“I just hope he’s in good spirits,” Goree said.
Besides, the Terps had more pressing matters to oversee. At Gossett, they know Cudjoe-Virgil as simply “Cudjoe” and Ngakoue as “Yannick,” so as not to confuse the two.
But did anyone know how to spell the younger linebacker’s last name? Whitfield, self-aware as ever, declined to try. Others gave it a whirl.
“I know it starts with an N-G though,” Goree said. “I think it’s N-G-A-W-A-Q-U-E or something like that. That even close?”
Close, a reporter told him, but no cigar. Riser, on the other hand, nailed it.
“It’s like N-G-A-K-O-U-E,” said Riser, a graduate student transfer from Houston, who did his best to hide the glee. “I don’t know how I got that. I have no idea how to pronounce it. I’ll just call him Yannick for my last few months here, because that’s all I know.”