Yannick Ngakoue was heading to lunch inside the Gossett Team House one day in February when Maryland Coach Randy Edsall stopped him in the hallway to share some news. Edsall told Ngakoue the team was going to a 4-3 defensive scheme, which meant Ngakoue would have to transform from a hybrid outside linebacker to a more traditional defensive end.
In football parlance, he was being asked to put his “hand in the dirt.”
In the days after, Ngakoue began working on his stance and technique by himself in the winter cold.
After making further progress during spring practice and summer workouts, it was clear during Friday’s practice that the transition has been relatively seamless for Ngakoue, who has blossomed into one of the team’s most promising players.
“Coach Edsall said he was just going to put me in a better position, come off the ball faster and help the team out by putting my hand in the dirt,” said Ngakoue, who posted 13
Ngakoue returns this season as one of only two members of the front seven who have started extensively.
He largely has made his name playing in the 3-4 formation — first for his senior season at Friendship Collegiate Academy, where he burst onto the scene as one of the District’s most coveted recruits.
He continued to develop as a productive pass rusher under former defensive coordinator Brian Stewart during his first two years in College Park. Under Stewart, now at Nebraska, Ngakoue prospered as a stand-up linebacker who could display his athleticism in blitz packages.
This year is a new challenge, although Ngakoue and Edsall believe the transition will be liberating.
“What we did really is we just took Yannick from standing on two feet to putting his hand in the dirt and giving him a couple more opportunities for him to explode and come off the line of scrimmage. I expect him to have a really good year and to continue to improve and get better from where he was,” Edsall said.
Ngakoue embraced Edsall’s decision from the moment the fifth-year coach pulled him aside, and his ability to process the change underscores a growing maturity Maryland coaches have raved about for much of the past year.
Ngakoue struggled to adjust to the demands of major college football when he arrived in College Park in 2013, which came after a turbulent recruiting process.
After pledging to Maryland in June 2012, he de-committed later that summer but ultimately joined the Terrapins on National Signing Day.
He played in all 13 games as a freshman and registered 4
“Here’s a typical guy who came in, a highly recruited kid and had a lot of expectations, and he had to find out when you come here, sometimes it’s not as easy as you think,” Maryland defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski said. “To his credit, his attitude is fantastic. He got better. He tried to get better every day.”
Ngakoue’s willingness to critique himself on film was a crucial part of his development as a sophomore, when he entered camp as a backup before working his way up as a reliable starter by season’s end.
At one point in the middle of the year, Edsall told his players in a meeting that they could benefit from meeting with place kicker Brad Craddock, who has established himself as the team’s top leader and has been lauded for his commitment to a daily routine.
Not every player met with Craddock, but Ngakoue did.
He spent three hours with the kicker, who helped Ngakoue construct a more efficient daily schedule. He built in new times each afternoon and evening to watch film and stretch. He would pray at the same time each night for the rest of the season and follow a strict sleeping schedule that ensured he got at least seven hours every night.
Ngakoue said earlier this week that the meeting with Craddock “was a life-changing thing.”
The structure bled into the offseason, and Edsall rewarded Ngakoue with a place on the team’s 10-man leadership council during the offseason.
During Maryland’s first full-pad practice Friday, Ngakoue was disruptive and explosive on a number of plays during 11-on-11 drills, although he admitted that both the defense and his own development is still a work in progress.
His game is still developing. He spoke this week about pass rushing as an art, which he learned during a trip to Georgia to work with former Atlanta Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith for a few days in the offseason.
It was further proof that the soft-spoken Ngakoue has gone to great lengths to prove himself in a new system.
“I’m more mature,” he said. “They gave me a leadership role, and a lot of guys look up to me. I try to lead by example.”