COLLEGE PARK – Recently in this space we wrote about Maryland’s struggles on the local recruiting front for the Class of 2014. The Terrapins had failed to land any player from the state ranked top 15 or better and already seen several blue-chip prospects go off the board.
Maryland may have picked up its signature recruit late last month when Good Counsel defensive end Jesse Aniebonam gave a verbal pledge to head coach Randy Edsall. The wildly athletic 6-5, 240-pounder is rated a four-star prospect and the nation’s seventh-best strong-side end by Rivals.com.
It was a huge get for Maryland as Aniebonam also considered Clemson, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. He garnered 20 scholarship offers, including invites from Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina, Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa.
“I think I have not only a really good relationship with the coaches at Maryland but with the players, as well,” said Aniebonam, whose sister is currently enrolled at the College Park campus. “I believe it’s a perfect fit, and I’ll be able to prosper there for the next four years.”
Aniebonam, who was born in Africa, did not start playing football until the eighth grade after being spotted dunking a basketball in the school gymnasium by Good Counsel assistant Kevin McFadden.
Head coach Bob Milloy said Aniebonam developed quickly because of his freak athleticism, speed and tremendous length. As a junior, Aniebonam recorded 46 tackles (nine for loss) and 3.5 sacks while helping Good Counsel capture its fourth-straight Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship.
Aniebonam projects as an outside linebacker who can put his hand down and rush the passer when necessary. Scouts have described the prospect as explosive with superb quickness coming off the ball, surprising strength that allows him to overpower bigger offensive linemen and outstanding closing speed in pursuit.
It’s meaningful that Randy Edsall continues to have success in securing top prospects from Good Counsel, the premier program in the Washington-metro area. Predecessor Ralph Friedgen had little luck at the parochial school in Olney, Md., and the sudden turnaround speaks to the fact Milloy has respect for Edsall and the way he runs a program. Since Edsall took over, the Terps have landed at least one Good Counsel product every year, including such standouts as left tackle Mike Madaras and wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
Maryland coaches can only hope Aniebonam’s commitment gets the ball rolling and encourages other local prospects such as Bishop McNamara offensive lineman Damian Prince and Friendship Collegiate cornerback Jalen Tabor, a pair of five-star prospects, to come aboard.
Terps Stronger On Both Sides Of Ball
It’s too early to say that Maryland football during the Edsall era has turned the corner. It will take a few wins over quality ACC competition to make that declaration.
However, there is reason to be optimistic as the Terrapins are 3-0 for the first time since 2001 and have looked fairly impressive in the process. Quarterback C.J. Brown has directed an offense that has been dynamic and extremely productive while inside linebacker Cole Farrand has anchored a defense that has been aggressive and opportunistic.
What’s most obvious through three games is what a huge difference it makes to have an experienced veteran at quarterback. Brown has looked extremely sharp and brought a certain swagger back to the offense while making plays with both his arm and feet. As a sophomore, Brown was pretty much a one-dimensional runner, but early returns are that he’s now more of a dual threat.
Through three games, Brown has completed 67 percent of passes (as compared to 49.4 percent in 2011) for 833 yards and six touchdowns. Of course, Brown has much better weapons at his disposal these days than he did two years ago. Diggs is a big-time playmaker and sure-fire future professional, while junior college transfer Deon Long might also play on Sundays.
Long’s arrival prevents opponents from double-teaming or shading coverage to Diggs and together they form quite a potent tandem. Diggs leads the Terps with 16 receptions for 387 yards and three touchdowns while Long has 15 catches for 173 yards and a score. Levern Jacobs, a sophomore speedster, is averaging 21.6 yard per catch.
Maryland’s offensive line, which struggled mightily a year ago, seems vastly improved. Granted the opponents have been Florida International, Old Dominion and Connecticut, but so far the line has opened plenty of holes for the running game and provided solid protection for the passing game.
Brandon Ross and Albert Reid have provided a solid one-two punch at tailback, combining for 377 yards through three games. Of course, Brown remains a key figure in the rushing attack and has taken keepers for 257 yards and five touchdowns while averaging a 8.3 yards per carry.
With a more experienced offensive line and more talent at the skill positions, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley has been able to show more of his playbook. Maryland has used a lot of read option so far to take advantage of Brown’s running ability and keep defenses off-balance.
“C.J. is a young man that has tremendous confidence in his own ability through his hard work and preparation, and I think what happens is the players around him see how he handles himself and how he goes about his business, and it just brings a sense of calmness, a sense of confidence to the entire unit,” Edsall said. “And the way C.J. is performing brings a tremendous amount of confidence. It just seems like the game is very slow for him. He’s got everything under control and is making play after play.”
Second-year defensive coordinator Brian Stewart has brought more of an attacking style to that side of the ball and the players seem to like the system. Florida International and Connecticut didn’t pose much of a threat, but Maryland did an outstanding job of shutting down Old Dominion’s high-powered passing attack, holding quarterback Taylor Heinicke to 166 yards passing while picking him off three times.
Freshman corner Will Likely has received significant playing time and looks like a future star, ranking fifth on the team with 16 tackles while tying McDougle for team-high with two pass breakups. The Terps will need someone to step up at the opposite corner now that senior Dexter McDougle – who already had three interceptions this season – has suffered a shoulder injury that will end his college career.
Maryland is allowing just 96.7 rushing yards per game with Farrand and beefy nose guard Darius Kilgo (6-3, 310) major reasons why. Kilgo is a real plugger, able to consistently take on double-teams and hold the point of attack. Farrand looks like the latest in a long line of outstanding inside backers for the Terps, following in the footsteps of brothers E.J. and Erin Henderson (Minnesota Vikings), D’Qwell Jackson (Cleveland Browns), Moise Fokou (Tennessee Titans), Alex Wujciak and Demetrius Hartsfield.
Farrand (6-3, 245), who is strong, tough and plays with a nasty disposition, was averaging seven tackles through three games. The Terps have also gotten strong play from the weak-side linebacker duo of Marcus Whitfield and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, who have eight tackles for loss between them. Matt Robinson (6-3, 240), a converted safety, has played well at the strong-side linebacker spot.
Robinson’s willingness to move up to the second line of defense was important, as he fills a key role in Stewart’s scheme. It’s a hybrid position that combines pass-rushing and pass coverage duties and the coaching staff likes an oversized safety there. Predecessor Kenny Tate never embraced the move from safety to outside linebacker, believing it hurt his NFL prospects.
“Matt is a very versatile player, and you don’t realize just how big a young man he is,” Edall said. “I mean he’s got the height, broadness and width. I think he’s doing a good job of making the transition from safety to sam (linebacker), and there’s no doubt in my mind that’s the best position for him. He’s long, athletic, physical and smart.”
What is most evident this season on both sides of the football, along with special teams, is that Maryland has vastly improved its depth this season. The Terrapins boast quality backups at most positions and it shows. The Terps are particularly deep at receiver and in the secondary.
Maryland will get a much better read on just how improved the program is when it meets border rival West Virginia on Sept. 21 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. However, early indications are that this team is more talented than recent seasons and quite capable of posting a winning record and earning a bowl berth.