Coach Mike Locksley’s declaration that Maryland football is ready to compete for Big Ten championships set a high bar for his players. Now, they’re welcoming it.
“I want all the pressure, I want all the expectations, I want ‘em high,” senior Ruben Hyppolite II said.
Hyppolite headlines a linebacker corps that defensive coordinator Brian Williams called the strength of his defense. The trio of Jaishawn Barham, Fa’Najae Gotay and Hyppolite combined to account for more than 13 percent of the Terps’ tackles last season and led a unit that allowed 23.2 points per game, the lowest of any Maryland team since 2010.
The rest of Williams’ crew will feature new faces this season after cornerbacks Deonte Banks and Jakorian Bennett were selected in April’s NFL Draft and defensive lineman Ami Finau and Henry Chibueze signed as undrafted free agents.
The Terps’ linebackers will remain stable.
Florida natives Hyppolite and Gotay are the leaders at that position, entering their respective fourth and sixth seasons in College Park.
Gotay’s contributions date back to 2019, when he led the Terps in tackles in his first career start. Hyppolite has been an everyday presence since taking over as a full-time player in 2021. He’s started in 20 of Maryland’s 26 games in the last two years, one of just four Terps on the defensive side of the ball to do so.
“My expectation is to show why I’m one of the best, and for our group, to show that we’re one of the best groups in the Big Ten and that we’re gonna play hard and we’re gonna play with relentless effort,” Hyppolite said.
Then there’s Barham.
The Maryland native started all 12 of his games played last season during his first collegiate campaign. He racked up team-highs with 6.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and most tackles of any Big Ten freshman.
After Barham’s exceptional true freshman season, he was named a 2022 College Football News First Team Freshman All-American, a semifinalist for the 2022 Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year Award, and a 2022 All-Big Ten honorable mention.
He’s been named to the 2023 Butkus and Bednarik Award watch lists — which recognize the best linebacker and overall defensive player in college football, respectively.
“[Barham is] definitely a pro,” Hyppolite said. “To be that young and perform at that high of a level, it’s all preparation. He’s put the work in and he continues to do so and that’s going to make him one of the greats.”
Hyppolite, Gotay and Barham performed at a high level a season ago despite it being their first year in the Williams-led defense. Williams even received contributions further down the depth chart in then-freshmen Caleb Wheatland and Kellan Wyatt, who racked up a combined 33 tackles.
“That room to me is the glue between the back-end and the front-end,” Locksley said. “The interior linebacker group is a group that shows tremendous leadership but also had a lot of production over the years.”
If Maryland wants to reach its lofty goals, it’ll need its linebacker corp’s talent and experience to lead the team to the upper-echelon of Big Ten defenses.