After Maryland wrestling’s annual Red vs. Black Match to open the season, coach Alex Clemsen said the 165-pound weight class would be the most contested.

He thought the contest would be between John Martin Best and Gaven Bell, who had just wrestled against each other in a competitive scrap. Now, with three dual matches left in the season, true freshman AJ Rodrigues has taken control of Maryland’s 165-pound weight class, with Clemsen going to him whenever healthy. Rodrigues missed Maryland’s dual against Penn State and didn’t travel to the dual against Minnesota.

“I always thought I was gonna redshirt this year, but I have a mentality with all the teams I’ve been on ‘it’s next man up,’” Rodrigues said. “John Martin unfortunately getting hurt at the beginning of the season, we were scrambling at 165 and I was just the next man up to wrestle.”

Rodrigues got off to a slow start with a 2-4 record in his first six matches, but he had a breakout performance at the F&M Open on Jan. 5. He went 4-2, showcasing impressive defense and controlling his opponents in his four wins.

[Maryland wrestling’s last 3 Big Ten matches are a chance to cement upward momentum]

“I’ve had growth in every tournament,” Rodrigues said. “As every tournament has went on, collectively the coaches have grown my skill set and they’ve helped me be able to win more matches.”

Rodrigues started for Maryland in three of its next four dual matches following the F&M Open. He lost all three bouts to opponents in the top 25 at 165 pounds, but showed flashes in each match. He believes the stiff competition he faced early in his collegiate career will pay off in the future.

“I’m only 18 years old, and to wrestle in the Big Ten, the best conference for wrestling, as an 18-year-old true freshman, it’s really good,” he said. “When I’m the older guy, I’ll have the experience of wrestling all these nationally ranked guys.”

[Maryland wrestling dominated by No. 1 Penn State, 42-6]

Rodigues’ last match may have been his best performance of the season. Despite the 7-3 loss, Rodrigues hung tough against No. 23 Tyler Lillard throughout the contest and came close to securing his first takedown against a Big Ten opponent multiple times.

“I tried some things that I did wrong in the [previous] match and ultimately, I lost the match,” Rodrigues said. “But I wrestled a lot better and things I could have done was just keep my pace and try to score more.”

When comparing himself as a wrestler now to where he was at the start of the season, Rodrigues knows he’s improved exponentially.

“I feel like I’ve taken massive strides,” Rodrigues said. “I came here in June and it was hard for me, but now I feel like I’ve adjusted really well on how to wrestle in college.”