Ruben Hyppolite II, suddenly a veteran on the Maryland defense, embraces his leadership role

Emily Giambalvo

Washington Post

Sep 16, 2021

linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II

Maryland linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II, still just a sophomore, has emerged as a leader of the defense. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

When the Maryland football staff reviewed film of the season opener, the coaches noticed how Ruben Hyppolite II’s skill set shined. He’s a speedy and disruptive inside linebacker, but some of his most important moments came between plays.

Fa’Najae Gotay, a veteran in the linebackers room, left the game early with an injury. Hyppolite ensured the unit continued functioning properly, even with a pair of players new to the program joining him on the field. Hyppolite relayed the defensive calls and made sure his teammates lined up correctly. Then the sophomore handled his own job, too.

This is the role Hyppolite envisioned, and it’s why he traveled far from his Florida home to take part in Coach Michael Locksley’s effort to rejuvenate the Terrapins. Hyppolite hoped to lead, and he knew he would have a chance to handle important on-field tasks early in his time at Maryland.

“He wanted to go into a program where he could make a difference — as opposed to just being a part of something that’s already established,” said Hyppolite’s mother, Nikki. “He wanted to have an opportunity to build.”

Howard running back Jarett Hunter is caught from behind by Maryland linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The Terps’ progress has been gradual but noticeable, and Hyppolite stands at the center of those strides on defense. He started one game as a freshman but earned consistent playing time. Now he’s a leader, his role growing in importance after Gotay’s upper-body injury required surgery.

The Terps (2-0) kick off their Big Ten slate Friday night at Illinois after beginning the season with wins over West Virginia and Howard. The program has followed Locksley’s blueprint for improvement, and Hyppolite believed in his vision from the start.

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As a four-star recruit, per 247 Sports, in the 2020 recruiting class, Hyppolite attracted scholarship offers from SEC and ACC schools that have had far more recent success. When Locksley pitched his program to Hyppolite, Maryland had yet to play a game for its new coach. But Hyppolite saw a clear path ahead: With the Terps, he could help change a program.

“I never really liked to follow,” Hyppolite said. “I just felt comfortable with stepping out on faith and taking chances.”

During the 2019 season, after Hyppolite had committed but as Maryland won just one Big Ten game, he expressed his belief in the school. As the losses accumulated, Hyppolite maintained his stance that he and his fellow recruits could help turn around the program. His high school defensive coordinator, Junior Rosegreen, said other schools reached out to see whether he wanted to reevaluate his college choice. Hyppolite didn’t waver.

Since he made it to College Park, Hyppolite has taken an active role in the rebuild. His work ethic made him a player who “really quickly jumped out to us and to his teammates as a guy that had some natural leadership ability,” Locksley said, and Hyppolite was one of the few freshmen on the team’s leadership council last season.

Not long ago, Hyppolite had a more reserved demeanor, but Rosegreen, who coached him at McArthur High in Hollywood, Fla., said he pushed Hyppolite to take on a more vocal role as a senior. Rosegreen built the defense around Hyppolite, who had to make sure his teammates lined up correctly.

“Take the captain hat,” Rosegreen said he told Hyppolite, “and you run with it.”

Hyppolite transferred to McArthur after years at American Heritage, a private school with a strong football program. The switch allowed him to graduate early and arrive at Maryland the winter before his freshman year. Hyppolite credits the change for teaching him how to guide his teammates on and off the field.

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Hyppolite, who turned 20 this week, said he embraced the idea that “communicating was the most important skill to life.” It’s so atypical for Hyppolite to be unreachable that his mom called two football staff members and a roommate when she didn’t hear from her son one night last year. It turned out that he had fallen asleep and was so tired from a hard practice that he didn’t hear any of the calls.

Locksley often mentions how he wants his team to be strong down the middle — at quarterback, center, nose guard, middle linebacker and free safety — so Hyppolite has a natural leadership role because of his position. In his first season, he focused on earning the respect of everybody in the team facility. During a breakout game at Penn State, he recorded seven tackles and two sacks in the 35-19 win. But even as a freshman, he had enough confidence that he entered that matchup expecting to make those plays.

Rosegreen, a mentor with whom Hyppolite still works out when he goes home, had a standout career as a safety at Auburn. He won’t tell Hyppolite this quite yet, but he gets chills when he watches him play for the Terps. Rosegreen loves the way Hyppolite dissects the game and how his instincts and athleticism take over.

The departure of two upperclassman linebackers, Chance Campbell and Ayinde Eley (who transferred to Mississippi and Georgia Tech), launched Hyppolite into a more important role as a full-time starter this year. Yet Hyppolite’s mom has noticed her son seems more relaxed and comfortable.

“It was just my turn to step up,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing now — stepping up and hitting home runs.”

Maryland relies on Hyppolite to help take control of his position group and relay calls on the field, meaning Hyppolite must know the defensive scheme inside and out. He understands that’s a significant role for a sophomore but said, “I’m ready for it, though.”

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