Freshman Check-In: Wisconsin ILB Maema Njongmeta
BadgerBlitz.com releases its "Freshman Check-In" series where we interview a first-year player and see how he has adjusted to college football in Madison.
Previously, we have looked at the true freshmen contributing on the defense. Though he has not played in a game yet according to UW's participation logs, first-year inside linebacker Maema Njongmeta has been part of the team's travel roster for contests at Illinois, Ohio State and Nebraska.
According to head coach Paul Chryst, there is value for a player like Njongmeta to travel with the team in terms of preparation and experience.
"I think we’ve done it before where we’ve brought a guy on a trip and just want them to understand it, but I think when you have to go through the week, and you’re in the meetings, you go to bed the night before the game saying, ‘You know what, I might be playing,'" Chryst said on Nov. 14. "It’s a different preparation you have to have. I think it’s been really good for him.”
After answering a question about nose tackle Keeanu Benton, inside linebacker Leo Chenal and cornerback Semar Melvin contributing to the defense this season, a reporter asked defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard on Nov. 5 if there were any other true freshmen that he would like to get some experience on the field. The former Badger player turned assistant called out Njongmeta.
“I think Maema’s a guy who’s practiced with the travel team the majority of the season," Leonhard said. "Just physically, he’s impressive. He does some things. Just any rep he gets is valuable because of his knowledge coming into this place and playing inside linebacker, he’s a guy who physically can handle it, and we’re continuing to push roles at him and wouldn’t be surprised if he gets on the field in some form.”
According to Njongmeta, the plan is for him to redshirt this season.
“Goal’s just to develop and see what I can do next year to crack the depth chart," Njongmeta said.
Below is a Q&A BadgerBlitz.com conducted with Njongmeta from Nov. 11. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge or adjustment that you've had going from high school to college?
“I think it’s the mental game for sure, especially just realizing that everyone at this level is super athletic. I am no longer like, 'Oh, the biggest kid on the field, like I kind just dominate everyone'. Now, it’s like I have to use my head, know my fits, know the playbook in and out so that I can do my job and then when I get [myself] to the point to where I can use my athleticism to make the play then.”
Q: When did you start realizing that you could start moving up a little bit more in receiving reps?
“It was probably about Week 2 of the season. I was doing scout team, and I was going toe-to-toe with the first team o-line and there would be plays, a lot of plays, where they would get me but then there would be a couple plays where I’d get them. Just realizing that, OK, I’m going against our first-team, if I can make a couple plays here, I know I can transfer that, make a couple plays against other teams and maybe even get in the depth chart."
Q: How many times have you traveled this year?
“I’ve been traveling since Kent State week."
Q: When you see yourself traveling, what goes through your head as a true freshman?
“It’s crazy to me because I know not a lot of freshman do travel, but at the same time, I just have such high expectations for myself that sometimes I will forget the fact that not a lot of freshmen travel, and I’ll be just thinking -- 'OK, how can i now get my way on to the field, not just be complacent with just traveling, but now, how can I actually make an impact whether it’s special teams or actual defense?'”
Q: How much different is that atmosphere compared to being with the Camp Randall faithful? Going on the road, being the road team, different environment, different atmosphere?
“Defintiely being on the road is a crazy experience to me, especially when we went to Ohio State, like the Horseshoe. I’ve never been in a stadium like that. That energy was interesting to see because it was like, 'OK, now we have to really come together as a team because literally there’s like a hundred-some-thousand people in the stadium, and they’re all against us.'
"I feel like it makes the team come together more, and it’s really cool to see the brotherhood that really forms and really comes out in tough tests on the road.”
Q: How have you worked to transform your body, and what have been some of the changes you’ve seen physically?
“I’ve put on like 15 pounds since coming here.”
Q: Where are you at then [in pounds]?
“I’m at 227 right now. Just been getting more explosive, getting stronger and doing all that while playing football and while just improving my actual football skills.”
FROM AN OLDER BADGER: CHRIS ORR ON MAEMA NJONGMETA
“He does some things naturally that are really well. He uses his hands well. He has some nice instincts that he’s been developing. He asks all the right questions everyday," Orr said. "Every day he has some type of question, and it’s the right one so it’s a good question to ask especially as a younger ‘backer. He’s been developing on special teams throughout practice, defensive snaps in practice. He’s been getting better and better each week. He definitely got a high ceiling, too, but I would probably say No. 1 is that he uses his hands really well for a freshman."