Terp lets tackles do his talking

Quiet Henderson turns up the volume as UM linebacker

College Football

October 26, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Good or bad, Maryland linebacker E.J. Henderson would just as soon let his resume speak for itself.

Henderson makes varsity as a freshman in two sports at Aberdeen High School in Harford County, goes on to star for four years and earns a football scholarship to the state's flagship school. He sits out his first year at College Park, loses a starting role in his second and becomes a budding star in his third.

His career fully blooms this year, despite a serious mistake. He has 16 tackles against West Virginia, but then is cited for driving while intoxicated. That costs him exactly three plays. Then he makes 18 tackles the next week against Georgia Tech in the biggest game of his college career. It's good enough to make the junior a finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's best linebacker.

Henderson is a major reason for Maryland's 7-0 start and No. 10 national ranking, and he's on track to graduate with a degree in criminology and criminal justice next spring.

Anything else? From Henderson, not much. He doesn't like talking about himself. "Not really," he says. Not "since I started being in the limelight."

He dislikes talking football because "being a football player, that's what people associate you with. I'm not mad about it, but when I get a chance to get away from it, I try to take advantage."

What that means is anyone's guess, though he offers that he likes to talk with his family, that he likes to hang out in the dorms, check out television, people-watch - normal 21-year-old stuff that he can make sound even more mundane.

But while Henderson can seem aimless or cold, he turns red-hot once he hits the field. His 62 solo tackles lead the Atlantic Coast Conference, and his 88 total tackles rank fourth.

When not in motion, Henderson is a study in stoicism. During one practice, defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo leads the Terrapins' defense through some drills and demands some enthusiasm.

The players scream as they finish running through cones, except for Henderson, who calmly stands with his hands on his hips, the uniform stance for him until he strides to the huddle.

"He's a tremendous practice player," Maryland defensive coordinator Gary Blackney says. "He plays the game with passion. ... He's very football smart, and he has the ability to transfer what he does on the practice field to the game. He shows his expression on the field. I think he's very expressive from a physical point of view."

Several of his teammates have gotten an exclusive taste of Henderson's drama, which usually consists of the junior running to find the football, then laying a vicious lick on whoever happens to have it.

It's a style that led to a team-leading 109 tackles last season (seventh in the ACC), a total he's capable of eclipsing with routine games tomorrow against Florida State and next week against Troy State.

"He's the one guy in summer workouts I was looking for," says tailback Bruce Perry, who is fifth nationally in rushing. "You never know how fast he's running until he's right on top of you. I don't think he knows how good he is or how good I think he is."

Naturally, the specter of early entry into the NFL enters the picture. Several weeks ago, Henderson would have been considered a fourth-round prospect. Now, his mother, Quinette Henderson, is growing weary of questions about her son's plans past this season.

"They're talking about E.J. getting an agent," she says of co-workers in her office. "I'm like, `I'm trying to get past Halloween.' "

For a guy with Henderson's size (6 feet 2, 243 pounds) and speed (4.7 in the 40), it's been something of a long road since he was a first-team All-Metro choice in The Sun in 1998.

He sat out as a redshirt in his freshman year, but made an impression nonetheless on the scout team. Teammates anticipated Henderson would glide into a starting role in 1999. But to their astonishment, South Florida transfer Kevin Bishop got the nod at middle linebacker, instead.

People told Henderson that he should be the starter, but Guilian Gary remembers him saying: "The bottom line is that I'm not. There has to be a reason, and I'm going to change that."

It happened for him last year, when Bishop suffered a knee injury, which opened a spot he took and has held onto since.

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen has lavished praise upon Henderson, even after disciplining him for the Sept. 30 on-campus incident in which he was cited for DWI. "He represents this school tremendously," he said.

For his part, Henderson said: "I was in trouble and I realized there would be consequences. ... I just tried to deal with it and move on."

After a game earlier this season, Friedgen described Henderson: "He's the heart and soul of our defense. He's the leader. He's the catalyst. He's the guy who inspires them."

NOTES: Cornerback Tony Okanlawon, who leads the team with five interceptions, is still suffering from flu symptoms and will not play in tomorrow's game, Friedgen said. ... Curtis Williams, a reserve safety who has a hamstring injury, also will miss the trip to Tallahassee.

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