Henderson ready to storm back onto scene for Terps

August 30, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

COLLEGE PARK - Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen has remained calm because he likes the storm.

There is a lot of apprehension surrounding Maryland's season opener against Notre Dame tomorrow night at Giants Stadium. The Terps won the Atlantic Coast Conference title and played in the Orange Bowl last season, the first under Friedgen.

But this is a team that lost its gutsy quarterback to graduation and will not have its best running back, Bruce Perry, against the Fighting Irish because of a groin muscle tear. The Terps have six new starters on defense and could be on the verge of a quarterback controversy.

But they do have the quiet storm in E.J. Henderson, perhaps the best middle linebacker in college football.

"The guy doesn't say much, but when he does, people listen," Friedgen said. "When he talks, you'd better move. It's like in baseball. They say if you are strong up the middle, you usually have a pretty good team. E.J. had a phenomenal year. He makes plays all over the field. I just can't say enough about him."

There is no need.

Henderson was the ACC Player of the Year in 2001, an All-America selection by several organizations and publications and a finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's best linebacker.

His role has changed in 2002. He's the team leader. Don't, however, expect any pre-game Knute Rockne speeches, and Henderson will never be host of any TV game shows.

He's just so quiet. Shhhh ...

"Being quiet, I guess that's part of my personality," said Henderson, a middle sibling with a younger brother and older sister. "I've always been like that. But when I'm on the field, oh no, I'm not like that. That's my release time.

"But I want to be a team leader. I welcome that role," said Henderson, 6 feet 2, 250 pounds. "One of the things I like about this team is that we're young but eager to learn. These guys are ready to go out and make a name for themselves."

That's what Henderson did for himself last season. He led the ACC in tackles with 150, including 28 for losses, a school record. He was second nationally in solo tackles, averaging 9.45 a game. Henderson also led the team in sacks with six, and he hurried opposing quarterbacks seven times. For emphasis, he blocked two punts.

There wasn't much left to prove, but he decided to stay at Maryland for his senior season.

There was some unfinished business after Maryland was trounced by Florida, 56-23, in the Orange Bowl. Henderson also thought his NFL stock would drop after he had surgery to remove bone spurs in his back on April 9. Early projections had Henderson going anywhere from 15th to the last pick of the first round.

"I didn't want to go out the way we lost to Florida. It just didn't feel right," Henderson said. "I wanted to leave on better terms. When I first thought about the surgery, I heard I might miss a couple of games, but that didn't happen. All I needed was rest."

Friedgen took some precautions. During two-a-day practices in August, Henderson wore a designated black jersey and a no-hit policy. But he'll be turned loose tomorrow night.

"Besides the physical attributes, he's got things you don't coach," said Maryland defensive coordinator Gary Blackney. "He puts himself in position to make plays, and then he completes the task. A lot of players don't close, they don't finish. He is a guy that brings everything to closure. I think that's what is special about him."

NFL scouts were just as impressed. When one was asked recently about Henderson, he simply said: "Stud."

Here was his evaluation of Henderson as a junior: "Excellent size linebacker who has a lot of production for Maryland. Excellent strength to shed blocks and bring down ball carriers. Average speed, not great. Doesn't have explosive quickness. Hits hard and can really shock ball carriers or blockers, able to stop them in their tracks. Very instinctive and aware versus the run. Uses his hands well, stays on his feet, pops off the ground instantly when he is cut.

"Plays with effort, chases from sideline to sideline to cut off. Versus pass, uses his hands well to jam and disrupt routes. Has good feel in zone, able to break on the ball well for a guy his size. Will chase downfield after the catch. Could start for a lot of teams right now at Will [weak-side linebacker] or Mike [middle]."

There is early first round written all over Henderson. But he has to do it again. There are some players who have great junior seasons but buckle under the pressure of being a senior.

Friedgen said that won't happen with Henderson.

"I just feel if I go out there and play my game, give it 110 percent, everything else will come," Henderson said. "I'm not going to worry about preseason honors and expectations."

Friedgen said: "It's not like the kid has been sitting on his laurels during the offseason."

Henderson would never let that happen. He won't let that happen to his young teammates, either. The quiet storm is back in College Park for one more season.

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