Widely acknowledged as one of the best players in college today, E.J. Henderson's place in Maryland football history is secure: He is as responsible as anyone for the Terrapins' resurgence the past two seasons.
Like every other Maryland opponent this season, Virginia will spend this week implementing offensive schemes designed to contain Maryland's all-American during Saturday's game. From his middle linebacker position, Henderson can disrupt a play -- even the course of a game -- with one ferocious hit.
Already a finalist for the Butkus Award (given to the best linebacker) and the Lombardi Award (best lineman or linebacker), Henderson yesterday was named one of five finalists for the Nagurski Trophy, presented annually to the nation's top defensive player.
Despite performances that seem to validate the plaudits -- he is on pace to lead the team in tackling for a third consecutive season -- Henderson seems nonplussed.
"It really surprises me that I'm getting nominated," Henderson said recently. "It's probably just the press and how I played last year more than how I've played this year. I'm happy we're [9-2] and as a team we're doing well. But I think I could be playing better. I haven't played my best game."
Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen shrugs off Henderson's self-criticism as the words of a perfectionist who might be upset with himself for missing a few tackles in a recent game, something that almost never happens.
"He's not a guy who goes around and tells everybody how good he is," Friedgen said. "He just does it on the field. When I make him a captain, he doesn't even want to make the decision whether to receive or kick off. He doesn't like to do that. I don't think it's anything against his intellect; obviously he's a good student. He's just an introverted guy, not very comfortable. He doesn't talk a lot. When I bring him in my office, he doesn't say a lot. That's the way he is."
Two recent examples provide an accurate gauge of Henderson's instincts and ability to get to the ball. On the first play from scrimmage against Duke, Henderson burst forward, wrapped up running back Chris Douglas and slammed him on his back. "Kind of set the tone, didn't it?" Friedgen said after the 45-12 victory. "I loved it. I said, 'Oh, boy, here we go.' "
Two weeks ago, forced to regularly drop into coverage against pass-happy North Carolina State, Henderson raced to the right side of the field, ran down wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and tagged him with a forceful hit.
"I think he showed the NFL people he can play pass coverage," Friedgen said. "They will find you very quickly in the NFL if they have a [middle] linebacker who can't play pass coverage; they will expose you. I think he took the challenge and did a heck of a job."
That might have been all that was left for Henderson to prove for pro scouts. He isn't the fastest player on the field, running the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds, but his coaches marvel at his instincts and ability to get to the ball quickly. By coming back just four months after having surgery to remove bone spurs in his back this offseason, Henderson showed his toughness. And his tackling and aggressiveness are proven commodities on display every week. Whereas he might have been a second-round pick in this past spring's NFL draft, Henderson is expected to be a first-round pick this spring if healthy.
"When he comes to the [NFL scouting combine in February], I don't know if anybody is going to be interested in his ability," said former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt, now an analyst for NFL.com.
"Because I think everybody agrees he's got the ability. It's just the question of whether anything is wrong with his back. And he doesn't play like there is anything wrong with his back."
Henderson still receives daily treatment for lingering soreness, but his back has not interfered with his playing. He has set the school record for tackles for loss (561/2), and he has led the team in tackling in all but four games over the past two seasons.
"He reminds me, if you ever watch those animal shows, you're out there and the lion stalks his prey and all of a sudden gobbles him up," Friedgen said. "To me, that's how he hits a ballcarrier -- he just engulfs him."
Friedgen first noticed Henderson's tenacity shortly after the coach was hired in November 2000. At the end of the team's first practice in pads, Friedgen held a goal-line scrimmage, with the losing side running sprints.
"Some defensive guys didn't run," Friedgen said. "They just kind of jogged it. So I ran them again."
And the players jogged again.
"So I said, 'We're going to be out there a while, men, unless you start running,'" Friedgen said.
At that point, according to Friedgen, Henderson walked down the sideline, found the three players not going full speed -- each of whom was older than Henderson, then a redshirt sophomore -- and gave them an earful.
"I didn't hear what he said to them, but the next time they ran, they were running like hell," Friedgen said. "That made an impression on me because it told me who my leaders were."
Friedgen then began to learn that his star player was a talker on the field but said little off of it. In team meetings, in the locker room and during film study sessions, Henderson rarely says much. He is one of the quietest players on the team, something that has not changed, even when ESPN had Henderson wear a microphone during practice for a feature story this season.
"It would be a lot different if they miked me during a game," Henderson said.
Perhaps one of the rare occasions when Henderson has spoken up came during a team dinner before an early-season game. As a way to encourage better performance in the classroom, Friedgen allows players with the highest grade-point averages to get in the buffet line first. The coach said he was shocked when he saw Henderson eating with the 3.0 students and confronted him.
"Coach," Henderson said, according to Friedgen. "I've already graduated. Isn't that the point?"
Last season, Henderson was a consensus all-American, just the 11th player in school history -- and third on defense -- to achieve that distinction.
Henderson might repeat that honor this season, and Friedgen thinks he will go down as one of the best players ever at Maryland.
"I definitely think he probably is in the top five," Friedgen said. "I don't know if he's the best. You could argue that forever -- different eras, different times. You also could argue what he has meant to our football team and to our program."