There will be at least one moment during Maryland football Saturdays this fall when all eyes won't be on D'Qwell Jackson. That would be just before game time, when Jackson retreats into a bathroom stall: "When I throw up," he said, "it's like, 'All right, I'm ready to play.' "
It's a practice that causes his fellow linebackers William Kershaw and David Holloway to wrinkle their noses and laugh. But that particular pregame ritual aside, the trio of returning starters, who comprise Maryland's most experienced and reliable unit, say they welcome the opportunity to be the Terps' featured attraction next month.
Maryland's linebacker-centric defense has produced two top NFL draft picks in the past three years, and Jackson is expected to become a third. Coach Ralph Friedgen said the linebackers are "obviously the strength of our team," and their teammates are even more effusive.
"They're probably the best linebackers in the nation; past the ACC, the best linebackers in the nation," cornerback Josh Wilson said. "As they go, we go."
Friedgen made his reputation as an offensive wizard, and his thoughts following practice usually begin on that side of the ball. And yet during much of his four-year tenure in College Park, the Terps' biggest stars have been linebackers.
The first two years featured E.J. Henderson, a holdover from the previous coaching staff who was named the country's top linebacker in 2002 and was a second-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings. Last year brought the ascendance of Shawne Merriman, who called himself an end but who lined up at defensive coordinator Gary Blackney's hybrid "Leo" position.
"Merriman wanted to be a defensive end; he could have said he wanted to be Mickey Mouse and we would have called him Mickey Mouse," Blackney said.
Terminology aside, Merriman led the Terps with 8.5 sacks, left school after his junior season and was chosen 12th in the NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers. And with Merriman gone, the face of the team is now Jackson, who is pictured on Maryland's pocket schedules and promotional billboards and who was the team's only preseason all-ACC selection.
While Blackney said the star quality of Maryland's recent linebackers may partly be due to coincidence, their opportunity to stand out in his defense is not. Blackney's zone-blitzing scheme sends ever-changing combinations of linemen and linebackers into the pass rush while others drop into coverage. Cornerbacks are often left in man-to-man matchups, linemen are asked to devour blockers -- "selling out for the team," Friedgen called it -- and linebackers are thus given the freedom to find the football.
"If you don't have playmakers in that scheme, then the scheme isn't any good," Blackney said. "And the one thing that we've had is playmakers at the linebacking position."
With seniors Jackson and Kershaw the biggest playmakers on the entire defense, some of the blitzing this year could shift from Merriman's outside slot to the interior of the defense, Blackney said. Jackson has already led Maryland in tackles two years running; last year he was first in the ACC and might have bolted for the NFL but for a wrist injury that required offseason surgery. Before preseason practice he said he was 95 percent healthy and that the other five percent was mental, and this month he proclaimed himself all the way back.
Jackson remained around his teammates during his rehabilitation, loudly rallying the defense on the sideline during the spring scrimmage, for example. Coaches also said his absence allowed for the rapid development of backup Wesley Jefferson, who has been impressive this month, and of Kershaw, who might be the team's most improved player.
Like Jackson, Kershaw relies on his speed -- "they're blurs, they're quick little blurs," Jefferson said -- but teammates said he's added an element of aggression since last season. In one preseason drill Kershaw bowled over running back Keon Lattimore; another time, he and Jackson combined for an emphatic goal-line stop that Friedgen said was among the most impressive of his five years.
"I don't know what kicked him in the butt," Wilson said, "but he's just turned around and he's an all-American player right now."
Holloway's advancement has perhaps been even more surprising. The son of former NFL All-Pro offensive tackle Brian Holloway received mostly Division I-AA offers coming out of high school and was an invited walk-on at Maryland. He began as an inside linebacker, moved outside in the spring of 2004 and then started every game as a redshirt sophomore. Defensive tackle Conrad Bolston said Holloway has the strength of a lineman, Friedgen said he's "quick as a cat," and while Holloway is now on scholarship, Blackney called him one of the best walk-ons he's ever seen.
That trio will likely be joined by sophomore Jermaine Lemons at Merriman's former hybrid position, but backups Trey Covington and Barrod Heggs are also making a push for playing time.
The returning starters were part of a defense that ranked third in the ACC against the pass, but coaches said the linebackers must make more game-changing plays, especially considering their inexperienced teammates. In last season's most impressive win against Florida State, for example, the three combined for 21 tackles, two sacks and an interception, which was tipped by Jackson and nabbed by Kershaw.
"Like I told those guys, you've got to be able to bottle up that passion we had for that game and really let it out for every team we play," inside linebackers coach Tim Banks said. "You can't take plays off when people are counting on you and looking for you to lead. And I think we're up for that challenge."