D'Qwell Jackson has been inspiring his teammates for three years, so the fact that Maryland players on both sides of the ball say they are better merely for sharing a practice field with Jackson isn't surprising. What is a tad unexpected, though, is that Jackson is now inspiring players from rival teams who practice 550 miles from College Park.
Clemson linebacker Anthony Waters, for example, made just four tackles in his team's season opener. Tigers Coach Tommy Bowden then challenged Waters to compete with Jackson when the teams met in the second game of the season. Waters led the Tigers with 13 tackles in that game, and went on to lead his team in tackles for the next four games. And Bowden attributed at least part of the improvement to the challenge of facing Jackson.
"He's the best we've seen," Bowden said of Maryland's senior middle linebacker. "It's amazing. . . . He's elevated our level of play."
"I'm sorry to hear that," deadpanned Maryland defensive coordinator Gary Blackney, when told of Bowden's comments.
But in truth, such a result is in line with Blackney's own observations. Like others on Maryland's coaching staff, Blackney speaks in near-reverential tones about Jackson, calling him "phenomenal" and "a great human being." Like others, Blackney said Jackson, who leads the nation in tackles per game, is the Terps' unquestioned leader.
"He's got the experience and he's got the credibility," Blackney said. "Those younger guys, they're like sucker fish: They go to him and they hang on him."
Which is why Jackson said he would likely address the Terps in their hotel this weekend as they prepare for a meeting with No. 10 Florida State on Saturday afternoon. It's a game that has particular meaning for Jackson, who grew up in Largo, Fla. -- about a five-hour drive from Tallahassee -- played for Seminole High and dreamed of graduating to the collegiate Seminoles. He knows much of Florida State's team personally and will have family and friends at the game.
"As many tickets as I can get," he said. "I've got to put on a show for them."
He already has played some of his best games against Florida State. In 2003, he returned an interception 58 yards for a touchdown and blocked a field goal attempt during a loss in Tallahassee. Last year he had a team-high 11 tackles and was named an ACC player of the week after the Terps' upset win over Florida State.
And tomorrow's game will perhaps offer the best linebacking of any Maryland game this season. Thirty percent of the semifinalists for the Butkus Award, which honors the nation's top linebacker, will be on the field: Jackson, Florida State's A.J. Nicholson and his teammate Ernie Sims.
Jackson said his occasional speeches are never scripted, and that if he speaks tonight or tomorrow it would be out of a sense of duty.
"It's just something that happens; I don't know what it is," he said. "I just put my all into this, and I'm passionate about what I do. I take pride in trying to be perfect out there, and I want to make other guys better."
A quiet man not given to rambling monologues, Jackson addressed the team before last week's loss to Virginia Tech, attempting to convey the magnitude of that nationally televised game. He had given a similar talk before an early-season game; on both occasions, he was greeted with near-silence.
"When D'Qwell talks, everybody listens," junior cornerback Josh Wilson said. "He doesn't talk much; he doesn't yell constantly. He's a guy that when something needs to be said, he says it. And if he's saying something, then it's time for us to fly right and get ready to go."
That has been something of a pattern for Jackson, who said he has been assisting teammates and offering motivation from the time he began playing at age 7. If he made a stop or a big hit in youth football, he would remain silent, according to one-time youth football teammate Marcus Paschal.
But "if the team's not doing what he knows the team should be doing, he's gonna say something," said Paschal, now a defensive back at Iowa. "Qwell's always been that guy. If he says something, you know he means it passionately."
The same held true in high school. In both his junior and senior years, Seminole Coach Sam Roper said, the team played poorly in the first half of playoff games. Both times Jackson spoke at halftime, and both times his team won. If he was unhappy with a teammate's play during practice, "he would say a few words," Roper said. "That's about all it took."
Jackson was elected a Maryland captain as a junior, and again this year, getting all but two votes, "and I think those two guys voted for themselves," Coach Ralph Friedgen quipped.
Players on Maryland's offense speak as highly of Jackson as his defensive teammates. Fullback Tim Cesa, for example, said that if the team could have just one captain, Jackson would be the consensus choice. And guard Donnie Woods said that when Jackson missed several practices and a game against Temple this month because of a leg injury, the offense was affected nearly as much as the defense.
"When D'Qwell's not out there, I think the team questions themselves," Woods said. "When he's out there, I think everybody steps up the level of their game."
Terrapins Notes: Friedgen said quarterback Sam Hollenbach, who is nursing a sore left shoulder, was "much better" at yesterday's practice, but the coach repeated his intention to settle on a starting quarterback tomorrow. Hollenbach's throws had more velocity yesterday than they had on Wednesday, and Friedgen estimated the quarterback's health at 60 percent. Joel Statham would start if Hollenbach cannot play.