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E.J. happy with team success, not his play

November 07, 2002|by BOB PARASILITI

bobp@herald-mail.com

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - North Carolina State, Clemson, Virginia and Wake Forest ... beware.

E.J. Henderson is grumpy ... and you last four opponents of the Maryland football team should know that can't be a good thing.

Maryland's All-American linebacker is excited about where the Terps are right now in the ACC race - second and on a six-game winning streak - and happy about how the team's offense has come around.

But the factor that makes the senior more irritable than an old bear that's a week past his hibernation check-in is that he and the defense haven't done more to christen the success.

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"I'm happy that we are 7-2 as a team, but I could be playing better," Henderson said Tuesday. "I haven't played my best game yet. Last year is last year and this year is this year. I'm playing all right, but I haven't played my best."

That isn't exactly good news for the final quartet.

Henderson has 96 tackles in nine games, but only ranks sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. That's coming on the heels of the 2001 season when he was the most dominating defensive player in the league and was named the Defensive Player of the Year.

And to make it worse, Henderson only managed five tackles in last Saturday's 59-7 rout of North Carolina.

"I had a bad day," he grumbled.

For better or worse, Maryland's fortunes haven't revolved totally around the play of Henderson and the defense. In fact, in some cases, the defense might be considered the third leg of Maryland's balanced attack.

Maryland's defense has held opponents to just 130 points (14.4 per game) - but only 8.5 points per game during the winning streak (27). That's even down from allowing 17.5 points per game last season.

But the Terps' offense has been on a roll, averaging 36.7 points per game - up from 32.5 last year - including 44.7 points in the winning streak.

"In the beginning of the year, I didn't think the offense was going to be (as good as it's been)," Henderson said. "But the offense has come together. The offense has bailed the defense out."

Win or lose, Maryland has not played in a close game this season, winning by an average of 34.4 points game while the two losses were by at least 22 points.

Meanwhile, Maryland's special team play has kept the pressure off the defense. The punting of Brooks Barnard has helped win the field position battle while punt returner Steve Suter has set an ACC record with four touchdowns in a season.

It has changed the emphasis of the Maryland defense from being enforcers to organizers.

"If we can make a team go three-and-out and then punt the ball, it's a good feeling," Henderson said. "(The offense has) been able to come down and score.

"When (Suter) puts points on the board, it's an extra. We can kind of open up and take chances. A punt return touchdown kind of puts a damper on the other team. If we can get them to go three-and-out again, it's intimidating. If we can go up 21-0 real quick, whatever kind of scheme they are using, hey can't run the ball anymore and stick to their game plan."

By those standards, any other improvement by Henderson and the defense could make Maryland practically unstoppable.

"We need to come together as a defense. We need to get more turnovers and give the defense some field position," Henderson said. " If we can get the turnovers and give the offense the ball on the 50 or something, they would have a 80 percent chance of scoring.

"I feel like things are coming together. It's coming down to what we do in November. I'm really excited that we are in the hunt."

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