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Jefferson moves on up to feature role on defense

August 17, 2006|by BOB PARASILITI

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Wesley Jefferson isn't worried about introductions.

That's because the vast majority isn't worried about who he is. They are more concerned with who he isn't.

Jefferson will start as the University of Maryland's "Mike" linebacker this season. For the Terrapins, that's a prestigious position. It has been the heart and the backbone of Maryland's defense ever since coach Ralph Friedgen's return to the school.

But if Jefferson is in that slot, that means that guys named E.J. Henderson and D'Qwell Jackson are not.

On the surface, that would have Maryland's opponents breathing a collective sigh of relief. But Jefferson is working under the belief that the linebacker you don't know just might hurt you.

"I want to have tunnel vision," Jefferson said recently at Maryland's annual media day. "I want to do what I have to do. I don't care if I look good. I'm not trying to impress people."

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The "Mike" linebacker - better known as the middle linebacker - has been the center of attention for the Terps for the last five years. First it was with Henderson, who became a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year winner before being drafted by Minnesota in 2003.

Jackson stepped in the position for the next three seasons and won the ACC's top defensive player honor last season.

Now, it's Jefferson's turn.

"I'd be a fool to say it doesn't mean anything to step into this role. The Mike linebacker is the quarterback of the defense," Jefferson said. "It is read by your actions. I just want to play the game. I'm not worried about impressing anyone and I'm not worried about being all-ACC. I just want to play the game."

Jefferson played all 11 games for the Terps last season, collecting 57 total tackles, including three for 16 yards in losses and one quarterback sack.

He has some experience, but this is a new era of Maryland defense.

Jefferson won't be required to carry the defense ... just be part of it.

"Wesley is another solid kid who is out there day after day. He doesn't say a lot, but when he does speak up, everyone listens," Friedgen said. "Is he going to be like E.J. Henderson? He doesn't have to be. He just has to be Wesley Jefferson. He just has to beat the ball, be there and make the play."

One reason much of the pressure will be off of Jefferson is the change in Maryland's defensive set. In the past, the Terps played the conventional 4-3 defense. The "Mike" linebacker was in the center of all the action, called all the signals and was required to be head-up on the ball at all times.

This season, the Terps are using a more flexible defense. The depth chart pictures three down linemen and four linebackers. The change makes the Terps stronger against the run.

"We can play a lot faster. Last year, we had to slow down, read and wait," Jefferson said. "Now the players can just play and when you are doing that, you can play faster. If you play faster and react to the run immediately, it's big. Waiting for a split second is giving up two yards."

Even though Jefferson will be reacting instead of reading, he still falls into the mystique of stepping up to the "Mike" for Maryland. And because of that, he will automatically be compared to Henderson and Jackson.

"There isn't much difference between the way E.J., D'Qwell and I play," Jefferson said. "We all work from sideline to sideline to make plays. That's what made them good. I hope that I can be as versatile as D'Qwell. We have the same sort of style. He liked to attack, and I like to attack. I just want to be involved and doing something on every single play that the defense is on the field."

And if Wesley Jefferson can follow in the footsteps of Henderson and Jackson, ACC opponents will know who he is soon enough."

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