No one in College Park knew what to expect when D? Qwell Jackson, then a sophomore, replaced Butkus Award winner E.J. Henderson at middle linebacker last year. While the 6'1", 222-pound Jackson was quick to the ball and a solid tackler, he also weighed 30 pounds less than his predecessor. Any doubts about his ability, though, were dispelled in the Terps? second game of the season, against Florida State. Jackson intercepted Chris Rix?s first pass, then flattened Rix and running back Lorenzo Booker en route to the end zone for a 58yard touchdown return. ?D?Qwell lined up like he?d been waiting in the wings for years,? says defensive coordinator Gary Blackney. ?He?s a knee-bender--a striker. At this stage of his career he might be slightly ahead of E.J.?
A second-team All-ACC selection, Jackson made 136 tackles in 2003, the most on an athletic defense that led the conference in fewest points allowed (15.8 per game) and fewest yards per game (308.4). With his weight up to 231 to start his junior year, he will contend for his own Butkus Award this fall. ?I was the new guy last year, and my job was to win the confidence of the 10 other guys out there with me,? he says. ?This year it?s my role to lead them.?
Says Blackney, whose defense in three years at Maryland has yet to yield more than 20 points per game, ?D?Qwell is one of those players who right away can understand every position. It?s like when some people can go up to an easel and paint without ever taking an art lesson. He?s just very intelligent and able to see the big picture.?
Teaming with Jackson will be linebacker turned defensive end Shawne Merriman, a 6'4", 245pound junior who wreaked havoc on opponents despite playing with torn cartilage in his left knee last season. Though Maryland lost seven defensive starters, Blackney?s run-blitzing defense relies on speed and athleticism, which the Terps have in abundance. ?Our system will be severely tested this year,? says Blackney, ?but we have good, intelligent players to plug in.?
Jackson isn?t worried about all the new personnel. Whoever is out there will have to answer to him. ?I put more pressure on myself than anybody else can,? he says. ?Every day will be a challenge, but we?re going to be ready to go.? --M.B.