- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2002

MIAMI E.J. Henderson's mad rush to the national limelight this season is expected to lead the junior straight out of Maryland and into the NFL next season.

The Terrapins' All-American is one of the nation's top linebackers, and likely will play his final college game tomorrow when sixth-ranked Maryland meets No.5 Florida in the Orange Bowl. Henderson is weighing his decision whether to skip his final year of eligibility, and blitz right to the NFL.

"If people aren't saying I'm going first round, I'll come back," said Henderson, who is trying to gather as much information as possible before he has to declare for the draft by the NFL deadline of Jan. 12. "I'm close. But I'm probably not going to say anything until after the bowl game. … It's not a consensus yet."

It seems like a foregone conclusion that the middle linebacker will be assured that he will be a first-round selection. Many experts feel he could even move into the top-10 of the first round. The ACC Player of the Year won't finalize his decision until he hears from the NFL advisory board, which tells players in what round he is projected to be taken.

"[The NFL] is my dream," he said. "I'm not going to say it would give me closure, but it would just start life. It would help my family out a lot."

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen has asked his best player to wait as long as possible and gather as much information, including which other players are leaving early and how that could affect his status. The coach suggests that if Henderson waits another year he could move up even further in the draft and make even more money.

"It's a very, very difficult decision because you are dealing with a lot of unknowns and millions of dollars in the balance," Friedgen said. "For example, if he is a first-round pick, he will be a millionaire. If he's a second or third-round pick, he might have left a lot of money on the table. And you're asking a kid to make that decision by January [12] and the NFL doesn't even know where he's going to go yet. I just think it's unfair."

The coach has solicited NFL general managers on the subject, and Henderson has taken Friedgen's counsel. The 6-foot-2, 238-pound Henderson also knows his performance in the bowl could have an impact, but expects it to be only a minor factor is his choice.

Henderson's dilemma is the result of his breakout season.

The Aberdeen (Md.) native was not even voted preseason All-ACC before he became one of the nation's most intimidating players and one of three finalists for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker.

The instinctive playmaker has nearly twice as many tackles (150) as any of his teammates, including 103 solo tackles and 28 for losses. Henderson was part of a strong corps of Maryland linebackers last season before developing into a game-changing force this season.

"When I go out there, I am going to make it happen," said Henderson, who also has a team-high six sacks. "Somehow I just keep relating it back to high school [at Aberdeen High]. When I was in 12th grade, I was 'the Man' out there. Pretty much when I stepped on the football field this year, it was like there weren't too many people who could see me [coming]. I think that confidence helped me out. I had a little swagger."

Henderson also has an interception and a 36-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Georgia Tech, which brought him attention because it happened on ESPN's Thursday night game. The linebacker credits defensive coordinator Gary Blackney for the new blitz-crazed scheme that allows him to roam and disrupt offenses.

Despite being a powerful force on the field, Henderson is known for his laid back demeanor and few words off the field. On the field, he wears a permanent scowl and plays with reckless abandon. "Animal" is how fellow linebacker Aaron Thompson describes him.

"He talks more on the field than he probably does during the whole week of school," Thompson said.

Henderson's mother claims her son has always been the shy, quiet type until game time that is.

"E.J. never smiles," said Quinette Henderson, who recalls recruiters questioning her son's passive nature. "He's just a very solemn child."

Quinette said she doesn't talk with E.J. about leaving for the NFL and admits that this season's success and going to the NFL early "came out of nowhere." Quinette just stresses that her son get his degree in criminal justice. E.J., who redshirted his freshman year, plans to graduate in the spring.

But the NFL and other concerns are on hold until Thursday. Right now, the Orange Bowl is his only consideration. Henderson has done his best not to let the constant questions and life-changing decision become a distraction.

"It's the type of overwhelming that you want," Henderson said. "I don't know anybody that wouldn't want to be in this position. It's something that comes with the territory. I had a good year. I have an opportunity [to go pro]. But I have unfinished business in Miami."

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