- The Washington Times - Friday, October 28, 2005

Jo Jo Walker was ready to walk away. The sparse playing time and the frustration with last season’s 5-6 record gnawed at the Maryland wideout, whose production dropped after a solid sophomore season.

A poor semester academically left him on the verge of flunking out. Then there was the half-continent between himself and his tight-knit family, which made him even more miserable.

Before he could leave last winter, he and coach Ralph Friedgen had a long discussion, one that began the tiny-but-tough Texan’s transformation into one of the Terrapins’ on- and off-field leaders.

“That winter session, it got to the worst point that it could. Then I talked to Coach Friedgen and he said ‘I’m going to make you a leader because a lot of people follow you.’ ” Walker said. “I was still like, ‘whatever,’ and then it happened and I was like, ‘Shoot, this is my chance. The opportunity opened, I have to take it and run with it.’ Ever since then, I took it and ran with it and haven’t looked back yet.”

Walker didn’t have much to fondly look back on before this season. He usually kept to himself when he arrived at Maryland, though he bonded with fellow homesick Southerners Josh Allen, J.P. Humber, D’Qwell Jackson and William Kershaw when all were freshmen. His role expanded as a sophomore, when he had 23 receptions and scored three touchdowns, but he managed only 14 catches as Maryland’s offense bumbled its way through last season.

The experience irritated Walker, who preferred to keep quiet rather than become more vocal with his teammates. But he promised himself he wouldn’t allow his final season to be a dreadful experience, so he decided to speak up more, especially after Friedgen described the leadership role he envisioned for Walker.

“If I have a favorite, he’s kind of been one of my guys,” Friedgen said. “I just like him because he usually tells you what he thinks. I really deal well with people that just say what they think.”

Teammates also appreciated that quality and voted him one of Maryland’s permanent captains earlier this month in an almost unanimous vote. Walker took care of his academic problems, and his work ethic and willingness to impart knowledge to younger players have earned him more respect.

Walker’s numbers this year — 22 catches, 255 yards and a touchdown — aren’t great, but his manner of making plays can be. He has absorbed a highlight reel full of vicious hits, including one from Virginia’s Nate Lyles earlier this month that popped Walker’s helmet off. The 5-foot-9 Walker jumped up immediately and shrugged off the tackle.

“That’s my dude. [He’s] a buck sixty soaking wet and he’ll go across the middle and make the catch, and a lot of receivers can’t do that and that’s one thing you can count on Jo Jo to do,” Jackson said. “I kind of cringed [on Lyles’ hit]. I don’t think I saw the play, but I heard it. Jo Jo is tough as nails and that’s what we need.”

He’s also savoring the game more than at any time in his college career. Walker can’t choose which season was the toughest to endure — “You pick one. All of them,” he said — but he’s finally comfortable as a senior.

Maryland’s turnaround could have something to do with it. Four receivers already have at least 20 catches, and the Terps (4-3, 2-2 ACC) enjoy an improved offense entering tomorrow’s visit to No. 10 Florida State (6-1, 4-1).

“Last year, he just didn’t like football the way he does this year,” senior wideout Derrick Fenner said. “He’s become a team player and he’s become a leader and he is our leader now. He just shifted gears. … I look at Jo Jo every day and he just loves to play this game and it makes me happy to see Jo Jo happy.”

Few enjoy Walker’s progress more than Friedgen, who is counting on him to remain an example for his young team in the last month of the season. Walker, meanwhile, is grateful to Friedgen for keeping him in College Park — a place that couldn’t engender such sentiment a year ago.

“He’s a big reason I’m still here because he believes in giving people second chances,” Walker said. “He gave me second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth chances. I thank him a lot. He saw something in me. He’s been doing it for so long, he knew one day it was going to click and he was going to get something out of me. …

“I grew up. I finally decided this was the place for me. It just clicked.”

Note — Friedgen said quarterback Sam Hollenbach (sprained left shoulder) was at 60 percent in yesterday’s practice, although Hollenbach had greater flexibility and velocity than he did on Wednesday. However, Friedgen said he probably would wait until game time to decide whether Hollenbach or backup Joel Statham will start.

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