COLLEGE PARK -Leon Joe's improvement is no longer hidden. Unlike a year ago, when he and every other member of the Terrapins' defense seemed to operate in the shadow of its star, the junior outside linebacker is carving out an identity as he continues to tear into ball carriers and quarterbacks.
Sure, the Maryland defense is still defined by senior middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. But Henderson looks at his partner patrolling the weak side, sees another force in progress, and welcomes the company.
"He's not thinking so much on the field anymore. He knows where he needs to be, and he's put two and two together," Henderson said of Joe. "With his closing speed and the way he flies around, not too many people are going to run away from him. He's coming to a point where he realizes he can dominate a game."
Five years ago, when Joe first played organized football with the JV at Friendly High School in Fort Washington, he had no idea he would be positioning himself to become one of the ACC's top performers.
The son of parents who met in the military and moved the family to Guam and San Antonio before settling near the nation's capital, Joe's only familiarity with the game came from television and the sandlot. But he always could run, and as the youngest of four boys, Joe knew plenty about contact long before he ever put on a helmet and pads.
"I was the smallest, and I was an experiment kid," said Joe, describing the rough-and-tumble moments of his childhood. "You know how at the circus they would pick somebody up and balance them on their feet? [One brother] tried that with me and pushed me into the bed and broke my arm. I had some broken fingers and bones growing up. I guess it made me better.
"I was a military brat who moved around a lot. I was born on the move. I think it made me a well-rounded person. I feel like I can get along with everybody. With football, I didn't even know there was a Pop Warner league until it was too late."
The football package was blossoming by the time Joe made the Friendly varsity as a junior, 180-pound linebacker. The Terps liked his speed, nose for the ball and hitting ability. And by the time Joe led Friendly as a senior to a Class 3A title with 165 tackles, 10 sacks and a 10-yard average as a part-time fullback, he was hooked on the idea of playing for Maryland.
Fast forward to the age of 20 in the Maryland locker room, where the businesslike Joe, a stout 6 feet 1, 223 pounds, is not known for his chatter. But teammates and coaches buzz about the 615-pound squat and 470-pound bench press Joe has executed in the weight room, not to mention his 4.43-second, 40-yard dash speed.
If there was a bright spot in Maryland's recent, 37-10 loss against Florida State, it was Joe, flying from sideline to sideline, dragging down Seminoles during a 12-tackle night that included 10 solo.
"Anytime you have physical skills and the desire to get better, you're going to have success. Leon has got all the physical tools you're looking for in an athlete," said Terps linebackers coach Rod Sharpless, who has watched Joe progress from an unsure talent in need of confidence a year ago to an impact player who believes in himself.
"I remember breaking down tape of every play after last season during our evaluation, and I didn't realize how many plays Leon was making by the end of the season. There is no reason he can't come out of this season All-ACC, at least second team."
The numbers suggest Joe is headed for such honors. As a sophomore, he started all 11 games, finished fourth on the team with 76 tackles and led the team with nine quarterback hurries. So far this year, Joe has lived in the quarterback's face with a team-high seven hurries. And despite sitting out the season opener against Notre Dame due to a suspension for academic reasons, Joe trails only Henderson with 27 tackles through three games.
"I like giving quarterbacks trouble. I like harassing them. It feels good to hit them," said Joe, who has recorded one sack.
"I'm so much more confident now. Sometimes last year I was thinking too much about not being where I was supposed to be and not making the play. Now I know the defense much better. Now teams really have to worry about me."
NOTE: Junior tailback Bruce Perry did not practice yesterday, a day after aggravating the groin injury that has kept him out of the lineup all year. Senior Chris Downs probably will start his fourth straight game in Perry's absence tomorrow. "[Perry] couldn't accelerate. There's still no swelling, he has whole range of motion and good strength," Terps coach Ralph Friedgen said. "It's just a matter of how sore he is. We'll just take it day to day."
Next for Terps
Opponent: Wofford (3-0)
Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park
When: Tomorrow, 6 p.m.
TV/Radio: Comcast pay-per-view/WNST (1570 AM)
Line: Off the board