Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen had to pause to compose himself when talking about the coming final games in the career of senior linebacker Alex Wujciak.
"As a lot of people know, he's one of my favorites," Friedgen said recently.
The coach's emotions were understandable. If you're a football coach, what's not to like about a tough, chatty, aggressive linebacker with a ponytail and a well-honed instinct for playing defense?
With its biggest Atlantic Coast Conference game in two years Saturday, Maryland (7-3, 4-2 ACC) is again looking to Wujciak for multiple tackles and -- perhaps -- a takeaway or two.
Heading into the contest with Atlantic Division leader Florida State (7-3, 5-2 ACC), Wujciak leads a defense that has intercepted 15 passes -- the team's most since 2002. Wujciak has started 35 straight games ("He's not coming off the field," defensive coordinator Don Brown said) and has two interceptions. With 238 career interception yards, he trails only Tom Brown in school history.
"I hear some people malign his pass coverage at times, and probably it's a fair criticism," Don Brown said. "But nobody has a better feel for the pass game than he does from his position."
Wujciak is also about to surpass 100 tackles for the third straight season. He is third in the conference in tackles at 9.5 per game.
Maryland's turnaround from last season's 2-10 record is largely a result of forcing turnovers.
Turnovers might look like happenstance to fans -- and there is luck involved. But the Terps, who lead the ACC in turnover margin at plus-13, have specific goals for how many fumbles and interceptions they hope to claim each week.
"Our top four goals are to win, have more [forced] turnovers than they [the opponents] have touchdowns, and get at least get two fumbles a game," said fellow linebacker Adrian Moten, who might be the only player on the defense who talks more than Wujciak at practice. "And every 15 passes, we've got to get a pick. We're doing pretty good with that."
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Wujciak (pronounced WO-jack), had two interceptions against Miami, including one he returned for a 60-yard touchdown.
On that play, he appeared to be inside the brain of Miami quarterback Stephen Morris as he stepped into the passing lane.
"I was supposed to drop [into coverage] on the fullback, but he stayed in to block," Wujciak said. "So I just kept getting depth for anything that was crossing." He watched the tight end break inside and figured the ball was soon to follow.
Wujciak's father, Alan, played for Notre Dame in the mid-1970s with Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, the pint-sized walk-on whose story was dramatized in the movie "Rudy."
The younger Wujciak, from West Caldwell, N.J., said he was recruited "a little bit" by Notre Dame but wanted to go to a school "that really wanted me."
He redshirted his freshman year, then tore a knee ligament the next preseason after leading the team in tackles in each of three spring scrimmages.
He had a breakout game against Clemson in 2008, stopping quarterback Cullen Harper on a late fourth-down play in a 20-17 Maryland victory.
Friedgen often smiles when talking about Wujciak and his ponytail. The coach said he's fine with it but is not sure how much his late father, Ralph Friedgen Sr. -- who was a stern high school coach -- would have appreciated the wild-child look.
To the outside world, Wujciak's hair might be his defining characteristic. To coaches, it's his tackling and sense for the game that distinguish him.
"I think he's tackled much better over the last few weeks, especially in the short passing game," Brown said. "His run defense, I think, is as good as anybody in this league."
Maryland must beat the Seminoles to remain in the Atlantic Division race with one regular-season game (North Carolina State) left after Saturday. The Atlantic winner will play the Coastal Division champion in the ACC title game Dec. 4 in Charlotte, N.C.
Wujciak called the Florida State contest "probably one of the biggest games of my career."
"We've been waiting for one of these games for a while," he said. "We can't be overly excited. But we'll definitely have a little extra."