7 Til Kickoff: Alex Wucjiak's Place in Maryland History, and Finding a Potential Replacement

Alex Wujciak arrived at Maryland with little fanfare. A three-star, unathletic linebacker from Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey, there just wasn't a lot of hype surrounding him, nor much reason to have any.

In the past two years before he signed, D'Qwell Jackson dominated the linebacker spot for the Terrapins. Before that, there was E.J. Henderson. When he came into the program, Erin Henderson was just starting to take over at middle linebacker. There was a blueprint set for success at middle linebacker, and Wujciak was little more than a blip on the radar. Besides, there were other, more hyped defensive recruits coming in at the same time, like Brian Whitmore and Melvin Alaeze.

Obviously, those two didn't work out. After a redshirt year and then a year sidelined thanks to a knee injury, Wujciak is still here. He's also perhaps the best linebacker in the ACC.

When Wujciak started his first game at middle linebacker in 2008 against Delaware, he had never before played a snap in college. Not a single one. That year, he started every game and finished with 133 tackles and an All-ACC second team spot.

Of course, expectations were pretty high for the next year. And even though he didn't exceed those expectations, he certainly didn't disappoint: in 2009, when he was injured, he racked up 131 tackles and another All-ACC second team spot.

Now, he's one of the most highly-regarded defensive players in the country. He was a consensus All-ACC first team selection. Among active players in the NCAA, no one has more tackles per game than Wujciak does. He was named to the watch list for both the Lombardi and Nagurski Awards. Needless to say, it's clear that Wujciak's talent is fully appreciated.

The next question: in terms of Maryland linebacking greats, where is Wujciak on the spectrum? The Terrapins have had their fair share of stud 'backers. E.J. Henderson, Eric Barton, D'Qwell Jackson, Neil Olkewicz, and Eric Wilson spring to mind. Out of all them, where will Wujciak fall?

Probably not all that close to the top. He'll go down as better than Erin Henderson in the Maryland history books, but unless he has a sonic leap forward in number of tackles, he'll probably finish somewhere around 400 tackles in his career, a mark good for just 8th on Maryland's all-time list and well behind Henderson, Barton, Jackson, Wilson, Chuck Faucette, and a few others. His realistic ceiling on Maryland's all-time list is probably fifth, behind Henderson, Jackson, Faucette, and Wilson. Even that would take a 161-tackle year; that would be the seventh best in Maryland history.

Then again, we still don't know what Wujciak is capable of. The healthiest he's ever been as a starter was in 2008, and, as we said above, that was his first time playing in college. Last year, he was battling injury all year. A fully-healthy Wujciak may be good enough to push his tackle count up above the semi-magical 150 mark.

On the other hand to all this is the possibility that measuring players' greatness in stats, particularly just the gross number of tackles, may not be all that wise. If Wujciak puts out another year of 132 tackles, he'd end up with more tackles than D'Qwell Jackson had in his three years as a starter; but Jackson would still be ahead of Wujciak on the all-time list by several dozen tackles thanks to a 50 tackle season his freshman year, when he played in reserve.

Due to Wujciak's injury his redshirt freshman year, he never had that option. Instead, Wujciak will most likely be remembered for his plug-and-play ability, the fact that he never played a game before turning in one of the best seasons of the past decade for Maryland linebackers, then following that up with an injury-riddled year that was almost as good.

Neither of his first years were under perfect circumstances, so his stats aren't nearly as good as they could be. But with little experience or a nagging injury, he still turned out great numbers. He was, quite simple, a natural.

Of course, a Wujciak-less future has to be brought up. The rock of Maryland's defense for the past two and, most likely, upcoming third year will be off in the pros, and the Terps will be searching for a new player to lean upon and grab a hundred or so tackles.

Since Ralph Friedgen arrived, Maryland's been like a mini-Linebacker U, putting out great collegiate talents like E.J. Henderson, D'Qwell Jackson, and Erin Henderson. In fact, since Friedgen arrived, the worst season Maryland's leading tackler has had was Erin Henderson's 114 tackles. Last year, that would've been good for ninth in the country. Yeah, that's pretty impressive.

What's been even more impressive is the way that the leading tackles just come out of nowhere. For instance, not once has a #2 tackler become the #1 tackler the next year. See?

01-02 02-03 03-04 04-05 05-06 06-07 07-08 08-09 09-10
Player EJ Henderson EJ Henderson D. Jackson D. Jackson D. Jackson E. Henderson E. Henderson A. Wujciak A. Wujciak
Tackles 150 175 132 123 137 114 133 133 131
#2 Player C. Hill L. Joe L. Joe S. Merriman W. Kershaw W. Jefferson D. Philistin D. Philistin A. Moten
Tackles 81 103 112 85 76 110 124 94 68

When Leon Joe and Dave Philistin seemed prime to become the rocks of Maryland's defense, they were usurped by relative unknowns. But even that doesn't show just how out-of-nowhere Maryland's leaders come from:

01-02 02-03 03-04 04-05 05-06 06-07 07-08 08-09 09-10
Player EJ Henderson EJ Henderson D. Jackson D. Jackson D. Jackson E. Henderson E. Henderson A. Wujciak A. Wujciak
Tackles 150 175 132 123 137 114 133 133 131
Future Leader   D. Jackson     E. Henderson   A. Wujciak    
Tackles   51     0   0  

Only Jackson had any experience whatsoever before becoming a tackling machine. The reason why is somewhat obvious: they're all middle linebackers. A middle linebacker has a chance to make a tackle on every play, run or pass, left, right, or middle; a strong side or weak side 'backer won't have a real opportunity to make a tackle when the play goes to the other side.

Still, it's a little surprising that an unknown can be transformed into a star in just a year. It's also a good sign for whoever will be the starter at middle linebacker next year. If it's David Mackall, who's the current #2, expect big things; he'd be the first four star player at middle linebacker under Friedgen ever.

Still, outdoing Wujciak in stats will be difficult. Outdoing him in unexpected quality of play? That'll be almost impossible.

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