COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Even in passing or in jest, don't mention to Terps junior linebacker Jermaine Carter, Jr., that fellow 'backer and upstart Shane Cockerille holds the lead in team tackles -- 25 to 22 -- through the first three games for the 3-0 Terrapins.
The ultra-competitive Carter, who entered the 2016 campaign on several national award watch-lists including the Butkus Award, well his eyes perk up, he begins to sway back and forth some in his seat as the topic is broached.
"Shane has been great. He leads the team in tackles with 25, and he has been flying around and having fun out there and making plays," Carter said this week of the Terps converted quarterback/now WILL linebacker on the eve of the Terps B1G Ten opener versus Purdue Saturday at Maryland Stadium. "But in the first game against Howard (the 52-13 blowout), I only got 23 snaps (laughs) so I didn't get a lot of opportunities to make more tackles. He had more snaps, but he made them count. So I guess when I am in there I got to make them count more."
Since then, the 6-foot, 235-pound middle linebacker has been doing just that, registering eight tackles, as well as a big 'pick-six' at FIU, and 11 stops in the Terps last game at UCF. Carter has 17 TFLs over the last 15 games, and calls all the signals and manages the Terps defense each week from the Terps most storied 'backer position, the MIKE.
All fun aside, Carter has always had a chip on his shoulder, perhaps the least heralded of the many FCA stars that came to Maryland four years ago in that vaunted recruit class (Yannick Ngakoue, Derwin Gray, Cavon Walker, Carter). But the one then-FCA Head Coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim (now the Terps defensive backs coach) said could go the furthest of the entire group back then.
Carter has realized those expectations as the Terps' top backer the last two years, but now wants more.
Despite his team-second-best 22 stops; his interception for the score at FIU (his first career pick); his three TFLs; two sacks; forced fumble, and QB 'hurry,' Carter needs to improve his eye control and become quicker to the ball with the B1G Ten wars set to begin.
This week's challenge is Boilermakers sophomore quarterback David Blough, who can both move the pocket and toss it around (and a lot, as he leads the B1G Ten in passing), but has also been prone to interceptions. But after throwing five against Cincinnati in a loss two weeks ago, he settled down to lead Purdue to a win over Nevada last week with no miscues through the air. The Terps defense has done a good job of keeping the run game in check and the opposition mostly one-dimensional through three games, though there have been a few broken plays down the field here and there.
"We have done some things well (defensively)," Carter said this week coming off the bye week, "but we also have things to work on like containing the quarterback and improving our rush lanes and things like that. We have given up a lot of yards on scrambles and busted plays, or the quarterback scrambling when he throws. But if we can get our rush lanes together and be able to plaster better, well we should be a lot better statistically and on the field."
Carter and his defensive mates and coaches preached "contain" all week in the lead-up to Saturday's Homecoming tilt at 3:30 PM. They were certainly tested two weeks ago in Orlando when UCF freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton tested the edges a few too many times and extended plays with his feet.
"He has a very strong arm, he is going to throw the ball," Carter said of Purdue's Blough. "He likes to both scramble and throw, so if we can keep him in the pocket we should be good to go. He has thrown a lot of picks, but he is a good quarterback and is going to take a lot of chances and has a strong arm. So when the plays are there we just have to make them."
Ah, those stats. Cockerille has been a great story this fall, converting from disgruntled quarterback in the spring to starting WILL 'backer in fall camp. And riding it ever since.
"Shane has just been great," Carter added. "And as a linebacker group, we have all just gone out with that mindset that we were going to win, like the game (at UCF) no matter what happened. That the defense was going to do it if we gave up a score, well the offense would then go and score. That is the mindset we have this year, that no matter what we are going to get one."
Carter's other motivation? His group chat every week (if not daily) with fellow Terps and good buds Ngakoue with the Jaguars, and Sean Davis the rookie defensive back with the Pittsburgh Steelers. There is no doubt Carter wants to reunite with them at the next level. Carter and Walker remain roommates at Maryland, and he is still tight with Gray. Carter didn't get home over the bye week, only worked on his game both on the field at UMD, in the film room looking for every opportunity to improve.
"We're all on group chat right now. Me, Yannick and Sean and so many other guys. We keep in contact to see how we are doing and how they are doing," Carter said."And for those guys to be doing what they are doing, it just shows how much work they put in (here) to get to that level. They just tell me keep working hard and stay out of trouble and hopefully I will be on same pace as they are. We all just have an unbreakable bound because so many of us have been together ever since high school. We all have history together."
Ngakoue is already adding to his history down in Jacksonville, where he has made some big plays already in his rookie season. Just as he did so many times on the edges for the Terps defense before.
"When we're not practicing, we are just watching Yannick and those guys," Carter said. "And just to see what he is doing already....everybody was tuned in that first game against the Packers and how close he was to sacking Aaron Rodgers. It was great to see. And the last two weeks he obviously came out with strip-sacks. So we just want to see him continue what he is doing and keep getting better. He has had a great start."
While he admits as a Washington Redskins fan it was rough watching the Steelers take down his hometown team in the NFL opener four weeks ago, Carter tunes into Davis' game each Sunday when he can as well.
"They have been great, and it's not like those guys have gotten too big for us," Carter said with a chuckle. "Even if I have a little question of my game, or how different things work in the NFL, well Yannick let's me know. He's helped me with things like that. And Sean, he made some great plays in that game and has also got some good TV time already."
But obviously all focus is on Purdue and the B1G Ten opener this week for Carter and his linebacking corps, and defensive mates, as they take the next step up in so many ways.
"The UCF game just brought us a lot closer because we fought to the end and never gave up," Carter said. "Now we just have to take each week and prepare for each opponent, and if we do that well we should be able to come out on top."null