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February 24, 2007

Okoye continues to impress at NFL Combine

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INDIANAPOLIS - Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye walked to the podium Saturday and looked as comfortable as any other 22-year-old draft prospect.

The difference is Okoye already has a college degree - and he's just 19.

Okoye is expected to be a first-round pick in April's draft, and when he's selected NFL officials say it will make him the youngest player ever taken. The 6-foot-1, 302-pound defensive tackle says he's ready to face opponents who are nearly twice his age.

"I really never have felt younger than anybody else," he said. "I always felt I was in the right grade and with everything else I did. I guess that's thanks to my parents."

How did Okoye reach this point?

He started attending school at age 2 1/2 in Nigeria, then began attending high school at age 12. By 15, he had signed a national letter-of-intent, choosing the University of Louisville over his father's first choice, Harvard.

At 16, he was playing for the Cardinals much to the chagrin of even those who recruited him.

"When he got on campus, I always told everybody 'He's not going to play for us until he started shaving,' " said new Falcons coach Bobby Petrino, who was then at Louisville. "After about two days of practice, he was second on the depth chart and ready to play college football."

Officials at the scouting combine could not confirm whether Okoye was the youngest player to attend the five-day testing session.

But his presence rekindled thoughts of the 2004 combine when Maurice Clarett waged a court fight to enter the draft earlier than league rules permitted. Eventually, Okoye was asked if he considered himself the anti-Clarett.

"Well, I guess that's a bad thing in his case if people say that," Okoye said. "I don't see myself as that. I see myself as Amobi Okoye."

THE MAYOR: Defensive end Baraka Atkins doesn't anticipate any trouble meeting the NFL's on-field or off-field standards. He's faced scrutiny most of his life.

Atkins' father, Fredd, has already served two terms as the mayor of Sarasota, Fla., and he served 10 years on the city commission there. That, Atkins believes, has taught him to avoid trouble.

"You know you're kind of in the limelight because most people know me as the mayor's son," Atkins said. "I don't only have high standards set for me in society, I have high standards for myself."

Atkins even took a moment at the combine to campaign for his father, who reminded reporters that his father is running for re-election next month.

ADAMS FAMILY: Defensive end Gaines Adams from Clemson is expected to be the first defensive linemen in April's draft. But this is no ordinary Adams.

In 2005, he led Clemson with nine pass breakups and has blocked kicks. He played eight-man football in high school and caught 158 passes as a receiver, and got no college scholarship offers until he attended Fork Union Military Acadmey.

"I played receiver in eight-man football and nobody respected me," he said. "What separates me now is that I'm a speed guy and I've got different moves."

RUGBY STEW: Linebacker Stewart Bradley made the right career choice.

In two months, the Nebraskan is likely to be selected in the draft and could be making a six-figure salary.

It's a bit more than he'd make if he had kept going on his previous path. At Highland High School in Utah, Bradley's greatest accomplishments came on the rugby field where he was part of a team that won three straight national championships and went 85-0.

But he never considered pursuing that as a career.

"It was a lot of fun because we were really good," Bradley said. "Football is my first love and biggest love. But rugby is a fun sport, a physical sport."

TIME TRIALS: The first three groups of players were clocked in the 40-yard dash Saturday, and not surprisingly a former Miami player was among the fastest.

Tight end Greg Olsen finished in 4.71 seconds, which was matched by tight end Michael Allan of Division III Whitworth College. Gijon Robinson, who played at Division II Missouri Western State, also ran 4.71.

The other two groups were offensive linemen and the top-rated tackle, Joe Thomas who played at Wisconsin, had the third fastest time at 4.92.

Allen Barbre of Missouri Southern State, another Division II school, had the best time of 4.84. Gabe Hall of Texas Tech was second at 4.91 and the only other lineman to crack 5.0 was Southern Cal center Ryan Kalil at 4.96.

SEPARATE STARS: Receiver Dwayne Jarrett wants to avoid comparisons with another former Southern Cal receiver, Mike Williams. Both are lanky receivers who put up big college numbers and left school early to enter the draft.

In fact, the two have only met once and don't speak, Jarrett said.

But Jarrett went even further to distance himself from Williams, the Detroit Lions former first-round pick who has yet to make an impact in the NFL.

"The only thing we have in common was that we went to the same school," Jarrett said. "Mike did great while he was at USC, but I think we're two opposite players with totally different personalities."

WILLIS FOR BARBER?: Giants general manager Jerry Reese tried to quickly quash any lingering debate between retired running back Tiki Barber and coach Tom Coughlin on Saturday, a day after Coughlin responded to Barber's comment that a lack of rest pushed him into retirement.

"That's old news," Reese said. "We love Tiki, but he's retired and we're not going to talk about that any more."

Whether or not that ends it is unclear.

But Reese also may have created two new topics for discussion.

When asked about a possible trade for Buffalo running back Willis McGahee, Reese responded: "There is some Willis McGahee talk," Reese said. "We'll investigate Willis, we'll investigate everybody with trade talk. We'll leave no stone unturned."

Later, he was asked about recent comments made by free agent defensive tackle Hollis Thomas. Thomas, who played in New Orleans last year, told Sirius radio recently that he would not play for the Giants because the media was too vocal and the locker room had too much public chatter.

Reese didn't like it.

"As far as I know, Hollis Thomas has never been inside the Giants offices, so I don't know what he's talking about," Reese said.

LINGERING EFFECT: New Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt acknowledged Saturday that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may have suffered lingering effects from last summer's motorcycle accident.

Whisenhunt, who gave up his post as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator to join the Cardinals, said he didn't think the accident would affect Roethlisberger's play after they watched him in training camp.

At season's end, though, he thought differently.

"Looking back, I'm sure it did," he said. "Maybe it took a little longer for him get over that than we thought. You could tell early in the season, he just wasn't as comfortable as he was before."

Whisenhunt also said he thought the appendectomy Roethlisberger needed four days before the season-opener and lingering injuries continued to slow him once he recovered from the motorcycle accident.

But Whisenhunt said he expects Roethlisberger to perform better in 2007.

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