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January 25, 2007

North notes: Carriker is standing tall at DE

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MOBILE, Ala. The 2007 NFL Draft is top heavy with talent at defensive end.

Eight of the top 35 prospects on Frank Coyle's list at draftinsiders.com are ends. No other position has close to as many players in the top 35. Four of those eight arrived here this week for the Senior Bowl Georgia's Quentin Moses, Michigan's LaMarr Woodley, Nebraska's Adam Carriker and Purdue's Anthony Spencer.

While all of them have acquitted themselves fairly well save for Woodley, who will almost certainly miss the game because of a strained left quadriceps muscle, the one generating the most buzz is Carriker. The Rivals.com third-team All-American has been dominant at times, wowing coaches and scouts with his combination of size, strength and technique.

"He's a great big powerful guy," said North coach Jon Gruden, head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "He could be a base defensive end in a 3-4 and play under the tackle or he could be used in a six technique (head up on the tight end). He's really powerful in the pass rush as well."

Carriker is mammoth, checking in at 6 feet 6 and 295 pounds. He led the Blackshirts with seven sacks this season, and he finished with 16 tackles for loss.

Carriker seems to be taking all of the attention here in stride. He feels he has benefited greatly from learning at the hands of Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin this week.

"I really like Coach Kiffin and Coach (Larry) Coyer (the Bucs' defensive line coach)," Carriker said. "Coach Kiffin is real energetic, and Coach Coyer is a teacher-type coach."

They have an eager student in Carriker, who is used to more read-and-react scheming than the aggressiveness being taught by the Tampa Bay staff.

"At Nebraska, I really reacted to what the tackle did instead of just coming off the ball," Carriker said. "Here they don't want you to do that, they want you to fly off the ball as fast as you can. It's taken me a couple of days to get used to it, but I love it."

Carriker said he doesn't really care what scheme is employed by the team that drafts him. He'll go wherever and line up at whatever because he just wants to play.

"A few 3-4 teams are definitely interested," Carriker said. "I'm fine with that. I played a two gap (where the d-lineman's responsibility is the gaps on either side of the offensive lineman he's over), so I'm used to it. I'd say playing in a one gap (responsible for only one gap; usually a slighter, quicker d-lineman) is easier because it's just get off the ball, go with your first reaction. I like it, flying off the ball and making plays."

Carriker's play at the Senior Bowl will have him flying up draft boards everywhere.

"That's what the Senior Bowl is about, to give guys a chance to clear up doubts and questions," Carriker said. "Come out here and prove yourself, or get your butt kicked, one or the other."

So far here, Carriker is doing all of the kicking.

Injuries decimate North team

The star-studded list of defections from the North team's roster continues to grow.

Rivals.com first-team All-America cornerback Daymeion Hughes of California withdrew from the game after hurting his back in Wednesday's practice. Woodley also is expected to miss the game because of a quadriceps injury that has kept him out of practice for most of the week.

"The injury I don't believe is severe enough to hinder him in his combine coming up," Gruden said of Woodley, "but I don't believe he'll play in the game."

The North team already had lost Maxwell Award winner Brady Quinn of Notre Dame, Rivals.com first-team All-America offensive tackle Joe Thomas of Wisconsin, Rivals.com second-team All-America receiver Jeff Samardzija of Notre Dame, NCAA rushing leader Garrett Wolfe of Northern Illinois and Rutgers tight end Clark Harris.

Amobi is amazing

The youngest player in Senior Bowl history continues to prove he belongs in the NFL.

Amobi Okoye, a 19-year-old defensive tackle from Louisville, has been virtually unblockable at times this week.

He wants to get selected among the first five overall picks in the NFL Draft. That goal seemed a bit far-fetched earlier in the week, but now it doesn't seem out of the question.

Michigan junior Alan Branch almost certainly will be the first defensive tackle taken in the draft. Okoye's performance this week could make him the second defensive tackle to go.

"I really didn't come here to prove anything," Okoye said. "I just came to play ball and showcase my talent. I didn't come in with the mind-set that I had to prove myself. It's always there in the back of your mind, but I just came here to have fun. It's just like a job. If you're not having fun with it, you won't like it."

Okoye's weight now is as much of a concern as his age. The former Louisville star was a bit surprised when he weighed in at only 287 pounds this week.

He attributed the weight loss to his two-week layoff after the Orange Bowl. Okoye expects to return to his usual playing weight of 295-300 pounds in time for the combine.

Manny is the man

Okoye singled out Texas Tech guard Manny Ramirez as the offensive lineman from the North team who impressed him the most.

"He's a pretty strong cat," Okoye said. "I like the way he finishes and runs with his defensive lineman until the play's over to make sure they don't make the tackle."

Center of attention

Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton mentioned this week that his biggest adjustment since the end of the season has involved working directly under center after operating out of the shotgun formation in college.

Stanton isn't the only Senior Bowl quarterback making that adjustment, which has resulted in a few sloppy center exchanges during practices this week.

"There's a lot of players making transitions here, and our quarterbacks and centers haven't executed the exchange very well," Gruden said. "Now I know a lot of these guys are shotgun guys, but this has been interesting. We'll get the center/quarterback exchange down. It's fundamental to the game."

Altitude doesn't matter

Whenever a kicker from Colorado makes a bunch of long field goals, skeptics will argue that he benefited from the altitude.

Mason Crosby wants to prove that's not necessarily the case.

Colorado's all-time leading scorer went 11 of 20 from 50-59 yards away and 1-for-4 from at least 60 yards out in his career. His 58-yard field goal at Miami his junior year was the longest at sea level without a kicking tee in NCAA Division I-A history.

The Texas native proved again that he could kick long field goals away from Colorado when he booted a 52-yarder at the end of Thursday's practice.

"Hopefully I've already proved some of it," Crosby said. "Guys are going to ask and wonder about it. That's why this spring is so important. Maybe I can work out for teams away from Colorado and show some stuff. Being down here and going to the Combine will be beneficial in the whole process."

Quarterback rotation is set

Gruden announced that Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith would start the game for the North team. Smith will be followed in order by Michigan State's Drew Stanton and Pittsburgh's Tyler Palko.

"He is the Heisman Trophy winner," Gruden said. "We feel he deserves to start."

Whither Weddle

Perhaps no player in the nation did quite as many different things this fall as Utah's Eric Weddle.

The Rivals.com first-team All-America utility player appeared at cornerback, safety, running back and quarterback during his college career. Weddle also worked as a holder, punt returner and kick returner when he wasn't lining up on kick and punt coverage teams.

Gruden plans to use Weddle at both cornerback and safety this weekend.

All that versatility should help Weddle find a spot on an NFL roster, but what position will he play at the next level?

"A lot of teams see me coming in as a nickel back," Weddle said. "And of course, I have experience at every special-teams position, so that experience has helped me a lot. And maybe (I could) become a starter at safety later down the road."

He's not over the hill

Washington State wide receiver Jason Hill knew he had something to prove this week.

Hill entered his senior year as one of the nation's hottest senior receiving prospects, but his production fell dramatically last fall. After averaging 1,052 receiving yards and 12.5 touchdown catches in 2004 and 2005, Hill collected seven touchdown catches and 600 receiving yards as a senior.

"I just wanted to show everybody that I'm still a playmaker," Hill said.

Hill considered the Senior Bowl practices a step in the right direction. He displayed good hands in practice all week while also distinguishing himself against some of the nation's top defensive backs.

But he's not satisfied.

Hill figures a big performance in Saturday's game will go a long way toward helping his stock get back on the rise. Hill believes he still could get picked in the first round, even though most mock drafts have him going much later.

Frank Coyle of draftinsiders.com lists Hill as his No. 66 overall prospect.

"There's a lot of work to be done," Hill said. "But I'm working toward that. I'm definitely moving up. It's fun. I'm loving the process, and I'll definitely remember this time the rest of my life."

Click here for more Rivals.com coverage of the Senior Bowl.

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