'Linebacker U' schools ready to send new crop of to NFL Print
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Thursday, 24 April 2008 08:03
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 STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) -Few programs can compete with Penn State's reputation as ``Linebacker U.'' The Nittany Lions boast LaVar Arrington, Shane Conlan and Jack Ham among its NFL alumni.
Southern California's got plenty of tradition, though. Illinois, too.
Now they're all ready to send a new crop of 'backers to the pros.
USC's Keith Rivers sits atop most analysts' lists as the best prospect at the position. Illinois' J Leman is trying to work his way back from an ankle injury that's limited him in the offseason.
The Nittany Lions' Dan Connor, meantime, has the impressive hardware - the 2007 Bednarik Award as the nation's best defensive player.
It doesn't hurt that Connor comes from a school with one of the best reputations at developing linebackers, said Gil Brandt, an NFL scouting consultant and former personnel director for the Dallas Cowboys.
While a program's long-standing reputation of producing talent at a particular position shouldn't affect the pro prospects of players from that school, it usually does, he said.
``But the point is, they recruit good players (at linebacker), and in recruiting those players, they develop those players,'' Brandt said of Penn State.
Coach Joe Paterno has had a nice stretch of exceptional talent lately. Connor follows two-time Bednarik winner Paul Posluszny, a second-round pick last year by the Buffalo Bills. Connor has since supplanted Posluszny as Penn State's career tackles leader.
Workout days coupled with flights all over the country to visit with teams have kept Connor busy leading up to Saturday's draft. He could be a first- or early second-round pick.
``After Jan. 1, it was all business trips,'' Connor said. ``It's a tough process, always in limbo, thinking about where you are going to, what team you want to play for.''
Connor also followed Posluszny in that both moved inside their senior seasons after spending much of their college careers on the outside.
Some scouts have said Connor might be better inside, a comfortable position for him anyway since he played middle linebacker in high school.
In fact, Connor has playing football since he was in diapers, when his father, a football coach, had him lining up in a three-point stance in the backyard of their suburban Philadelphia home while he was 18 months old.
``Instincts are the number one thing he's got,'' NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly said during a recent conference call. ``You like his instincts, more of a second-round pick. Probably a two-down linebacker, an inside guy.''
Rivers has impressed scouts with his ability to create havoc at outside linebacker.
The three-year starter was the latest Trojans player to wear No. 55 at USC, following stars Junior Seau, Willie McGinest and Craig Claiborne.
Mock drafts have Rivers going anywhere from seventh to New England to the mid-teens.
Illinois has its own linebacker tradition to draw on, with guys like Dana Howard, Kevin Hardy, Simeon Rice and, most notably, Dick Butkus having played the position. Butkus' name is on the award given the nation's top collegiate linebacker.
Brandt is high on the intangibles of Leman, the two-year team captain and tackles leader (132) for an Illinois team that made a surprise run to the Rose Bowl in 2007.
It was in the bowl game, though, that Leman hurt his ankle, and he ended up needing surgery. He couldn't work out at the NFL combine, nor at Illinois' ``pro day,'' and Leman said he's only gotten back to full speed in the last couple weeks.
With Leman unable to impress those scouts who might be, as he calls them, ``time trial guys,'' he resorted to his considerable powers of persuasion when speaking with prospective NFL teams.
``I say, 'What you see is what you get,''' Leman said. ``I'm a football player. I give relentless efforts. I had great production in college, and I'm a passionate player.''
Leman said scouts especially want to know if he can cover people in space, and how well he can shed blockers at the next level.
``I think it can't hurt,'' Leman said about the Illini's linebacker history. ``Whether it's a dealmaker? I'm not sure.''

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