OXFORD, Miss. (AP) -NFL.com analyst and former Dallas Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt has met and evaluated thousands of players in a career that has spanned more than five decades.
Few have inspired him like Mississippi left tackle Michael Oher, who's a few months away from completing a journey to the NFL most never thought possible.
``His jersey hangs in my office because it makes me understand what you can do if you have the will to do it,'' Brandt said.
Seven years ago Oher was essentially a homeless teenager on the very mean streets of west Memphis, Tenn., without strong family ties, an education or much of a chance. But when opportunity came - thanks to a gargantuan physique perfectly suited to playing left tackle and an ability to move his feet like a basketball player - Oher grabbed on and wouldn't let go.
oming out of high school since Orlando Pace, the St. Louis Rams' perennial Pro Bowl selection.
Yet he could barely read, had little formal education and was the longest of shots to enter college. His story, chronicled in Michael Lewis' book, ``The Blind Side,'' is a little like ``Great Expectations'' crossed with ``Friday Night Lights.''
And the happy ending is almost here.
He's everybody's all-American and set to graduate on time next spring, but the NFL will likely put those plans on hold. Oher is expected to go somewhere in the top 10 of April's draft and maybe as high as No. 1.
There were six left tackles taken in the first round of the draft last April, including top overall pick Jake Long of Michigan, who went to the Miami Dolphins. Five of the six are starters (Chicago's Chris Williams was injured and is out for the year).
``I think he's on par with Jake Long and I think he's better than the other four who are starters in the NFL right now,'' Brandt said.
The one knock against Oher has been that he's not as physical as he should be. He'd rather pass block than get down and dirty on run plays. When new coach Houston Nutt took over last year, he set a goal for Oher to start roughing up the opponent.
``I think every scout that has come in has said that he is more physical, sees how much harder he is playing with the speed and the tempo at which he plays,'' Nutt said.
At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, Oher is no hulking tower of blob. He's cut like a sprinter, runs on the balls of his feet and forces running backs to sprint when he's pulling ahead of them. But he's more than just a physical specimen. Oher will be making his 45th straight start when the Rebels play at No. 18 LSU on Saturday, and he's been tested by fire in the Southeastern Conference.
He can check off the big names he's successfully faced who have gone on to the NFL. Derrick Harvey, Charles Johnson, Quentin Moses, Quentin Groves. He'll face arguably his toughest challenge of the season in Baton Rouge, where four NFL-ready defensive ends will rotate over to his side during the game.
``This is the SEC, man. It's rough,'' Oher said. ``Every week you've got to come to play. Saturday I'm going to be ready. It's going to be another big one. It's always a challenge.''
The challenges in life have been just as hard-charging and aggressive as the ones he's met on the football field. Oher was spotted by former Ole Miss point guard and current Memphis Grizzlies radio man Sean Tuohy at his daughter's school, a coatless man-child of 16 who was obviously cold, hungry and lost.
The Tuohy family took him in and took responsibility for his life. They fed and clothed him, they hired a tutor to help sort out his education and eventually adopted him. Given this chance - really his last chance after years of personal and institutional neglect - Oher began a transformation that's amazing to just about everyone but him.
Eventually he undid the damage a lack of interest did to his high school transcript and cleared all the obstacles set in his way by the NCAA and the Ole Miss admissions process. Looking back, he thinks college has been ``a breeze.''
``I feel like it was just me staying with it and just not giving up because I wanted to give up a lot of times in my life,'' Oher said. ``I had a lot of opportunities where I could've given up, drop out of high school and things like that and not come to college. A lot of times I wanted to but I stuck with it.''
He also stuck with football. At first, he played not for a love of the game but because others wanted him to. He didn't understand the game or his role in it, didn't have the innate aggression necessary to be great at it and preferred the basketball court where he pretended to be Michael Jordan.
Though he had little technique or understanding of the sport, reaction to film of his early games was instantaneous and sent not a ripple, but a tsunami through college football.
d these scouts coming and watching me practice and things like that,'' Oher said. ``I didn't understand it. It was unbelievable.''
Once Oher picked Ole Miss, the Tuohys endured accusations of adopting a football player, of inappropriately steering Oher to their alma mater and acting out of greed, not love. The NCAA investigated his attempt at eligibility and message boards across the nation lit up with stories about how Ole Miss accepted a player who couldn't read.
Oher shoved every criticism aside as effortlessly as he blocks an underweight defensive end. It didn't matter what all those other people thought. Given a little love and a chance, he proved them all wrong.
``I knew that college would be a good thing - getting a chance to get a good education and play football on a high level in the SEC,'' Oher said. ``But it's totally been more than I imagined. I used to just dream about going to college, any college, a community college or anything. As long as I got to a college I would be OK. Going to a big-time SEC college has been a blessing and a joy.''

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