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First wave of prospects hits Indy

The NFL scouting combine isn' t what it used to be. What started as an event where all the teams could travel to a central spot in the country and where all the prospects for the upcoming draft would be tested physically, mentally and medically in the same location under the same conditons, has grown into what amounts to an open book test for the upcoming draft prospects.

Despite the fact that many players spend more than a month in specified training geared toward aiding their combine performance, some team inevitably drafts a player too high or too low based on his performance in Indianapolis.

"It comes down to discipline," Patriots Assistant Director of Personnel Scott Pioli said. "It comes down to having a philosophy and doing what you say your philosophy is. Changing your [draft] board significantly based on a guy's height, weight, speed, vertical jump and bench press when you've had four years to watch the guys as a football player ... you have to be able to identify those things and understand that some guys are going to have a certain upside. There are temptations and there are going to be exceptions. But when you take a chance, you better understand why you're doing it."

That's not to take away from the medical portion of the weekened where the prospects can't hide from the X-rays, MRIs and past medical history. But players like Michigan guard Steve Hutchinson, Florida tackle Kenyatta Walker and Texas Christian running back LaDainian Tomlinson -- all represented by IMG's Tom Condon -- spent the month-and-a-half leading up to the combine in Bradenton, Fla., at an IMG-run facility training for every aspect of the weekend, including the interview portion.

"They go over the way to answer the questions and what the teams are looking for," Hutchinson, the draft's top rated guard, said. "[They prepare you on] how to say things right because some of the questions are ... I wouldn't say trick questions ... but they are waiting to see how you answer them."

"You can't get uptight," Mississippi running back Deuce McAllister said about the interviews. "All the coaches and scouts are human just like you. You just have to enjoy it."

It didn't look much like Walker or Michigan running back Anthony Thomas were overly thrilled spending their Friday walking in and out of six rooms with five teams in a room (and two with six, including the new Houston franchise) to undergo the same medical poking and prodding in each room.

"I've been pulled on and pushed and yanked from every place possible," Thomas said. "I would rather go through two-a-days three or four times then go through that again."

Walker simply walked to the interview podium with a tired glare, shook his head and said, "It's been a long day."

But even Thomas is an IMG client so he came to Indy ready for the stressful weekend that awaits the prospects.

But who at IMG prepares them for the Q&A sessions? "Full-time media people and psychologists," Hutchinson acknowledged.

Hutchinson, a big, strong guard who allowed only one sack while at Michigan, plans to go through all the physical testing -- something becoming rarer among the top prospects today.

Tomlinson, the Heisman finalist coming off a standout performance at the Senior Bowl last month in Mobile, Ala., also plans to work out for the scouts.

"I feel good and I'm going to come out and compete," Tomlinson said. "I went to the Senior Bowl with something to prove. Could I run inside and break tackles against tougher competition? I answered all those questions at the Senior Bowl. I approach this as a job interview. But this is my future and I want to capitalize on the opportunity," he added before admitting he measured at a diminutive 5-10.

"I'm 5-11 with my cleats on," he said laughing. Tomlinson has spent the offseason trying to prove he can run inside after playing in the Horned Frogs option-style offense.

As another top running back prospect, McAllister has injury questions to overcome and is working to dispel what he believes is a myth that he is injury prone. McAllister suffered a left shoulder injury as a junior and then a right shoulder injury last year along with a high ankle sprain. Despite the two injuries in 2000, he missed just one game. "I've been working out at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and I worked out daily with doctors and trainers," McAllister said. "A lot of what I've been doing as far as rehabbing and strength-wise are injury prevention type of exercises.

"I don't have any concerns," he added. "I go out without any tape on it. I don't have any problems cutting, jumping or running full speed so I feel confident."

Not confident enough to work out at the combine, though. After missing the Senior Bowl so that he could fully recover from the shoulder injury in time for this weekend, he will only participate in the running back drills, while skipping the 40-yard dash and the other standard tests.

"If everyone worked out at the combine, then I wouldn't have a problem working out," McAllister admitted. "But when guys started scheduling personal workout dates, there's a comfort level at [your] own school. If it was required that everyone work out, I would have no problem doing it."

When listing priorities for what he looks to gain out of the weekend, Pioli said, "The players' health, the personal interaction and watching who does and does not compete."

Increasingly, the top prospects choose not to work out because results unbecoming of a top prospect could cost the players millions of dollars. Instead, they work out in their own setting on a surface with which they are familiar.

Pioli is one of many who would like to see all the players test, but understands that the league can't force the players to participate. "If you're a great football player with great skills and you really believe in those skills ... why not work out here."

NOTES

The combine runs through Monday as the players arrive in Indy in three waves. The first group goes into the RCA Dome Saturday for their running tests and then leaves town. The second group, which arrived Friday night will undergo the medical portion Saturday before going into the Dome on Sunday and the final group will go into the dome on Monday with medical testing Sunday. ... Pioli believes the medical portion has become the most important aspect of the weekend because it's the only portion where every single invitee is evaluated. ... McAllister will work out March 21 in Oxford, Miss. ... He compares himself style-wise to Eric Dickerson and Marcus Allen and plans to buy his mother a car and house when he gets his first check. ... Texas tackle Leonard Davis is as massive in person as advertised. He weighed in at 370 pounds while standing at 6-5 3/4 with a wing span of 36 inches. He weighed 200 pounds in fifth grade and 300 at age 13 and wears a size 18 shoe. His father is only 6-1, 195 pounds ... The Patriots met with Davis, Hutchinson, Walker and McAllister among the many prospects they interviewed. ... Walker's real name is Idrees Kenyatta Walker and he said that Kenyatta means King. ... While Davis benched 225 pounds 33 times, Walker mustered only 24. They are two of the highest rated tackles in the draft. Defensive linemen, quarterbacks and wide receivers are the positions in the second wave while linebackers, tight ends and defensive backs make up the third group.

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