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Guarded optimism about interior OL prospects

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Georgia's Clint Boling speaks at the NFL Scouting Combine. AP Photo.

INDIANAPOLIS – Ask around, and you'll get virtually the same answer.

What's the strength of this year's offensive line class?

"I think the tackle group is better," says Pittsburgh's Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' Director of Football Operations.

"There are several players in this draft that are very good starters at the tackle position," echoed Jeff Ireland, Miami Dolphins GM.

"I think it is a good offensive line year. The tackle class is really strong," Mark Dominik, Tampa Bay GM, tells the curious.

Here at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, the premier position on the o-line is once again getting all the good press. In fact, most of the players who were ushered in for media interviews on Thursday were tackles. Very few guards made appearances.

But that doesn't mean there isn't talent among the guard prospects.

"The more versatility you have," Dominik explained, "the better. When we go to their pro days, or put them through drills here, we might move them over to center, see if they can snap."

"There are some good guys that could be guards," Ireland went on. "The depth of this offensive line group is pretty good. I like it."

Proving Dominik's and Ireland's points is Stefan Wisniewski(6-3, 306), the Penn State center whom many believe will be a guard at the NFL level, and **Mike Pouncey *(6-4, 310), a Florida guard who could end up playing center on Sundays this fall.

Both players come from NFL lineage. Wisniewski's father and uncle both starred at Penn State before earning NFL careers. Pouncey's twin brother, Maurkice, earned the Pittsburgh Steelers starting center job in just his rookie season in 2010.

"I see myself as both, I really believe I can play both [guard and center]," Wisniewski declared. "It depends on which team picks me."

If there isn't a wealth of big-name players at the interior, there seem to be plenty of options for teams looking to draft a lineman in the middle to late rounds.

Will Rackley(6-3, 310) of Lehigh is among them. Like Wisniewski, the small-school product has big-time talent, if not the household name. But he's looking to make one for himself by remaining flexible.

"I open to anything," he told reporters. "I'm here to prove myself as a player, proving that guys can jump from [Division] I-AA to the pros. Playing football is playing football, it doesn't matter where you're from, it matters how you play.

"I understand defense pretty well, I have pretty good feet. I need to work on… my timing of my strength and hand placement in the pass game and in the run game getting to the second and third level and having my hands and helmets in the right place."

Georgia's Clint Boling(6-5, 308) also has versatility, but his is from the inside out.

"I played both guard and tackle all through school," he explained. "I really just feel comfortable at both. I started at right guard, right tackle and left tackle. I think it helped a lot because NFL teams they're dressing 7 or 8 [offensive linemen], you have to be able to play multiple positions."

Boling, a four-year starter for the Bulldogs in the talent-rich Southeast Conference, understands that such skills could determine how high he and players like him are eventually selected by pro clubs in April's draft. His heart, however, remains at tackle.

"I'd like to start out at tackle then if for whatever reason that doesn't work out I could play guard. I definitely feel like I could play both and be successful."

A Senior Bowl participant this past January, Boling saw most of his reps at guard, which could portend where he'll eventually line up in the NFL.

Another four-year starter is Michigan's Stephen Schilling(6-5, 308). Durability is his calling card, having missed just one start in his Wolverine career.

"It's definitely something I take a lot of pride in. As far as I'm concerned, it's one of my best accomplishments, being able to stay so durable and play so many years there."

UConn's Zach Hurd (6-7, 325) has the size of a tackle, but appears better suited for the guard spot. Having played his college ball in New England, he couldn't help but follow the Patriots, especially when one of his former teammates, cornerback Darius Butler became a Patriot in 2009.

"We definitely keep in touch," Hurd remarked. "I try to find out what he went through and what to expect. It's good to learn from people who've already been there before."

Names to keep in mind when the draft draws to a close are Andrew Jackson(6-5, 303) of Fresno State and Houston's Isaiah Thompson *(6-3, 300). Both players were college teammates with current Patriots offensive linemen (Ryan Wendell *and Sebastian Vollmer, respectively).

And though he's never met Logan Mankins, another Fresno State alum, Jackson is quite familiar with the All-Pro Patriots guard.

"We model our styles after Logan Mankins," Jackson said, including himself and his fellow o-linemen at Fresno. "When we need to get pumped up, we throw in his college film to be like that. We try to model his tenacity, his aggression."

It seems to be working.

"I'm very aggressive run-blocking. We stick on blocks, finishing blocks… that's what we do," Jackson commented. "My weaknesses? Probably quick-setting in the passing game. Haven't done a lot of that. Got a little taste of it in the East-West Shrine Game."

Jackson had options to play at other big Division I schools, but chose Fresno because of head coachPat Hill– a former assistant under Bill Belichick.

"Coach Hill definitely has a program that builds a foundation for you to step into the NFL. We've talked about it, he's open about it. That is something he tells every kid that goes through the program."

Thompson, meanwhile, enjoys a close relationship with Vollmer, having faced him in practice when Thompson began his Cougar career as a defensive lineman. He played just one season – this past one – on the offensive line. But he clearly did enough to impress scouts and earn an invitation to Indianapolis for the Combine.

"Whatever it is they want me to do, I'm going to get the job done. I'm a quick learner and a coachable player," he insisted. "Sebastian put in the hard work and the time to make it to this level, and that's the same thing I'm doing right now.

"The same faith that [my college coach] had in me, I feel like a lot of the NFL coaches will feel the same way. They see that I have athleticism, they see that I learned quickly. Of course, I think playing on the d-line makes me a more aggressive offensive lineman. With that defensive mentality, you want to beat people up. Bringing that to the offensive side of the ball, and learning how to control it, could help me."

New England could be in the market for a number of offensive linemen in this draft, including at guard, where it's unclear if franchise-tagged Mankins will return to the Patriots. And with the team's history of cultivating offensive linemen under the tutelage of long-time assistant Dante Scarnecchia, it wouldn't be surprising to see the team invest a draft pick up high, in the middle, or in later rounds.

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