Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Draft prospects seek right answers at NFL combine
INDIANAPOLIS - LeGarrette Blount spent the last month preparing for the annual NFL scouting combine. There were drills and workouts, lifting sessions and practice tests. His toughest task this week is talking about the punch felt 'round the college football world. It's an answer he'll repeat dozens of times in Indianapolis, but getting this one right may dictate where Blount goes in April's NFL draft. Or whether he is drafted at all. "I've basically told them that I overreacted," Blount said. "It was a heat-of-the moment type of thing. The guy I punched didn't deserve to be punched. It was just a mistake."Showing remorse is an essential ingredient to restoring reputation among the scouts. With nowhere to hide, no questions to dodge, no answers that won't be overanalyzed by the hundreds of scouts, coaches and team executives in Indy, blunt honesty is the only way to escape additional questions. Blount is not alone in his mission this year. Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap missed the SEC title game after a DUI arrest, a red flag for teams with concerns about repeat offenses and possible NFL suspensions. Dunlap's college teammate, linebacker Brandon Spikes, drew a one-game suspension for poking an opponent in the eye. Syracuse receiver Mike Williams must explain why he opted to forgo the end of his junior season before deciding to leave school a year early. The Williams story may be the strangest of all. He was suspended for the entire 2008 season after violating the school's academic integrity policy, but fought his way onto the roster for spring practice. Last November, coach Doug Marrone announced Williams had quit the team. Williams insists his coach got it wrong. "They know the whole story," Williams said of what he's telling NFL teams. "That's it, really. They know I didn't quit. Everybody knows I didn't quit." Two other prominent cases could also come up this week. Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant and Southern Cal running back Joe McKnight both finished last season on the sideline after being accused of NCAA infractions. Those circumstances will likely pale in comparison to the more damaging character issues. Draft history is rife with examples. In 1998, Randy Moss watched his draft stock slide after skipping the combine completely to have dental surgery. His absence, coupled with a trouble-making reputation, knocked Moss out of the first half of the first round. In 1995, defensive tackle Warren Sapp started sliding, too, after reports surfaced that he tested positive for drugs at the combine. These days, the punishment can be far more damaging. Blount remembers a time, last summer, when he was billed as one of the nation's top college backs. Listed at 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, he is big enough to overpower defenders and quick enough to elude them. Blount insists the talent hasn't changed, though he is now projected as a fifth-round pick. Why? His resume. Last February, Blount was suspended from the team for "failure to fulfill team obligations." He reportedly missed team meetings, then was reinstated before spring practice. Some reports indicated he also reported to spring practice overweight. Then came the punch after an opening-night loss to Boise State. Blount insists he's grown up since then. "I had a kid on the way," Blount said. "Now that I was not playing football, I was willing to be with my son the whole time. He was born Sept. 17. There were days I was feeling down and days that I didn't know what to do. All I had to do was pick him up and play with him or change a diaper or two." NFL decision-makers, like New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese and Colts president Bill Polian, will spend much of their 15-minute interview sessions prying. Polian puts a premium on football temperament, concerns raised by the on-the-field actions of Spikes and Blount. It also means doing some extra work. "We try to ask all the tough questions, and we want to make sure it's an isolated incident," Reese said Saturday. "If the guy has a long list, we want to make sure we have all of our T's crossed, so we're very cautious about it." That means for players like Blount and Williams, Dunlap and Spikes, the biggest questions this week are not going to be times in the 40-yard dash or the number of bench press repetitions. It's proving to scouts that they're leaving the baggage behind. "I've kind of redeemed myself because I kept going to practice when I didn't think I'd play one play ever again," Blount said. "To this day, I still feel like I'm the best running back in this draft, and I know every guy here feels that way."