Senior Cats face Combine test

Today’s no ordinary day. Neither will tomorrow be, or the day after. Well, not in the sports world, not in Indianapolis.

There, tucked away in the RCA Dome, are six UK seniors preparing for the biggest days of their careers thus far, against an opponent they’ve never seen before. The task itself requires a new game plan drawn up from scratch.

Instead of going toe-to-toe with 11 guys lined up opposite of them, they’ll be taking on hundreds of scouts from all the NFL teams waiting to find every flaw in their game. It’s the NFL Combine, where scouts give more attention to what football players can’t do instead of what they can, and rightfully so.

While NFL teams prepare to narrow their focuses as April’s draft approaches, they’re in the process of deciding which collegiate players will be the new faces of their franchises. It’s important to separate the players that can be successful on Sundays from those that are just Saturday performers.

Headlining the group from UK is Andre Woodson, who was projected as a top-ten pick two months ago, but has seen a recent decline on draft broads after a sub-par performance in the Senior Bowl. But despite all the hoopla surrounding Woodson’s release and pocket presence, it’s the other five UK athletes — Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme, Rafael Little, Steve Johnson and Wesley Woodyard — that have the most to prove to nit-picking NFL scouts in the next couple of days.

While there’s been speculations about who’s in and who’s out of this weekend’s combine, all of UK’s players should use the opportunity to make up ground — or in Woodson’s case regain ground — on NFL team’s draft boards.

No other college team has more players going to the draft with as many unknown attributes than the bunch from UK. With the team’s surge onto the national scene over the last two seasons, all six seniors made names for themselves in the region. But along with the success on the college level came wonders of the possible success on the professional level. Then came the question marks.

Can Little and Burton stay healthy?

Can Johnson run routes and does he have speed?

Is Woodyard too small to play linebacker in the NFL?

Can Tamme block?

This weekend we’ll know some answers for sure, but here’s my take.

Fighting the injury bug

People that get hurt don’t stop getting hurt. No matter how hard they try, it’s just a habit that can’t be beat. So for Burton and Little, the path to the NFL will be an up-hill battle. Although Burton has an advantage over Little based on pure skill, Little can still impress with his ability to do the extra things like kickoff and punt returns for an NFL team. The good thing for Little is his stock can only go up with a good outing at the combine. Both will need stellar performances. Little must prove he can make the cuts with the ball that helped him evade defenders when he was healthy. Burton needs to do what he did for the Cats since he arrived in 2003, showing off his pure athleticism and route running.

Johnson must be quick on his feet

What will make or break Johnson is his ability to prove that he is a true wideout. At the NFL Combine, Burton nor Dicky Lyons will be lined up on the same side as him. Unlike UK opponents this year, scouts will be focused only on him. He must prove he can run routes effectively and Johnson must clock a good time in the 40-yard dash to catch the desire of NFL teams, not just their attention.

Laying the Wood

We all know Woodyard is a respectable tackler on the college level. He led UK in that area in consecutive years. Now he must prove he can do the same on the professional level. But, proving he can play linebacker in the NFL won’t be worth the challenge. He doesn’t have enough beef to play the position. So instead of picking up pounds, Woodyard’s hopes of becoming a solid player in the NFL will rest on his ability to drop back into the secondary, a change he may not address right now. Which will leave more questions than answers once the combine is over. But he can answer address the issue of speed by running a good time in the 40-yard dash. Quick feet will be needed in the secondary. Woodyard can still impress with raw talent, and let the NFL teams decide his fate of playing linebacker or defensive back.

Tamme’s got talent

Of all UK players headed into the NFL Combine, Tamme has the best chance to wow NFL scouts. In today’s NFL, successful teams are enjoying the presence of playmaking tight ends. Tamme will be another one. He can make circus catches and can be a target for quarterbacks in distress when the pocket gives way. But Tamme must prove that he has the strength to play in the NFL, mainly in blocking agile defensive ends and bigger and faster linebackers. If he can do that then he can be the prize out of all six seniors looking for a role in the NFL.

J.D. Williams is a journalism senior. E-mail [email protected]om.