Little, seniors have much to prove in Mobile

For most, the end of football season is a time to reflect on accomplishments and set goals for improvement. For others, the sunset of college football sets the stage for the horizon of a professional career.

Some UK seniors are set to make the transition.

Running back Raphael Little, along with teammates quarterback Andre Woodson, tight end Jacob Tamme and linebacker Wesley Woodyard, have traveled to Mobile, Ala., to compete in the 2008 Senior Bowl. It’s the first time in five years the Cats have sent a player to college football’s all-star game for seniors, and they have to be hoping the trip to Mobile proves to be a turning point in their careers.

The Senior Bowl offers one of the last chances for college seniors to impress NFL scouts before the combine. The players participating are coached by NFL staff and the game is shown on the NFL Network. With all the attention from the pros, the event offers the best stage for Little to show he belongs in the bunch.

No other senior has such an enormous question mark for NFL scouts than Little. The Anderson, S.C., product came to UK highly sought after, and in his first season he showed why. But after being named a Freshman All-American, problems for Little began to surface as he spent long stints on the sidelines as a spectator. Much like his ‘06 season, his senior year was plagued with injuries that kept him out of action.

In his career at UK, Little made no progress as the injuries forced him to backpedal. If Little could reverse his career path at UK, replacing his freshman and sophomore year with his latter years, he would be a shoe-in for the NFL draft. But instead of ending his career in a hot streak, it closed with a question mark. This weekend, along with the upcoming combine, he will have to prove why he’s worth the risk all over again.

But there is hope for Little.

The last two Cats to compete in the annual bowl game were Artose Pinner in 2003 and Omar Smith in 2001. Pinner, a running back, proved himself and went on to be the second pick in the fourth round of the NFL draft. He is still playing in the NFL, with the Atlanta Falcons, after two years with Detroit and one with Minnesota. Smith went on to play two seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants.

The only thing Little has to do is show up and prove that he can be the back he was before the injuries set in. NFL teams will take a gamble on a knock-out-punch type of player, one who comes into a game and makes a difference even if injury prone.

That’s why Minnesota drafted Adrian Peterson, the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year, so high in the 2007 draft. Even though he was injury-prone, the running back made a difference. Although Peterson sat out two games with an injury, the 1,341 yards and the 12 touchdowns he provided in 2007 for the Vikings were worth it.

Now, Little’s no Peterson, but you get the idea.

Little isn’t the only player with something to prove.

Woodyard had a knack for finding the ball carrier and was the backbone for an overachieving UK defense in his final year. The All-Southeastern Conference performer’s 139 tackles led the team for the third straight year.  But Woodyard is too small to play the position he dominated in college. He will have to either go through a massive weight gain program or go with the best option and learn how to play in the secondary.

The battle will be uphill regardless of his route, but Woodyard’s mental toughness will get him over the hump.

As for Woodson and Tamme, the only thing they have to do this weekend and in the time heading into the combine is keep doing what they’ve been doing and don’t get hurt. Woodson is projected as a first-round NFL pick, and a top-10 pick on some draft boards. Tamme will be a late second- or third-round pick that could move up depending on how he does in workouts before the draft.

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