Alabama-Auburn rivalry spills into NFL draft

That nasty Alabama-Auburn rivalry is spilling over into the NFL
draft.

The in-state rivals, who have divvied up the last two national
titles and Heisman Trophies, figure to have a heavy presence in the
top 10 Thursday night – and, possibly, in the top 2.

Who will win the Carolina Panthers’ No. 1 pick derby: Auburn
quarterback Cam Newton or Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus,
the Crimson Tide or Tigers? Maybe none of the above, but those two
are the names most often mentioned in that conversation.

Tide receiver Julio Jones and Tigers defensive lineman Nick
Fairley also are expected to go in the top 10, probably followed
later in the round by Alabama’s Heisman-winning running back Mark
Ingram.

If that top 10 foursome happens, it will be only the fifth time
since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 that schools from the same state
have delivered four of the first 10 players chosen in the draft –
and the second straight.

Oklahoma and Oklahoma State accounted for all but two of the
opening six picks last year, led by Sooners quarterback Sam
Bradford at No. 1.

California has done it three times, the latest in 1994. Florida,
Pennsylvania and Alabama each have come close, claiming four of the
top 11 picks in various drafts.

Maybe it’s fitting that ‘Bama and Auburn take center stage
Thursday since they’ve done just that the past two seasons.

All five of the state’s likely first-rounders skipped their
senior seasons to turn pro. For Ingram, it’s nice to have the
company of his former teammates.

”We all came in together, we all hung out together all
throughout college,” he said. ”We’ve been supporting each other
and talking to each other and putting each other through this. We
all have each other’s back throughout this process.”

If producing No. 1 overall picks is a competition – and what
isn’t in this rivalry – then Auburn is winning. Newton is trying to
join Bo Jackson (1986), Aundray Bruce (1988) and Tucker
Frederickson (1965) as Auburn players who were the top NFL
choice.

The only Tide player to be chosen first was quarterback Harry
Gilmer in 1948.

Alabama has reclaimed its draft prominence under coach Nick
Saban, with a top 10 pick each of the past two years after a
seven-year drought without a first-rounder.

The Tide hasn’t had three first-round picks since John Copeland,
Eric Curry and George Teague in 1993.

The Tigers had Ronnie Brown, Carnell Williams and Carlos Rogers
in the top 10 in the 2005 draft and quarterback Jason Campbell also
went to the Redskins later in the round. But they’ve had only one
first-rounder – guard Ben Grubbs in 2007 – since then.

Except perhaps for Dareus, the five current contenders have had
to deal with various issues leading up to the draft.

Fairley has faced questions about his work ethic, Ingram about
his surgically repaired knee. Both say those concerns are
groundless. Newton had a dazzling, Heisman-worthy season in his
lone year at Auburn, but played the second half under the cloud of
an NCAA investigation stemming from his father’s solicitation of
money during the player’s recruitment by Mississippi State.

The governing body hasn’t publicly implicated either Auburn or
Newton in any wrongdoing, but the investigation is ongoing.

Jones rehabilitated his foot in Tuscaloosa after surgery shortly
after the NFL combine. He ran a 4.39 40 two days after a stress
fracture was discovered.

”It’s not frustrating at all,” Jones said after Alabama’s pro
day. ”When you’re in the league, you’re going to be injured. It’s
basically how you deal with it, and I deal with injuries very
well.”

Then there’s Dareus, who played through an ankle injury in his
lone season as a full-time starter. He has apparently overtaken
Fairley, a Lombardi Award winner who was once a popular pick to go
No. 1.

”Marcell Dareus is more complete,” ESPN draft analyst Todd
McShay said. ”When you talk about on-the-field comparisons, that’s
where I would point to. No, he’s not the athlete that Nick Fairley
is, but he’s stronger against the run. He provides more
versatility.

”He has great instincts, toughness and strength in terms of
taking on blockers, shedding blockers, finding the ball and going
and making plays.”

Saban touted his star lineman’s ”great character” and ability
to play multiple positions at Alabama and beyond as important
qualities for prospective employers.

”You’re going to get a good day’s work out of him all the
time,” Saban said, ”and I think people really appreciate
that.”