Some players use NFL combine to prove they’re perfect fit

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Oregon’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu has the toughest job at this week’s NFL scouting combine.

Listed at 5-foot-10, he must convince at some team he’s big enough to stand up to the rigors of being an NFL cornerback. And despite coming off late-season knee surgery, which could keep him off the field until the preseason, he must demonstrate he’s worth the risk.

Ekpre-Olomu seems to have the pitch down.

”I’m going to have to be determined to learn the playbook, and I have to make sure all those mental reps those guys are getting on the field,” he said Saturday. ”I have to make sure I’m getting a double amount because I’m not going to actually be on the field. So I just have to put in a lot more work in.”

For a select few in Indianapolis, the combine is all about positioning – who goes No. 1 in the April draft, who ranks No. 1 at their position, who can sneak into the first round.

Of the 300-plus prospects at Lucas Oil Stadium, nobody is perfect, not even the top two quarterbacks in this year’s draft. Critics are questioning Marcus Mariota’s ability to play in a traditional pro-style offense and whether Jameis Winston’s off-the-field troubles from college will follow into the NFL. Both are expected to be taken in the first 10 picks of the draft.

Others are simply trying to find the right fit.

Auburn’s Nick Marshall might have to make a position change. After leading the Tigers to the 2014 national championship game, he moved from quarterback to defensive back at the Senior Bowl. He threw with the quarterbacks in Indy.

”The most difficult part is the backpedaling, getting my legs in shape by backpedaling,” Marshall said.

Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney clearly has the size NFL scouts covet, 6-4, 246 pounds, though he acknowledges he still needs to improve in pass coverage and on third down.

At least Marshall and McKinney are big and, most important, healthy.

Ekpre-Olomu must rely almost entirely on game tape and interviews with teams to make his case.

He injured his knee during a mid-December practice and had surgery about eight weeks ago. He sat out the Rose Bowl win, the national championship game loss and can’t participate in Monday’s workouts for defensive backs. Though he hobbled around the hallways of Lucas Oil Stadium, Ekpre-Olomu managed to slowly climb three steps to do his 15-minute interview with reporters.

The good news is he believes the rehab is ahead of schedule, which could get him back on the field sooner than August. The bad news: Teams probably still won’t know with any certainty whether he’ll play this season when the draft begins in late April, and he won’t get a chance to show anyone what he can do in person before then.

So in a league where size can be the determining factor between wins, losses and roster spots, Ekpre-Olomu will rely on something else to make his case.

”I’m a versatile player,” he said. ”I was able to play nickel (back) throughout my career at Oregon. It really is going to help me in the long run because now the league really runs through the slot receiver. If you can have a guy that can cover the slot receiver, and try to shut him down, it just helps the team.”

Ekpre-Olomu isn’t the first player to face this predicament.

Texas A&M offensive linemen Cedric Ogbuehi tore one of his ACLs on Dec. 29. Georgia running back Todd Gurley tore the ACL in his left knee in mid-November. In 2009, doctors at the combine diagnosed receiver Michael Crabtree with a stress fracture in his foot.

It could be worse. In 2001, one defensive lineman arrived at the combine in a wheelchair. Receiver Randy Moss skipped the combine in 1999.

Try explaining that.

So Ekpre-Olomu is looking for a team that will be patient, understanding and give him a chance to prove himself. If he can, Ekpre-Olomu promises their investment will pay dividends.

”I think for the most part, once you talk about your knowledge of the game, they know what the injury is,” he said. ”They asked me what happened, how it happened, stuff like that. But for the most part, they’re worried about my football knowledge, how I’m going to approach working out and getting ready for next season.”

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