College rivals battle for No. 1 draft status

BY Alex Marvez • February 28, 2010

One of college football’s most storied rivalries is about to get more heated.

It’s Oklahoma vs. Nebraska for bragging rights in April’s NFL draft.

Whether the St. Louis Rams keep it or trade it, nothing at the NFL Scouting Combine has changed what will happen with the No. 1 overall choice. Barring a late push by Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford, Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh or Oklahoma’s Gerald McCoy will be the first player selected. Both defensive tackles will assuredly be gone by the third pick. Detroit (No. 2 selection) and Tampa Bay (No. 3) have a need at the position and no reason to draft a quarterback after choosing Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman respectively in 2009.

Suh and McCoy -- or, as Sooners fans would argue, McCoy and Suh -- are just that good. Which one is a better NFL prospect? Rams general manager Billy Devaney said he hasn’t figured that out yet.

“They’re going to be great players,” Devaney said. “They’re character guys. They love playing football. I hope something happens where there is separation, but in our eyes, there isn’t.”

Despite their lofty pre-draft status, Suh and McCoy are so competitive that they are both performing in all of Monday’s defensive line drills rather than waiting for their respective pro days. But in many ways, McCoy and Suh are as different as Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound McCoy was a penetrating one-gap terror in what he describes as an “attack, get-up-the-field, disrupt-type” defense at Oklahoma. As a two-gap lineman, the 6-foot-4, 307pound Suh explained his role as “reading and playing through my man and then getting to the ball and disengaging.”

Two contrasting styles, equally devastating results. Suh -- whose first name is pronounced En-DOM-ah-ken -- finished his senior season with 82 tackles and 12 sacks, 4.5 of which came in a tour-de-force performance against Texas in the Big 12 Championship game. Suh’s ability to rush the passer was so unique for his position that he became the first defensive player to finish as a Heisman Trophy finalist since Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997.

McCoy had a more modest 34 tackles and six sacks in 2009. But the early-entry junior played well within Oklahoma’s system and was a lightning rod for double teams that helped his teammates excel.

Besides eye-popping athleticism, McCoy also possesses something that could give him the edge in pre-draft interviews -- an alluring personality. No knock on the well-spoken Suh, but McCoy has the magnetism to make a team fall in love.

Such charm was on full display Sunday when he spoke to media at the Combine. McCoy had reporters laughing when recalling how he once tackled three players at the same time as a 200 pound-plus 11-year-old in peewee football (“I came through and the quarterback didn’t know who to give it to so I just grabbed everybody,” he said). McCoy playfully said he wants to “kill” opposing quarterbacks -- including Bradford -- at the NFL level. McCoy downplayed being the face of whichever franchise drafts him but added “I do have a good smile” before breaking into a toothy grin.

All kidding aside, McCoy’s leadership skills are no joke. He was elected a team captain as just a sophomore and president of Oklahoma’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter.

“I was raised to be a leader, not a follower,” McCoy said. “It’s just in me. It’s natural.”

So is the tension between Sooners and Cornhuskers faithful in a football rivalry that dates back almost 100 years. But anyone expecting a war of words between McCoy and Suh will be sorely disappointed. Both were complimentary to each other during Combine interviews. The two have even struck a friendship.

“Everybody is expecting us to be bumping heads. It’s not like that,” McCoy said. “We met on the field when we played them this year and he said, ‘Go out there and ball out. Go get that money.’ I said the same thing to him. It’s been like that ever since.”

Suh expressed the same sentiment.

“We got to know each other on the awards circuit,” Suh said. “We texted each other before we came here and had dinner at our orientation. But when it comes to the combine and getting ready for Monday, obviously we’re going to kind of go our separate ways.”

That’s because only one player -- Sooner or Cornhusker -- can get taken with the first overall pick.

“I’d definitely be happy for (McCoy), but I’d definitely be disappointed with myself not getting it,” Suh said. “I’m a competitor. I want to be No. 1. That’s what I’m going to strive for.”



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