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January 23, 2007

North notes: Okoye has come of age

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MOBILE, Ala. The youngest player in Senior Bowl history can't wait to line up against professional offensive linemen nearly twice his age.

"That was my whole motivation last year," Louisville defensive tackle Amobi Okoye said. "I wanted to be a 19-year-old millionaire. Hopefully, I'll be that."

That's a pretty safe bet.

Okoye earned unanimous all-Big East honors last year and capped his career by collecting a pair of sacks in Louisville's Orange Bowl victory over Wake Forest.

Not bad for a teenager who began his college career before he started shaving.

Okoye grew up in Nigeria and tested into the ninth grade at the age of 12 when his family moved to Huntsville, Ala. He started 13 games on his high school football team's defensive line as a 13-year-old sophomore.

When he was 16, Okoye was the youngest player in college football when he enrolled at Louisville in 2003. Former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino joked at the time that Okoye wouldn't get to play until he started shaving.

"When I went out there and showed them my talents and capabilities, he got me a razor," Okoye said.

It didn't matter that Okoye wouldn't start shaving for another year. He was grabbing college quarterbacks a full year before he needed to worry about his beard.

He now is poised to become pro football's version of LeBron James or Dwight Howard with one major exception. When this teenager begins his pro career, he already will have a diploma in hand.

Okoye played four full seasons at Louisville and earned his psychology degree last month.

"I learned a lot about life," Okoye said. "I grew. I think everybody should go to college."

Now the NFL is learning a lot about him.

"He may be 19 years old, but I can assure you he's not lacking any physical attributes," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, who is coaching the North team that includes Okoye. "He's explosive off that line."

Okoye also isn't lacking confidence.

The teenager boldly stated that he wanted to get taken with one of the first five picks in the upcoming NFL Draft.

He probably won't go that high without making a major impression this week. Frank Coyle of draftiniders.com currently rates Okoye as the No. 71 overall prospect in the draft, though he marvels at the Louisville star's long-term potential.

"When you have a kid this young, my God, what are you going to have when he's 23 or 24," Coyle said.

Okoye hopes to spend this week making the same kind of impression on NFL scouts that he left on Louisville's Big East rivals.

"He's going to be a first-rounder, I think," West Virginia center Dan Mozes said. "He's a great player. The sick thing about it is he's only 19 years old. He's going to do nothing but get better, get stronger and more mature."

Okoye already has plenty of maturity for someone his age.

Moving to a new country at the age of 12 and attending school at an accelerated pace caused him to grow up in a hurry. As he talks about his future plans, Okoye expresses calm confidence instead of false bravado.

Okoye has been ahead of the curve for so long that he doesn't believe he will have to play catchup for long once he enters the NFL.

"I'm ready for the challenge," Okoye said. "I just pray I stay healthy. I really see that as the only thing that can be in my way."

The North squad already had lost arguably its two top prospects when Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn and Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas withdrew from the Senior Bowl.

Northern Illinois tailback Garrett Wolfe and Rutgers tight end Clark Harris joined that duo on the inactive list Tuesday.

Wolfe has a hamstring injury that will keep him out of the game, while Harris is nursing a toe injury.

"It's been the story of my season," said Gruden, whose Buccaneers also were ravaged by injuries this year. "Everywhere I go, players get hurt."

Kansas State tailback Thomas Clayton and Delaware tight end Ben Patrick have replaced Wolfe and Harris on the roster.

Clayton and Patrick were in town for team meetings Tuesday and will participate in Wednesday's practice.

Michigan defensive end and Lombardi Award winner LaMarr Woodley sat out most of the North team's practice Tuesday after hurting his left quadriceps muscle during early-morning individual drills.

Woodley planned to participate in Wednesday's practice and didn't expect the injury to affect his status for Saturday's game.

"I had a down day today," Woodley said, "but hopefully I can have a good day tomorrow to make up for it."

California cornerback Daymeion Hughes wasted no time showing off the skills that helped him pick off eight passes this year, which tied Florida's Ryan Smith for the most among players from BCS schools.

Hughes displayed the best hands of any North defensive back during Monday's drills. Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton said afterward that Hughes had impressed him the most of all the players in the North secondary.

"He's one of those corners who's very quick, reacts well and he's just got a good feel for the game," Stanton said.

Stanton has seen all the headlines positive and negative that accompany agent Drew Rosenhaus. That didn't stop the Michigan State quarterback from selecting Rosenhaus to represent him.

"I liked everything he had to offer," Stanton said. "All those rumors once you get past that about him, he's an unbelievable agent. He's tireless and will do everything for his clients. That's someone I want working for me."

Gruden is a head coach at the Senior Bowl for the third time.

He and his Bucs staff were here a couple of years ago, and he also was a coach in Mobile during his tenure as the head coach of the Raiders.

"We asked to come back," Gruden said. "You learn a lot about these guys behind closed doors as well as the communication you have with them during practices. It has been valuable for us. We got Cadillac Williams out of this game a couple of years ago, and we did well a few years ago with the Raiders when we got Eric Barton and Rod Coleman in the fifth round. Both of those guys are still in the league, so you have to figure that was pretty good."

Barton - a linebacker out of Maryland - and Coleman, a defensive tackle out of East Carolina, were fifth-round picks by the Raiders in 1999.

Williams was a little easier to peg. The star running back out of Auburn was taken by the Bucs with the fifth overall selection in the 2005 draft.

Iowa tight end Scott Chandler typically is pretty easy to pick out in a crowd.

The 6-foot-7 senior is the tallest player on the North squad, and he is wearing his college number, 87. But, he and fellow Hawkeye Marshal Yanda were without their familiar Iowa helmets during practice Tuesday. They were the only North players not wearing their collegiate helmets.

"The equipment guy sent our helmets by ground instead of air," said Chandler, who was wearing a plain gray helmet. Yanda's was white. "They're supposed to arrive today, so hopefully we'll be representing the Hawkeyes at practice tomorrow."

An AFC scout who said he paid particularly close attention to the defensive ends said he liked Nebraska's Adam Carriker and Notre Dame's Victor Abiamiri during the North practice Tuesday morning. An NFC assistant coach said Drew Stanton performed the best of the North quarterbacks. "He gets rid of the ball quickly," the coach said. BTI Sports, which had a first-round pick last year in Ohio State center Nick Mangold, has signed Ohio State defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock and Rutgers tight end Clark Harris.

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