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February 26, 2008

NFL Draft class features late bloomers

MORE: Rivals.com coverage from the NFL Scouting Combine

INDIANAPOLIS Pittsburgh offensive tackle Jeff Otah played only three games of varsity high school football and was known more for his mammoth frame than his unpolished game early in his college career.

Now he has a legitimate chance of getting taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.

THE KENTWAN BALMER FILE

Name: Kentwan Balmer
Position: Defensive tackle
Height: 6 feet 4 1/2
Weight: 308
College: North Carolina
Agent: Gary Wichard
Fact: Balmer said he would like to be compared with New England Patriots defensive tackle Richard Seymour more than any other player. "He plays hard and plays with passion," Balmer said.
Projection: First or second round
"It's a surprise, all this stuff happening so fast," Otah said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "I just feel blessed. I just listen to my coaches, work hard and this is what happens."

Otah isn't alone.

While most of the players at the Combine have spent virtually their whole lives preparing for this moment, there also are a few notable exceptions who only recently harbored realistic hopes of playing in the NFL.

North Carolina defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer developed into a college star last fall only after a new coaching staff helped him realize his potential. Nebraska offensive tackle Carl Nicks bounced around at a few different places before landing in the Huskers' starting lineup late in his junior season. Otah needed time to master the blocking techniques he never really learned in high school.

All three players now could hear their names called on the first day of the draft. Frank Coyle of draftinsiders.com currently has Otah and Balmer going in the first round, though Otah may have hurt his cause Saturday with a so-so performance at the Combine.

"It's always been a dream of mine to be a first-round pick," Balmer said. "Everybody always said I had the athletic ability to do it, but there's more to being a first-round pick than athletic ability. You have to be a complete player. You have to be able to study film, watch what you eat and get proper rest. I think earlier in my career, I didn't understand how to do it."

That all changed when defensive line coach John Blake arrived in Chapel Hill after the 2006 season. Blake, who won two Super Bowl rings as a Dallas Cowboys assistant in the 1990s, altered Balmer's work habits on and off the field.

Balmer learned how to break down an opponent and study game film in such a way that he could discover an opponent's tendencies. That strategy worked wonders in a 16-13 victory over Maryland last year. He knew when the Terrapins were running a power play by the way the guard positioned himself, and he recorded a sack by breaking down Maryland's snap count.

After recording only 16 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss as a junior, Balmer had 59 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss as a senior. Coyle rates Balmer as the No. 23 prospect in this class and has him going 26th to the Jacksonville Jaguars in his mock draft.

THE CARL NICKS FILE

Name: Carl Nicks
Position: Offensive tackle
Height: 6 feet 5
Weight: 340
College: Nebraska
Agent: Brian Mackler and Lester Archambeau
Fact: Nicks spent a year at New Mexico State and a year at Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif., before moving on to Nebraska. He originally signed with New Mexico State as a defensive tackle.
Projection: Second-fourth round.
Balmer believes his draft stock wouldn't have soared to such heights if Blake hadn't become a part of his life. "Without him, I probably wouldn't be standing in front of you right now," Balmer said.

Otah also had reason to wonder if he'd ever get here, even though his 6-foot-6, 322-pound frame seems to make him an ideal fit. He considered himself more of a basketball player than a football player for much of his teenage years. He played defensive tackle on the junior-varsity team at William Penn High in New Castle, Del., but he didn't join the varsity squad until his senior year.

Otah played only three games before a broken hand ended his season, but the experience still caused him to switch his loyalties. "That's when I realized football was something I could take to the next level," he said.

Academic issues forced Otah to attend Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy before he enrolled at Pittsburgh before his junior year. He immediately won a starting job with the Panthers despite his lack of experience, then had the misfortune of opening his college career by lining up against Chris Long, a future All-American from Virginia.

Otah committed two holding penalties in that game, but he learned from the experience and developed into a first-team All-Big East performer his senior year. In a rematch with Virginia this past season, Otah limited Long to three assists.

"He made a tremendous jump," Pitt tight end Darrell Strong said. "When he came in, he was good. But after that first year, he got with our strength and conditioning coach, and he became a phenomenal player."

While his lack of experience suggests he may need time to adjust to the pro game, Otah certainly has the size to enjoy similar success at the next level.

"He definitely has the athletic ability," said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who has 11 years of NFL head-coaching experience with the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins. "The only thing Jeff's going to have problems with won't be any physical stuff. It's just the new things you see for the first time when you've only played football a few years and are playing different defenses and different blitzes every week. It takes a little bit of time."

Nicks also benefited from his connections with a former NFL coach during his circuitous route to the Combine. He initially enrolled at New Mexico State as a defensive tackle before transferring to Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif., after one year; Nicks eventually joined former Oakland Raiders coach Bill Callahan at Nebraska.

THE JEFF OTAH FILE

Name: Jeff Otah
Position: Offensive tackle
Height: 6 feet 6
Weight: 322
College: Pittsburgh
Agent: Eric Metz, Ethan Lock and Vance Malinovic
Fact: Otah grew up enjoying basketball more than football and averaged nearly 19 points and 12 rebounds per game at William Penn.
Projection: First or second round.
"When he first recruited me I don't know if it was just recruiting but he told me I had the potential to be a pro," Nicks said.

When he first arrived at Nebraska, though, Nicks didn't earn much playing time. His only starts as a junior came when he replaced injured right tackle Matt Slausen in the regular-season finale against Colorado and the Big 12 Championship Game against Oklahoma.

But in the week leading up to that first start, Nicks finally started to display the ability Callahan had seen in him all along. "In practice, I was just hammering guys," Nicks said. "Everybody was just really shocked, and I was just like, 'I could have been doing this all the time.' ''

Nicks has developed into one of the more intriguing offensive linemen available in this draft. Coyle doesn't include Nicks in his list of the top 100 prospects, but other draft services have him getting taken as early as the second round.

As a 6-5, 340-pound lineman who can play guard or tackle, Nicks' combination of size and versatility should make him attractive to NFL scouts. Nicks helped his cause at the Combine by recording 37 reps on the 225-pound bench press and running the 40-yard dash in 5.19 seconds.

Nicks is so happy with his recent change of fortune that he doesn't mind when he's described as a late bloomer, a tag that sometimes can seem like a backhanded compliment.

"I'm not trying to be a late bloomer, but it's accurate," Nicks said. "I didn't play until late as a junior so, in a sense, I guess I am a late bloomer."

At least his career is blossoming in the nick of time.

MORE: Rivals.com coverage from the NFL Scouting Combine

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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