Barwin's theory

MOBILE, Ala. - The first full day of the Senior Bowl began with Marvin Lewis reminding his team in an early morning meeting that they are embarking on a week-long job interview.

It ended at just about midnight with agents virtually tucking in their players and NFL scouts and coaches scattered about the sardine-packed first two floors of the Renaissance Hotel comparing notes, resumes and job gossip.

In between Monday there were some snippets:

The Bengals coaching staff got its first look at its North team on the field Monday afternoon and at first blush it looks to be much better than the 2004 edition that got swamped by the South.

"I like the offensive line, where the centers this year are fantastic," said Mike Mayock, the NFL Network analyst, before he was beamed nationwide during practice. "The kid that is my favorite on the whole North is Brandon Pettigrew, the tight end from Oklahoma State. I think he's rare. I think he's special. He's one of those rare tight ends this year in college football that is a great in-line blocker and can catch the ball down the field."

The Hayes brothers, tight ends coach Jon and defensive line coach Jay, were getting ready to trade off the University of Cincinnati's intriguing Connor Barwin, a former tight end that moved to defensive end this season and led the Big East in sacks.

"I think I get him until Thursday and then he goes over to Jay," said Jon. "He has a chance to be a niche guy in the league, but I don't know if he's big enough (6-3, 253) to put his hand on the ground (and rush the passer.)

"I was surprised how much he retained when we were doing it on the board, but he's just got to get used to it when everyone starts moving around."

Doug Williams, still a personnel assistant with Tampa Bay, was thinking about Barack Obama's inauguration as much as the club's Friday Night Massacre that claimed head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen.

"The only thing I had to do with it is I voted for him," said Williams, vastly underplaying his role in the story as the Super Bowl's first winning African-American quarterback 21 years ago. "It's a great day for America. I'd like to watch it, but I'm afraid I'll be at the (North) practice."

Such is a day at the Senior Bowl, an all-star game where talents and teams and times always seem to be juggled on the run.

Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander and assistant Bob Surace did a bit of juggling with two of the game's marquee names in centers Max Unger of Oregon and Alex Mack of California. Both got an introduction to NFL guard Monday. Not to mention each other as the draft's consensus two top centers.

"He's real good. I was stretching next to him and he was doing splits," Unger said. "He was touching his butt all the way to the ground from a standing position. The guy's an animal."

"He's good. He's real smooth on his pass sets," Mack said. "If a guy is good enough to be here, I'm going to watch and see if there's anything I can learn."

Alexander and Surace want to know how much the prospects can learn in a week, so they've made an effort not to make things too vanilla. That shouldn't be too hard for Mack or Unger. Mack won the Draddy Trophy as college football's top scholar-athlete and Unger had a 3.02 grade point average en route to his art degree.

"I wanted it to be a little higher," Unger said. "I didn't really have a concentration. A lot of general stuff. It was a lot of print-making and metal classes. Good stuff. It was fun, good classes."

Who sounds like who went to Berkeley? Mack sounded like he went to school on the Xs and Os.

"They weren't going to change your technique if it's been something you've been doing for the last five years," Mack said. "But they wanted to expose you to different schemes, different plays. By the end of practice it was starting to become more natural."

But it looks like they're going to have their hands full all week with Boston College defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace. Raji and Brace wasted no time standing out Monday even after Mayock had observed before he went on air, "They have a chance to be good football players."

Barwin is a good football player. The problem is where? After a junior season he made a mark on special teams and caught 31 balls and two touchdowns, he made the stunningly successful move to pass rusher as a senior. After moving back to tight end Monday, it was not lost on him what his old college teammate had done the day before in the Eagles' loss in the NFC championship game.

Former Cincinnati tight end Brent Celek set a team playoff record with 10 catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns while bringing Philadelphia back from a 24-6 deficit to 24-19 before the Eagles briefly took a lead.

"Unfortunately I didn't see it, but I saw the highlights and I'm so happy for him because I know how tough it's been for him sitting behind L.J. Smith," Barwin said. "We still talk on the phone and we text. I'm going to wait for a few more days to call him because I know he must be hearing from everybody."

Barwin is saying and doing all the right things. Asked what position he prefers, he said, "Wherever which team picks me to play," and "whatever gets me on the field the longest."

Jay Hayes, the Bengals D-line coach, is fully aware of Barwin's work with the Cincinnati basketball team, and he's interested to see what he gets later in the week. It does conjure up memories from 10 years ago when Hayes was the Steelers special teams coach and had a special teams maven that also played some SAM linebacker named Mike Vrabel before Vrabel became the gold standard for versatility as a top flight linebacker and TD-catching tight end in New England.

"Vrabes could really run," said Jay Hayes, who really can't two weeks removed from hernia surgery. "We'll see what this guy can do. I know he's athletic."

It was a tough practice for everyone. About 10 minutes into it, one of the players hustling to their position slammed into Jay Hayes and his scar. But Barwin didn't look the worse for wear even though he admitted he was rusty getting back into a position he hadn't played in awhile.

"I'm not as good as Celek blocking, but he proved yesterday he's a receiving tight end," Barwin said as he talked about his own game. "I think my strengths are my route running, my toughness. Blocking down linemen is a weakness."

But Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski liked Barwin's personality and the brightness he brought to the meeting room and thinks he could make a mental transition. Jon Hayes knows Barwin needs more reps on offense just to get back into it.

"But he looked pretty good and he understood things," Jon Hayes said. "Is he big enough to put his hand on the ground and rush the passer? I think Vrabel was a littler bigger when Jay had him. But the more you can do. He might be able to play some special teams and play some SAM backer and with goal-line and short-yardage, there are guys who aren't tight ends who have caught more touchdowns in this league than tight ends. And they'll see what he can do rushing."

Barwin's stock has a chance to go through the roof at next month's NFL Scouting Combine. While training in the UC weight room, Barwin is also working with Clif Marshall at Ignition Sports, a Cincinnati suburban gym where Marshall preps prospects for combine testing. He believes he's dealing with an athletic freak.

"Out of the 15 guys I've got, he's the biggest and he's got the lowest body fat. He's got just 10," Marshall said when he called in to check in on Barwin's day. "And in front of all these receivers and DBs, he did a vertical leap of about 34 inches."

Plus, Marshall is convinced that Barwin's frame is big enough to put on another 20 pounds or so and be a Justin Smith-like 275 pounds.

Other Monday snippets:

Mayock caught himself musing about the North quarterback corps of Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Sam Houston State's Rhett Bomar, and Central Arkansas's Nathan Brown. "Will a senior quarterback please step up," he mused, and while he likes the athleticism of Missouri safety William Moore he also wondered "on tape he played like a top 20 pick as a junior but a fourth-rounder as a senior."

But one guy who did get some raves Monday was Penn State receiver-returner Derrick Williams with one scout observing, "He's showing people he's faster then they think. He'll make some money this week."

Lewis didn't say that, but it was implicit in his message he pounded all day and will continue to do during the week.

"He said we've got a great opportunity to show what we can do," Barwin said, "because everybody (in the NFL) is here. It was good to hear that coming from him."

All they had to do was look in the stands and see Doug Williams, a guy who had one opportunity and ran it into history. In this historic week, he didn't want to take much credit.

"There were a lot of great firsts along the way to get to this day," he said. "Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Jackie Robinson."

Told he was part of that line, Williams said, "It's a great line to be a part of," but he still didn't think he'd make it back from Lewis' practice in time to see Obama sworn in.

"I'll have to see the highlights," he said at the start of a week everyone is on the run.

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