MOBILE, Ala - The first step in the draft process is like any first step: Hesitant. Awkward. Unsure.
Which is why you have to be so careful about first impressions early in the week at the Under Armour Senior Bowl. USC middle linebacker Rey Maulaluga arrived as a top 10 pick but had a rough enough time that some Web sites were putting an arrow down and some scouts were talking about how fellow Trojans linebacker Brian Cushing was actually better.
But by Thursday there were reports of Maulaluga displaying his ample strength in getting blockers off him, all of which had Jaguars linebackers coach Mark Duffner shaking his head in support of what he sees as an emerging NFL building block.
|!(http://prod.static.bengals.clubs.nfl.com//assets/clubimages/news-articles/all-news/cushing_duffner.jpg) **Jacksonville coach Mark Duffner (left) and USC's Brian Cushing** (Getty Images)|
"First of all, you have to look at the body of work of these players," Duffner said after he worked with his marquee names in Thursday's South practice. "One practice or one drill or anything like that can't make you or break you. He's had a very productive career. They come in, they're working in a different scheme, and they're working around different players. You can't look at one practice, one play, one drill."
Take a look at two different reports on Mississippi left tackle Michael Oher from the same day, Tuesday:
The Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows: "Two different scouts told me that Ole Miss offensive tackle Michael Oher might be the most talented player in Mobile this week. Oher didn't disappoint today, mostly manhandling his opponents on what was otherwise a rough outing for the South offensive line."
SI.com on Hawaii defensive end David Veikune: "Several of his battles against top-rated left tackle Michael Oher ended up in his favor. In one instance he had the potential first-round pick twisted like a pretzel as Oher failed to protect the quarterback from Veikune's speed."
StripeHype.com, devoted to all things Bengals, quoted a scout from the same practice that Oher rebounded from a slow start to dominate.
So what's it all mean?
With apologies to '80s movie fans, "Not so fast, Francis." The draft is three months from now; long enough to define a presidential administration, never mind reorder the first round.
Some of the concerns about Maulaluga?
Maybe a bit stiff. Not real instinctive. Tentative. But most of this stuff can easily be explained by new coaches and new schemes. Duffner thinks the trio of 'SC linebackers he's coaching this week (Clay Matthews is here with Maulaluga and Cushing) are going to be solid NFL players for a long time.
"They all have their strengths, their DNA in terms of the type of players they are," Duffner said. "All have a chance to be very productive. Rey is tough. He's going to come downhill. He really wants to impact the game with his attitude and effort.
"Cushing is a guy with a lot of range, a lot flexibility. Pass rush. Real strong player. And Clay is the same way. Big strong player. Fierce competitor. Tough player. Talented bunch. The 'SC coaches did a heck of a job with them. I think you put them in any scheme, they're going to help you."
Same old Duff.
When the Jaguars got the coaching assignment for the Senior Bowl, he postponed hip replacement surgery until next Tuesday. He may be limping around, but his trademark enthusiasm is in a full-out sprint just like it was during his six seasons in Cincinnati as a linebackers coach and then defensive coordinator in 2001 and 2002 before he went to a raft of playoffs with the Packers and Jags.
(A not-so-trivia question: Who led the Bengals defense to its highest NFL ranking since No. 7 in 1989 and Mike Zimmer's bounce-back No. 12 in 2008? Duffner at No. 9 in '01.)
"I love Duff; I love his enthusiasm," said Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, who has been known not to love some of his assistants when it comes to keeping them around. "I like his loyalty and he's a good football coach."
Del Rio is also an old-time USC linebacker, the tough, brainy type that doesn't want to compare when asked which of the three is closest to his style.
"Can't do that; I can't compare," Del Rio said. "The players are so different now when they come out."
Duffner has a good history with 'SC linebackers. He coveted Keith Rivers last season but the Jags picked so late in the first round they had no shot at him and when they traded up ahead of the Bengals to get defensive end Derrick Harvey, the Bengals made Rivers just the fifth linebacker to go in the top 10 this decade at No. 9.
"Love him, love him," Duffner said of Rivers. "Out of all the players I've talked to down through the years, he's the guy that called me back the most. Consistently. He's just a top flight, responsible guy. Tough guy that comes from a winning program. If we couldn't get a guy like that, I'm glad he went to the Bengals."
The loyalty Del Rio spoke of is why Duffner looks upon his days in Cincinnati so fondly.
"I very much love the tradition of the Bengals; a tradition of a family-owned pro football team," Duffner said. "I think the Brown family is really positive in terms of how they conduct their team and how they work and I enjoyed that environment. I learned a lot."
Duffner has never expressed regrets about the morning of Sept. 24, 2000, when Bengals president Mike Brown seriously considered calling on him in the wake of head coach Bruce Coslet's resignation until Duffner told him that the job should go to defensive coordinator/head coach Dick LeBeau.
"It was the right thing," Duffner said. "I was flattered Mike Brown had some interest in me for a position like that, but the right thing was for Coach to have that. I have no regrets on that. Could I have done the thing? Sure. But that was the right thing."
And Duffner thinks the Bengals did the right thing taking Rivers for an even bigger reason.
"With (Carson) Palmer on offense and Rivers on defense, they've got two great kids," Duffner said. "You're talking about cornerstone guys for a long time that they can build around."
After all the first-impression scouting reports, Duffner thinks the USC Three are headed in the same way.
"They can have that kind of impact on a team," he said. "Guys you can build cornerstones on."