MOBILE, Ala - The North under the leadership of the Bengals coaches looks like it has a legit shot to win Saturday night's Under Armour Senior Bowl because it has some difference-makers on defense and special teams in a game lacking marquee skill players.
Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji and University of Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin, along with teammate Kevin Huber handling the punting give the North a trio of guys that can turn games around. Raji and Barwin can bring heat on the passer and Huber has a booming leg that can get offenses out of trouble. The fact he gives returners a rare look as a lefty also makes Huber prized.
"Athletically he's doing fine," said Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons, who doesn't want to rate Huber until he grades the other punters in the class. "You see why he's been successful. I think he's strong enough and talented enough to kick in the league. It's going to come down to what it usually does with young guys. How does he respond mentally to situations? I'd like to see him have a good, consistent game."
This game on NFL Network at 7 p.m. Cincinnati time isn't a preview of ESPN's Draft Day extravaganza. At least five of the top 10 picks are going to be juniors and are ineligible for this game and last year a third of the 32 first-rounders played here. And when teams start going for offensive skill players they aren't going to be looking at these rosters early.
Still, the Bengals could very well be seeing their top pick at No. 6. Raji just might have played his way into the top 10 in these practices while over on the South, Mississippi left tackle Michael Oher and USC middle linebacker Rey Maulaluga have to be among the field that would merit consideration.
But if a cornerback or safety in this game is good enough to go in the first three or four rounds or so, it's doubtful the Bengals would be in the hunt with so many needs on offense. And the top receivers look to be juniors.
So that would appear to cross off the list a couple of guys that have impressed everyone on the North this week in Connecticut cornerback Darius Butler and Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas. Notre Dame safety David Bruton, more of a free safety type compared to current Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe also via Notre Dame has picked up fans but he could be out of the Bengals range.
Same thing at tight end, where Oklahoma State's Brandon Pettigrew is going to be long gone by the time the Bengals start looking for one. Barwin could be an option after the first couple of rounds, but he's had such a coming out party down here as both a tight end and rush end that the word now is that teams with 3-4 defenses have discovered him and the sky's the limit on how early he might go.
More like it? Maybe a guy like Cincinnati cornerback DeAngelo Smith, a 5-11, 192-pounder projected to go later but who might be able to return and cover punts while working his way into a more regular role as a corner.
And he knows how important special teams are. Smith and Huber hooked up several times this past season to pin foes deep. Smith, a gunner on punt cover, would simply make eye contact with Huber and with Smith busting downfield Huber would try to hang it up so Smith could catch it.
"It's fun playing special teams when you have a punter like that," Smith said. "We've got a special teams chart we use at Cincinnati, so whenever we got inside the 50, we (Huber and Smith) would look at each other say, 'Let's go.' We'd put teams inside the 1 at times and that makes it tough for an offense to go 99 yards."
Huber, a perennial first-team All-American coming off a season he led the nation in net punting, had just 18 of his 60 punts returned with only three touchbacks. He didn't know until this week that the last time the Bengals coached the North in 2004, the only player they took home was punter Kyle Larson as a free agent. If the Bengals want Huber, they'll have to draft him and the speculation probably starts in the fourth round.
Huber is Cincinnati all the way. He grew up kicking a soccer ball on the fields of Anderson Township and punted and kicked at McNicholas High School before going to UC solely as a punter.
"I haven't had much experience out of state. I wouldn't mind sticking around," Huber said. "My family gets to see me play and they're Bengals fans, so that would be cool."
Huber has never met Larson, coming off the worst of his five NFL seasons. But he's been watching Bengals punters all the way back to Riverfront Stadium.
"I would go early just to watch both punters warm up," Huber said. "Just trying to see different guys and see different ways to do it."
Ever since he was playing goalie and sweeper until he moved to football in sixth grade, Huber has always had the strong leg.
"Sometimes that's not the best thing to have," Huber said. "You have to control it. When you need height, you've got to get height. When you need distance you've got to get distance."
"But this is not the week to change anything," Simmons said and Huber said, "It's the same thing my coach at UC has been talking about so I've got some things to go back and work on."
BC's Raji is leading a talented defensive front that is going to put pressure on the South's talented array of interior linemen, led by three of the top center prospects in the nation. The Bengals have some promising young centers on their roster in Andrew Crummey, Dan Santucci and Kyle Cook, but if they decide to replace Eric Ghiaciuc and try to do it through the draft, they should have a great feel for the prospects.
Cincinnati's own Eric Wood, out of Elder High School and Louisville, leads the contingent of Alabama's Antoine Caldwell and Arkansas's Jonathan Luigs, the nation's top center in 2007. The North has the consensus top two candidates in California's Alex Mack and Oregon's Matt Unger.
The centers have had their hands full this week in practice with the 6-1, 334-pound Raji, a low-slung battering ram that keeps coming.
"This guy is very strong. He plays hard and he's just a hard guy to block," said Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "We've got some pretty good guys. They fly around and they've got some pass-rush ability."
Ron Brace, Raji's teammate and linemate on The Heights, teamed with him to form BC's ACC-leading rush defense. The 6-3, 329-pound Brace isn't a feared pass rusher but he's hard to move and did have 23.5 career tackles for loss at BC and had nearly half of them this past year.