USC linebacker Keith Rivers went to the Senior Bowl last year to prove that he could play "in the phone booth." By the time he left Mobile, Ala., he left the message that even though he was a lock top 15 draft choice he wasn't going to back down in any situation or from anybody and sit out to protect the pick.
Instead, he made the same call when a couple of 'SC seniors asked him recently if they should play in the Jan. 24 all-star game, where the Bengals staff coaches the North against a South team dominated by Rivers' former teammates.
"You should go if you're a top guy. It doesn't hurt you, but it leaves doubts (if you don't)," Rivers said this week. "If you go, it shows everybody you've got nothing to hide. You are who you are against the top guys."
McShay's ESPN counterpart, Mel Kiper Jr., has 17 of the committed players listed on his Dec. 17 Big Board of the top 25 seniors. Rivers' guys must be listening to him. Three are USC linebackers: Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews.
"The 'SC guys always all go. They'll compete at the drop of a hat," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "Same thing with the Florida guys, the Ohio State guys. These guys coming from the top programs don't back away from competition. It doesn't take away from guys that have an injury and can't quite do it. But guys who want to do it, it speaks to how they feel about competition."
The Senior Bowl's rosters that break players into North and South won't be announced until Jan. 18, but the Bengals know they are fortuitously going to get a good look at what many believe to be the top three centers in the draft. With Louisville's Eric Wood, a Cincinnati product from Elder High School ticketed to the South, the Bengals are probably going to end up coaching California's Alex Mack and Oregon's Max Unger.
Also thought to be on the North team but not yet announced is Virginia left tackle Eugene Monroe, a projected top 10 pick, again playing into the Bengals' need to fortify their offensive line.
What was once a sleepy week of job fair material for NFL coaches, the Senior Bowl has exploded like anything else affiliated with the NFL into a media circus.
"The NFL Network has a great way of making it look more glamorous than it is," Rivers said. "It's a total grind. The first three days are really competitive. But it's a fun week. You get to play with all the best guys. You get to show what you can do."
The Raiders coached Rivers last year and while he said the meetings and mental part of the game weren't all that demanding, he knew he was being evaluated.
"It's for guys to have fun and make plays," he said. "The meetings are just to put you in position and teach the defense. (But) also to see how fast you pick up the defense."
Rivers admits he thought about not going to Mobile, but he showed up even though he played the entire year with a high ankle sprain that limited his play time in the Rose Bowl. After talking to USC head coach Pete Carroll and agent David Dunn, he "decided to tough it out and show them what I could do," he said.
The main attribute he wanted to display was the phone booth thing.
"To be able to take on offensive linemen in a tight space," Rivers said.
Good memory. When asked what he needed to do to take his game to the next level last Jan. 22 during the post-practice media onslaught, Bengals.com quoted it as, "Improve in the phone booth. In the tight area. Be able to get off blocks a little bit better."
It turned out to be good enough to get a top 10 call.
Announced Senior Bowlers (North-South rosters released Jan. 18):
QB Pat White-West Virginia; G Tyronne Greene-Auburn; QB John Parker Wilson-Alabama; TE Travis McCall-Alabama; C Antoine Caldwell-Alabama; FS Rashad Johnson-Alabama; DE/OLB Aaron Curry-Wake Forest; CB Alphonso Smith-Wake Forest; S Chip Vaughn-Wake Forest; RB Shawn Nelson-Southern Miss; FS Sherrod Martin-Troy; FS David Bruton-Notre Dame; WR Mohamed Massaquoi-Georgia; DT Corvey Irvin-Georgia; FS Derek Pegues-Mississippi State.
FB Eric Kettani-Navy; T Troy Kropog-Tulane; CB Ellis Lankster-West Virginia; DE Larry English-Northern Illinois; G Kraig Urbik-Wisconsin; C Alex Mack-California; OLB Zack Follett-California; WR Brooks Foster-North Carolina; DE Tyson Jackson-LSU; G Herman Johnson-LSU; FB Quinn Johnson-LSU; WR Demetrius Byrd-LSU; ILB Darryl Beckwith-LSU; MLB Rey Maualuga-USC; DT Fili Moala-USC; OLB Brian Cushing-USC; DE Kyle Moore-USC; OLB Clay Matthews-USC; FS Louis Delmas-Western Michigan; TE Brandon Pettigrew-Oklahoma St.
C Max Unger-Oregon; RB Jeremiah Johnson-Oregon; ILB Scott McKillop-Pittsburgh; OL Andy Levitre-Oregon St.; CB Keenan Lewis-Oregon St.; NT B.J. Raji-Boston College; DE Michael Johnson-Georgia Tech; DT Vance Walker-Georgia Tech; WR Kenny McKinley-South Carolina; DT Mitch King-Iowa; RB Javon Ringer-Michigan St.; RB James Davis-Clemson; QB Cullen Harper-Clemson; S Michael Hamlin-Clemson; WR Derrick Williams-Penn St.
G Trevor Canfield-Cincinnati; P Kevin Huber-Cincinnati; CB Mike Mickens-Cincinnati; DB Deangelo Smith-Cincinnati; QB Graham Harrell-Texas Tech; RB Arian Foster-Tennesssee; DE Robert Ayers-Tennessee; G Anthony Parker-Tennessee; K Louie Sakoda-Utah; K-P Pat McAfee-West Virginia; K-P Thomas Morstead-SMU; WR Juaquin Iglesias-Oklahoma; G Duke Robinson-Oklahoma; OLB Nic Harris-Oklahoma; T Phil Loadholt-Oklahoma.