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Still a game

The third installment of a Senior Bowl week diary with Cincinnati's Eric Wood, a center for the South out of Louisville.

MOBILE, Ala. - It might be an all-star game and it might be a Friday night where little kids stop the guy with the No. 60 South jersey in the hotel lobby and ask for one of his Senior Bowl cards and it might be a Friday where his parents have come down from Cincinnati to visit their son who has been saddled in either California or Louisville for the past five months.

But it is, above everything else for Eric Wood, the night before a game. So before he goes to bed Friday night, he spends 45 minutes to an hour watching tape of his North rivals.

This is why teams love the guy when it comes to character, work ethic, attitude and all those other first-grade report-card categories that have become as important as the 40-yard dash and film when it comes to prospect evaluations in the Roger Goodell era of discipline and conduct. Sure, Wood spends some time with his family in the hotel, but he's not taking them down to Dauphin Street for a long, lazy dinner. At about 7:30, when the kid stops him for the card, he's running through the lobby trying to make sure he ends the day with film study so he can be in bed by 10:30.

! **Louisville's Eric Wood** (Getty Images)

"This is a real deep year for centers and a lot of us are here," Wood says. "By tomorrow night we all would have gone against the same guys, and teams are going to be making evaluations off of that and probably putting us in some kind of order."

If you want to know about those very impressive North defensive tackles, you only have to go to Wood:

B.J. Raji, 6-1, 335, Boston College: "We've got the same agent and I work out with him in California. He's having a great week. When we were watching SportsCenter on ESPN tonight, a feature on him came up and I couldn't be happier for him.

"You have to make sure you keep your balance with him. He's so explosive and uses his strength so well. What he's really good at is rushing the passer. That's why he's getting a lot of attention. A lot of tackles can plug the hole, but the pass rushers are the moneymakers. A guy like that, the only thing you're trying to do is block him. Just block him."

Ron Brace, 6-2, 330, Boston College: "He's almost as powerful as B.J. and almost as effective. He's not quite as active, but he's a powerful guy that likes to two-gap you and plug it up."

Ziggy Hood, 6-3, 295, Missouri: "He's quick. He's got decent pass-rush moves. You can't ever extend yourself against him or he'll embarrass you."

Mitch King, 6-1, 280, Iowa: "He plays real well with his hands and he's pretty powerful."

Plus, there is Pittsburgh linebacker Scott McKillop, another guy Wood knows well because they are also represented by agent David Dunn and are roommates when they train in California. "He's always by the ball or making the tackle," Wood said.

Wood watches mainly the 11-on-11 tape, so he also gets a long look at the center competition in the persons of California's Alex Mack and Oregon's Max Unger. Like the other South centers, Alabama's Antoine Caldwell and Arkansas's Johnathan Luigs, they are all getting snaps at guard and Wood goes to bed wondering if he's going to start at right guard.

That seems to be the position he has played as much, if not more, than center this week, and he feels a lot better there than he did Monday.

"I can't wait," he says, "to get it going. To finally get on the field and show teams what I can do at all the spots."

On Thursday night Wood doesn't have to show for the player exchange at the Mobile Convention Center. The Bengals coaching staff swaps their North players for the Jaguars' South players so they can interview them, a redundant exercise with Wood.

Not only is he from Cincinnati's west side, but he has struck up a friendly relationship with Bengals director of football operations Jim Lippincott. Whenever Lippincott, who covers the Midwest, would stop in to visit at Louisville the past few falls Wood would make sure he'd pop in to talk when Lippincott was watching tape or on other rounds.

Plus, the father of Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe was the head coach on Marvin Lewis' last Idaho State team and then hired Lewis as a graduate assistant.

But Wood didn't meet the Bengals head coach until earlier this week, so Thursday's 20-minute chat with Lewis before he went into the interview with offensive line coach Paul Alexander and assistant Bob Surace was an informal name-and-tell session of players and coaches they both knew.

It is Lewis that sets up the interviews in the middle of a sprawling hallway and he sounds a lot like a head camp counselor: "OK, quarterbacks over here, O-line over here."

"If you ever told me five or six years ago when Coach Lewis first came to Cincinnati and turned everything around that I'd be talking to him like that, I wouldn't have believed it," Wood says. "He's just what I thought. He's just talking to you. I didn't feel like he was trying to get my guard down or anything. We could have a conversation and there was no ulterior motive."

When Wood walks into the room, Alexander says, "This will be a short meeting. What don't we know about you?" But that didn't stop them, Wood says, "from talking about everything from blocking in the AFC North to LaRosa's pizza.

"They started with the usual stuff. Had I ever been arrested? Have I used drugs? Then it got interesting. They asked me if I thought I could come in and block the big nose tackles and I think he was intrigued by my answer. I definitely feel like I can. We're watching a lot of Jacksonville tape and it's the same thing. There are some guys that get double-teamed, but you just have to get the guy blocked and that's all there is to it."

They also ask him if playing in Cincinnati would be a distraction because of family and friends and after that easy answer, they also talk about playing guard with a guy that some think could eventually play four spots.

Then on Friday morning he's getting off the elevator to go to breakfast and there is Alexander on his way to the North walkthrough. They stop and talk for another 20 minutes or so.

After the South walks through late morning, about 35 players from the teams volunteer to get on a bus and go visit a children's hospital. Wood also says this is a part of the next step because he plans to get involved wherever he ends up playing.

They stop in about 20 to 25 rooms and "you get a nice feeling when a kid is sick and he looks up and they smile," Wood says. "A lot of their fathers were there and they really seemed to enjoy it. You can tell they look forward to it."

Wood really needs those light practices on Thursday and Friday. He doubts he's ever been as tired as he was that bone weary Monday night after doing a crush of five or so straight interviews with teams.

Now, it is just like a game. Whether it is Elder-Anderson in the state playoffs or a Big East game, it is a game even if it is technically his first one as a pro.

Shut the eyes early even though it is a 6 p.m. local start.

About 10:30 p.m.

"I'm keeping the same routine," he says.

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