Surviving the lights

1-25-04, 7 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

MOBILE, Ala. _ Ricardo Colclough knew. But he didn't really know.

Not until late in the second quarter here Saturday at the Senior Bowl near midfield. On third-and-three, he figured South quarterback J.P. Losman was going to throw a hitch, and when he did to North Carolina State wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, Colclough broke it up to keep the game sane.

Then he knew he belonged. His North team lost, 28-10 when the quicksilver South reeled off 21 points in four and half minutes during the first quarter. But Colclough was all smiles. He is why they play college all-star games. He spells his name "Colclough," but pronounces it "Coakley," and on Saturday it translated into the second round.

"Relieved and happy," said Colclough, the Division II cornerback who played Division I worthy. "It wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be."

It was all good for him on a day not much went right for Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' North team. Colclough may have caught up with the Division I pace earlier in the week, but he was one of the only ones in the South's impressive display of speed that accounted for nearly 392 yards.

The man voted the nation's best defensive back and defensive player, North cornerback Derrick Strait of Oklahoma, offered the best explanation of the South's 21- point burst on some cross-country passing.

"They were faster than what we had seen with our receivers," Strait said, "and we had to adjust off that during the game."

Colclough had to literally adjust to some larger issues. Such as playing in front of his biggest crowd ever at 40,646. He did what his friends had asked over the phone earlier in the day and represented tiny Tusculum College. He broke up another pass, had five tackles, was named his team's best defensive player, and received the blessing of the college of draftnicks before heading to next month's NFL scouting combine.

"He did what he had to do," said ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. "He's a solid second-rounder. I don't think anyone is going to gamble on him late in the first round, but he's a solid two and came out of it fine with a good week of practice."

That's more than the Bengals got out of what was supposed to be a deep field of defensive backs, which appears to be their most pressing need in the April 24-25 NFL Draft. But USC cornerback Will Poole, a very viable pick for them at No. 17, got sent home with a stretched Achilles.' So did Iowa safety Bob Sanders when he re-aggravated a foot injury. Naturally, then, a guy they were extremely impressed with during the week (and some league observers thought was the best player here), Michigan safety Jeremy LeSueur, got sick and couldn't play.

But, like Strait said, Colclough, "played great. He held up his end of the field, and just went out and had fun." After he felt slow during Monday's practice, Colclough got used to the speed as the week went along.

"He settled down," Lewis said. "We said that right away (about the speed), but he put himself in better body position with technique."

Colclough admitted, "coming from a Division II school, you don't see speed like you see now." He took note of the 67-yard burn route LSU's Devery Henderson ran against Penn State cornerback Rich Gardner in the second quarter.

"I talked to (Henderson)," after the game," Colclough said. "I told him, 'I won't let you do that to me.' I know when you're playing a blazer, you have to honor that."

On his third-down play, Colclough honored his anticipation of the moment.

"I thought I knew what the play was because it was third-and-short," he said. "I looked at the sticks and sort of sat on the route."

Grade problems kept the 5-11, 185-pound Colclough from going big time out of his high school in the Carolinas and when he got out of junior college, he opted for the Division II school in Tennessee so he wouldn't have to sit out a season.

Now Kiper compares him to two small-school corners taken in last year's draft in the second round in Jacksonville's Rashean Mathis at No. 39 out of Bethune-Cookman and the Rams' Drayton Florence at No. 46 out of Tuskegee. His ability to return kicks should also help him, but he didn't get to show much there Saturday with three klck returns for 62 yards with a long of 23.

Any nerves had been settled earlier in the week. He had no problem sleeping Friday night.

"If you don't get nervous before a game, you're not human," he said. "I was a little nervous. I didn't let it bother me that much. . .I didn't have a problem blocking out the crowd."

The North won the opening toss, but as he waited at the goal line for the kickoff, ESPN delayed the game by about five minutes, so Colclough had to wait to make his national TV debut. It's something he had always wondered about watching everybody else, about what he would look like on TV.

"If you buy into that, you probably won't have a good game," Colclough said. "I try to stay away from that as much as possible. (But) I knew the cameras were on me. I hope I get a chance to see it, to sit down, and look at it."

The NFL is about to do that now, and it sounds like he'll be appearing before the cameras just in time to make the 11 o'clock news in the city that picks him on Draft Day.

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