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Okoye proved to be a quick study

This is the fifth in a series of stories on players eligible for the April 28 NFL draft. Today's story deals with defensive linemen.

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Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye was a four-year starter at the University of Louisville who is expected to be a high first-round pick in the NFL draft.

And he's only 19 years old.

At an age where most football players are just getting to college, Okoye has already graduated -- in three years, no less.

"I really never have felt younger than anybody else," said Okoye, who has a degree in psychology. "I always felt I was in the right grade and with everything else I did. I guess that's thanks to my parents."

Okoye may be young, but his youth does not scare NFL scouts, who believe he is as mature as he is talented.

"I think he's going to be an early pick and a good player," Buffalo Bills Assistant General Manager Tom Modrak said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "He has the talent to be an impact guy."

The 6-foot-2, 305-pound Okoye emerged as a solid first-round pick at the Senior Bowl, where he displayed great quickness and a knack for disrupting plays in the backfield. He ran the 40-yard dash in 5.07 seconds at the combine, but had a 4.85-second time at Louisville's pro day despite a sore hamstring.

Most NFL people think Okoye would be the ideal three-technique tackle in a Tampa-2 defense, but he is capable of adding weight and playing some nose tackle. Learning an NFL defense shouldn't be a problem because he has always been a quick study.

A native of Nigeria, he began school at age 2 1/2 . He got an early start, he said, because his mother was the principal of the local grade school. He was about to enter high school at 12 when his family moved to Huntsville, Ala., in 1999 and enrolled him at Lee High. School administrators questioned Okoye's readiness and gave him two weeks to prove he could handle the course load. Within a year, he was taking advanced classes.

Okoye was accepted at Harvard, but chose to play football at Louisville.

Then-Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino told reporters his 16-year-old freshman wouldn't see playing time until he could shave. Two weeks later, Petrino bought Okoye a shaver.

Petrino believes Okoye is ready for the pro level. The two might be reunited in Atlanta, where Petrino is the Falcons' new coach.

"The first thing that really will help Amobi is that he is very intelligent," Petrino said at the combine. "He is a real student of the game, so he understands blocking schemes, he knows how to attack pass protection. He is a real physical, explosive young man who combines his strength and quickness together."

Okoye is the most intriguing defensive lineman in the draft, but the best of the bunch is Clemson All-American defensive end Gaines Adams.

A former receiver who played eight-man football in high school, Adams was the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year after recording 12 1/2 sacks, 17 1/2 tackles for a loss and 26 quarterback pressures.

"We all have different things," Adams said of what is considered a deep defensive end class. "You have some other guys who are strong and things like that. What separates me is I'm a speed guy. I have different moves . . . so I can keep the tackles guessing."

The 6-4 3/4 , 261-pound Adams has impressive acceleration off the line of scrimmage. His 4.64-second 40 time suggests he might be able to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. "Whether it's 4-3 or 3-4, I'm ready for it," he said. "I think I can put on about 10 more pounds and still be successful and keep my speed."

As many as seven defensive linemen could be drafted in the first round. Among the candidates are tackle Alan Branch of Michigan and ends Adam Carriker of Nebraska, Jamaal Anderson of Arkansas, Jarvis Moss of Florida and Anthony Spencer of Purdue.

The 6-5 3/4 , 324-pound Branch is an athletic run stuffer who can play nose tackle in a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. The 6-5, 288-pound Anderson, who had 13 1/2 sacks, 20 1/2 tackles for losses and 26 quarterback hurries last season, has the size and athleticism to be a playmaker in a 4-3. The 6-6, 296-pound Carriker fits the profile of a 3-4 end because of his bulk and strength.

Next: Linebackers

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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