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Carolina's Austin trying to open eyes after suspension

This is the third of an eight-part series previewing the NFL draft on April 28-30. Today's installment covers defensive tackles.

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The University of North Carolina is going to make a big impression on the 2011 NFL draft.

Marvin Austin and the rest of the Tar Heel draft prospects can only lament how big an impression they might have made in the 2010 college football season.

Austin, a 6-foot-2, 309-pounder, was viewed as a potential top-10 pick last summer. Then he became the first of 13 North Carolina players to get suspended for receiving improper benefits from an agent.

Austin was suspended for the entire season, as was Tar Heels star pass rusher Robert Quinn, receiver Greg Little and three others. The other suspended players sat out anywhere from one to six games.

Yet North Carolina still had enough talent to finish 8-5 and beat Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.

Austin admitted it was hard to watch Auburn and Oregon play for the national title and not wonder what might have been.

"I think we had a national championship caliber team," Austin said. "It was unfortunate that we didn't get the chance to go out there and perform together."

Last offseason, Austin took trips to California and Miami that the NCAA determined were paid for by an agent. The California trips were made so he could work out with former Tar Heel teammate Kentwan Balmer.

"It's still hard to watch some of the stuff that's said about my character," Austin said. "I've never taken a drink in my life. I've never smoked in my life. I've done everything to get to this point, but one mistake, taking a couple of trips, and one of them was taken to help me get better as an athlete, has cost me my whole senior season and my image.

"It was a mental mistake. I got ahead of myself. I learned that I can never take anything for granted. I went from being one of the top players and prospects in the nation to being a guy that is not even talked about. And it was a tough situation having to sit back and watch all the other defensive linemen go out and play and perform and not be able to do anything. It made you put things in perspective a lot more."

Austin has done well in workouts the past two months. He lifted 225 pounds 38 times, the second best of any player in the draft. He probably fits a 4-3 system best, but he has the athleticism to play either DT spot in a four-man line. He's expected to be picked in the second round, but there's a chance he could slip into the first.

Quinn is a top-12 pick. Little is a likely third-rounder. Overall, nine Tar Heels could get drafted.

Here's a rundown on the rest of the defensive tackle prospects:

No. 1: Auburn's Nick Fairley was the best defensive player in college football last season and played big in big games to help the Tigers to the national title. He's a junior college transfer coming out a year early. The slight concern is he excelled only one of his two years at Auburn.

First-rounders: Illinois' Corey Liuget (pronounced Legit) is a three-technique penetrator who had 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks as a junior last fall. Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson, also a junior, is a two-time all-Mid-American Conference player whose 16 sacks the last two years are tops among DTs in the draft. He could play 3-4 DE, but he didn't look great against better competition (Penn State). Both Wilkerson and Baylor's Phil Taylor could last to early in the second round. Taylor, at 334 pounds, is a natural 3-4 nose tackle. He's a space-eater. He left Penn State after two years after being involved in a frat-party fight on campus.

Strongmen: Oregon State's Stephen Paea is a 295-pounder who set a NFL Scouting Combine record by lifting 225 pounds 49 times. He was born in New Zealand and raised in Tonga, where he starred in rugby. At 16 he moved with his family to Utah and took up football. He could be a second-rounder.

Caution: Not a lot of the weightlifting giants turn out great. Hampton's Kenrick Ellis will be a tempting pick for 3-4 teams because he's a nose tackle with elite talent. He dominated the small-college scene. He bounced out of South Carolina due to violating numerous team rules.

Next: Offensive line.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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