(Editor's note: More than 320 standout college players put their skills on display at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. From that group will come the majority of young men who will hear their names called during the 2011 NFL Draft in April. Buccaneers.com was at the Combine, and during the weeks leading up to this year's draft, we will be taking a closer look at some of players who put their skills on display during six days of workouts, interviews and medical evaluations in Indianapolis. This series is NOT meant to reflect any specific opinions of the actual draft decision-makers in the Buccaneers' player personnel department. Any mention of draft-board status or a player's strengths and weaknesses are from outside sources, not the team's own scouting work. First to be featured in our series is Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara.)
Prince Amukamara, the imposing cornerback out of the University of Nebraska, handled his media session at the recent NFL Scouting Combine in a professional and studied manner. His answers were matter-of-fact, polite but short, confident without being cocky.
On just two occasions did Amukamara crack into a more casual tone, letting a smile through. One was something of a set-up, as an insistent voice cut through the other questioners:
"Prince! Prince! Who's your best friend."
The impromptu interviewer was Amukamara's fellow Cornhusker DB, Eric Hagg, playing a joke on his buddy on the way to his own podium. Even then, Amukamara laughed but immediately put his straightforward tone back on and answered in just six words.
"My best friend is Eric Hagg," he said, deadpan.
The other smile came after he had been questioned about his upcoming crack at the 40-yard dash. If there was a knock on Amukamara – and it clearly was not one shared by all evaluators – it was that he might not have the same top-end speed as some of the other highly-rated cornerbacks at the Combine. The 40-yard dash he would run two days later had the potential to add legs to that story or put it to rest.
"The 40-yard dash is weighted high at the Combine and I'm looking forward to doing real well at it," Amukamara said, once again getting right to the point. However, another questioner then asked him if a sub-4.5 time was in the realm of possibility. That's when Amukamara let out a little laugh, and maybe blew off a little steam.
"Dang, 4.5?" he answered, in mock shock. Pause. "I know I'm going to run real well."
Two days later, on the final day of Combine workouts, Amukamara blazed through the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds. That wasn't quite as fast as the time turned in by the presumptive first cornerback to come off the board in April, LSU's Patrick Peterson (4.34) but it was plenty fast enough. Since Amukamara is generally showing up in mock drafts somewhere between the eighth and 12th overall pick, it's hard for his stock to go much higher, but it's safe to say that he didn't hurt himself in Indianapolis.
Top-notch cornerbacks are one of the most prized commodities in the NFL – some list the hierarchy of position importance as quarterback, left tackle, pass-rushing end and then left cornerback – so Peterson and Amukamara are sure to be in many team's consideration when the first round begins on April 28. Amukamara, in particular, is often mock-slotted to the Dallas Cowboys at #9, the Houston Texans at #11 or the Detroit Lions at #13. That doesn't mean teams in the lower half of the opening round are out of the range of possibilities; it just means it may take a trade up the board to get it done.
And now that Amukamara's speed has been confirmed, the entire package is looking awfully enticing to NFL scouts. He is a chiseled 6-1 and 206 pounds and a player already known for his physical style of play. That will surely delight teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who prefer cornerbacks who can make a difference in run support (Exhibit A: Ronde Barber). Amukamara racked up 181 tackles and four sacks despite starting just two seasons at Nebraska, and he says his tackling is one area of his game in which he takes particular pride.
"That's something that's been touched on a lot," he said. "It's just good tackling technique and wrapping up. Probably some corners don't like to stick their noses in and get a little dirty, but I'm one of those corners who does."
Technique is central to a cornerback's success in the NFL. From Herm Edwards to Mike Tomlin to Raheem Morris, Buccaneers defensive backs coaches have been renowned for the intense attention to detail they demanded during their position drills in practice. Footwork and fluid hip movement are crucial. Amukamara may have an advantage in that regard in that he originally went to Nebraska to play running back. He has very quick feet and outstanding change-of-direction skills. The Glendale, Arizona native was also a starting point guard in high school, helping his team to three state titles. He says that experience helps him exert his leadership on the football field.
Even better, Amukamara already has a good grasp on what technique work will be demanded of him in the NFL and where he still needs to improve. It had to delight scouts and assistant coaches at the Combine when he answered a typical question ("Where does your game need improvement?") without resorting to the rote answer ("I want to improve in every area.")
"The thing I've been working on in the offseason is my technique," said Amukamara. "I feel like I'm too high in my backpedal, so I've been working a lot on my technique."
Heck, Amukamara is aware enough to make necessary changes within the confines of a single game. Last October, his Huskers were locked in a shootout with Big 12 rival Oklahoma State at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater. Talented wideout Justin Blackmon, a central figure in OSU's high-powered passing attack, hauled in several big plays during the first half, including an 80-yard touchdown that gave the Cowboys a 27-24 lead in the second quarter.
On some of Blackmon's big plays, Amukamara had been the victim. He didn't plan on letting that happen in the second half. After the intermission, Amukamara held Blackmon to just one catch for three yards until a meaningless score at the end of the game. Meanwhile, Nebraska pulled away, going up by 17 points before finishing off a 51-41 win. That last stat was the most important one to Amukamara.
"Justin Blackmon is a really good wide receiver," said the Husker DB. "He only got me on a few plays, and those were all in the same half. I corrected it in the second half, I had a better second half and my team won. It was just my technique – I was letting him get on top of me."
The straight-shooting Amukamara didn't shy away from one of the less glorious moments of his outstanding senior season, but he clearly came out of that game just as sure of himself as he went in. Perhaps he will have that "short-term memory" that NFL cornerbacks claim is a must if you want to win the majority of your battles.
"I think every corner should have that confidence because you are on an island," said Amukamara. "And, yes, I do feel like I'm one of the best corners in the draft."
Some scouts believe he could develop into one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, as well, and fairly rapidly. That's certainly what a team will expect if it takes him in the first round. Among the rising young stars at that position in the NFL – Darrelle Revis, Leon Hall, Devin McCourty, Aqib Talib, Vontae Davis, etc. – a majority came in as first-round picks over the last five springs.
Amukamara certainly could latch on to any of those now-established NFL standouts as a role model, but his intention is to carve his own path and make a (very mellifluous) name for himself.
"I have respect for all the DBs at the next level but there's not a particular guy I try to model my craft after," he said. "I think every player who would consider himself great would have his own identity."