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Physically gifted Upshaw working hard to refine technique

  • By Jeff Darlington NFL.com
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PHOENIX -- On a 40-yard football field at the Athletes' Performance training center, against the backdrop of the Arizona mountains, Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw was beating up a tall, red blocking dummy like it just tried to steal his car.

He swatted it hard with his left hand, swept through with his right arm as if to clear the faux defender from his body, then ripped past it toward what might, in less than seven months, be a vulnerable NFL quarterback about to get pummeled.

It looked good. No, it looked better than good.

Courtney Upshaw piled up 17 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles in his senior season at Alabama.
Courtney Upshaw piled up 17 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles in his senior season at Alabama. (Marvin Gentry/US Presswire)

"Again, again!" yelled Jay Caldwell, a body technique coach summoned to Phoenix to provide Upshaw with daily lessons just like this. "We're not trying to get better here -- we're trying to be great!"

No need to tell Upshaw twice. Based less on his words and more on his actions over the past two months, it'd be hard to find anyone desiring greatness like him. If his career at Alabama wasn't convincing enough, consider more recent proof instead.

Four days after being named the Defensive MVP of the BCS Championship Game (his second national title in three years), Upshaw was on the brink of hiring an agent when he told Doug Hendrickson, who he'd eventually choose as his representation, that he had a very deliberate desire to improve his pass-rush ability. Hendrickson called Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who jumped on the phone with Upshaw and told him all about Caldwell, the pass-rush specialist who has assisted Tuck for years.

"I want him," Upshaw said. "Get him to Pensacola by Sunday."

Yes, less than one week after dominating LSU, Upshaw's celebration was over. He had bigger aspirations. Namely, being great.

"I just wanted to get into it," Upshaw said Wednesday in Phoenix. "The Senior Bowl was coming up, and I wanted to play in that game. I wanted to get back to work. I didn't want to slack. That was my whole mindset going into it.

"It's what I've always wanted to do: Leave a mark. I want to be remembered."

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That's what brings him here, to this training facility, this week, as he prepares for next week's NFL Scouting Combine. Upshaw is undergoing all of the training of most prospects -- but his preparations extend far beyond Indianapolis.

His desire to become a fully polished player, ready to start for a team immediately, caused him to hook up with Caldwell, who provides a type of training not found in very many places.

"I'm not a trainer -- I'm a technique coach," Caldwell said. "It's like an efficiency expert. I teach explosion, control, quickness, twitch, disengaging linemen -- all of those things.

"A lot of guys think they can fight through a linemen, but they really can't. They can break them at different points."

The training looks like a fusion of martial arts, wrestling and football. A lot of chopping. A lot of hand movements. And a lot of body positioning that creates different leverage points to create an advantage against opposing linemen.

Tuck and Caldwell hooked up years ago after Tuck realized his size and speed could be much better utilized if he integrated more of an arsenal of body and hand moves. Tuck, the Giants' defensive captain, has since helped anchor a D that's largely responsible for two Super Bowls.

"(Upshaw) is a very strong guy," said Tuck, who has now spoken to the first-round prospect on several occasions. "The sky is the limit as he learns how to keep guys off of him. I'm an Alabama fan, so I watched him during his whole career. He does a great job of just being more athletic and stronger than most of his opponents.

"But once he figures out he can beat guys without them even getting their hands on him, he's going to be tremendously hard to block."

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As he adds these weapons into his arsenal at such an early point in his career, Upshaw's combination of size, speed and maneuverability could quickly turn him into a player like Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley. That's the comparison Tuck made -- suggesting Upshaw is probably best suited for outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

"I think he's going to be one of the premier players in the NFL," Tuck said by phone Wednesday. "It just depends what team he goes to."

The benefit of learning from Caldwell at this point, before his career even starts, should assist Upshaw's transition into the NFL. But it's only one part of the reason why he's likely to be one of the most NFL-ready players in the draft. He's also coming from Alabama, a team run with a pro-style management under Nick Saban.

At 6-foot-2, 263 pounds, Upshaw had 51 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. In the BCS Championship game, his seven tackles (including a sack and a tackle for a loss) provided a major spark in one of the most awe-inspiring defensive performances in college football history.

Now, he wants to transition that style into the NFL.

"Throughout college, the way I played the game, I like to be physical," Upshaw said. "I love the contact. I like to bring the thump. With me, I just want to go out and dominate the person in front of me for the entire game.

"I feel like I'm a good pass rusher, but I want to be great."

Just how prepared is Upshaw for his upcoming transition? Forget about the improved pass rush. Forget about the beastly frame. Forget about all of the things that probably matter most.

There's also this: Upshaw already has his sack dance ready.

"Watching the guys in the league, getting a sack looks fun," Upshaw said. "I don't care if you're an outside backer, a safety, whatever, getting a sack is fun. So I got my celebration dances already. It's going to be fun."

What's the dance, you ask? You're not getting that much out of him yet. For that, you'll have to wait until the red blocking dummy is an actual opponent instead. The good news is, you won't likely have to wait long.

"I'm going to have to show you when I get the first sack," Upshaw said. "Nobody knows the dance yet. But it's going to be one you see for years and years and years."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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