|Darron Cummings / Associated Press|
|Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson helped his stock at the combine and could move into the draft's first round.|
A year ago at this time, only the most ardent draftnik was espousing the abilities of Cal defensive lineman Tyson Alualu. He made the pre-draft circuit of workouts and team visits in relative anonymity, a precursor to a stunned crowd at Radio City Music Hall hearing his name called 10th overall. He was headed to Jacksonville.
I'm not predicting the same ascent for Temple defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson this April, but then again I wouldn't be shocked, either. And consider Baylor nose tackle Phil Taylor another less-talked-about member of this defensive line class who could end up going higher than many have projected. Several teams picking in the 20s are intrigued by his game.
Some draft analysts have started to project Wilkerson, a junior, as high as 10th overall -- telling for a player who didn't begin to generate a real first-round buzz until the combine -- and many scouts and talent evaluators expect him to be among the 32 players selected the opening night of the draft on April 28. Taylor has overcome weight issues that dogged him in the past and could also end up peaking at just the right time.
For as much talk as has surrounded the truly elite defensive linemen in this plentiful class -- and whether Marcell Dareus or Nick Fairley or Da'Quan Bowers would possibly go first overall -- there could be similar intrigue at the end of the first round, with teams like the Steelers, Chiefs, Patriots, Jets and Ravens all looking hard at interior defensive linemen.
The sheer number of defensive linemen who could land in the first round is staggering. One could make a case for upwards of 13 being among the top 32 picks, with a run at the position beginning at the very top of the draft and going right through first night. Most of them played at football factories, or at least in programs with a decent pedigree of producing first-round picks.
Not Wilkerson. Or Taylor.
When Wilkerson arrived on Temple's campus, the thought of developing NFL players was remote at best. The program was in peril, with some calling for the school to discontinue football entirely. Merely winning a game was a cause of celebration. For Wilkerson to just three years later opt to leave the school early and to merit consideration as a potential top-10 pick is somewhat astounding in and of itself. It's also been a constant line of questioning for him, with interested teams probing him about the decision and being ready to make a huge transition to the NFL.
"I was asked that question a lot at the combine -- what made me come out now?" Wilkerson said between visits to Baltimore and Seattle this week. "And at end of day as a junior, I was part of a good turnaround at Temple. Before I came there, they won no games one year and one game another year. And once I got there as a freshman, we won five and then nine and then eight this year.
"I was a part of a good turnaround and accomplished some things I wanted at Temple and got an opportunity to have a scholarship and be a student at a great school. I just felt like I was ready for the next level."
The turnaround under former coach Al Golden was historic, really. From 2004-06 the Owls went 3-31, including an 0-11 season in 2004, its last in the Big East. The program was independent for two years and then joined the MAC in 2006, going 5-19 its first two seasons in the conference before Wilkerson arrived. He played 11 games as a true freshman on a 5-7 team, then started all 13 games as a sophomore in 2009 as the Owls went 9-4 and reached their first bowl game since 1979 and just their second since 1936.
As a junior, Wilkerson moved from a tackle in a 4-3 scheme to an end in a 3-4 system following a coaching change and posted a superior season with 10.0 sacks and 68 tackles on a team that was suddenly giving the likes of Penn State a game at Happy Valley (the Owls lost there, 22-13, in September). Wilkerson, one of four children, began weighing his options following the season. Projections had him in the second- to fourth-round range, and he decided he was ready to take his chances in the draft.
"I wasn't really sure about what to do," Wilkerson said. "I knew once I got my grade back from the advisory committee and it said 'second-to-fourth round,' I was like, 'I guess that's going to be it.' I really didn't pay attention to it too much. My agent told me to keep working hard and when we get to the combine I'll show what I'm capable of. And I guess after the combine, people had a different feel for me."
Wilkerson, 21, came in at 6-foot-4, 315 pounds and showed great athleticism. Scouts love his frame, and he looks physically ready to play with and against men right now. He has natural pass-rush skills, but also plays the run well. Unlike some peers in his position group, there are no concerns about him taking plays off.
Wilkerson's strong game film in both the 4-3 and 3-4 displays his impressive versatility. He is a big fan of the way the Giants' Justin Tuck mixes elements of power and finesse in his game, and some scouts have compared Wilkerson to a young Trevor Pryce -- no small compliment given that Pryce was able to get after the passer from the inside and the outside during a long and productive career.
One coach who has evaluated Wilkerson -- and whose team is watching him closely -- praised the lineman's athleticism and overall build.
"He has good length," the coach said, believing he will be at worst a "decent inside player."
"He didn't work out as he would have liked at his campus workout. His film is better than his workout as far as his explosion and quickness. I always go off what I see on film, anyway. Workouts can lie to you."
Wilkerson has worked out privately for the Ravens, Chiefs and Patriots, with some 3-4 teams clearly excited about his ability to rush from outside. He's had dinner with the Chiefs and Saints, and coaches who have been around him find no issues with his character or demeanor. Besides visits with the Ravens and Seahawks this week, Wilkerson is scheduled to visit the Titans next week, with more trips likely on the horizon.
Wilkerson said he has no preference between defensive systems and believes he can be an impact player in either.
"My coach spoke to me one on one when we made the switch from a 4-3, and said we're moving to a 3-4 and at the end of day he thinks it will help me," Wilkerson said. "And as you can see, at the end of day it did. More National Football League teams are moving over to a 3-4. I have a little advantage in that I can play three-technique or a five-technique. I'm really comfortable with either one."
While the draft process has been foreign to Wilkerson, who came out of high school known more for his basketball prowess, he has had no shortage of friends to call on for help. Temple's football resurgence can be traced directly to its defensive line, and as a freshman Wilkerson was surrounded by players who would go on to play in the NFL, including Terrance Knighton (Jacksonville), Andre Neblett (Carolina), Brian Sanford (Cleveland) and Junior Galette (New Orleans). Wilkerson mentioned Knighton, who has become one of the game's premier young tackles since being selected in the third round in 2009, and Sanford as strong resources for him.
Being overshadowed by linemen from power conferences doesn't seem to bother Wilkerson. Going to Temple, in and of itself, is a testament to that, as notoriety there is rare for players in any sport other than basketball. So Wilkerson isn't getting caught up in concerns about draft stock rising or falling or who is going to get drafted ahead of him.
"I went to Temple, so you know you're not going to get that much attention. But at the end of the day, I really don't care about that," he said. "Fairley and Dareus, those guys are great players and I watched them on Saturdays when I could. They're great guys and great athletes, so at end of the day that really doesn't matter to me if no one's talking about me."
Taylor is another worthy prospect in that regard. He's also kept a relatively low profile the past few weeks and is the product of a program that is something less than a recent football force. Still, there is no lack of interest, particularly among teams picking later in the first round. Taylor was a part of a Baylor team that went 7-6 last season and made its first bowl appearance in 16 years. Baylor certainly has a far superior football pedigree to Temple, but went 15-33 from 2006-09.
Unlike the rest of this defensive line group, Taylor is the closest thing to a true 3-4 nose tackle in the bunch, though he also has the ability to play tackle in a 4-3. So it's not surprising that some of the same teams working out Wilkerson are also closely evaluating Taylor. He worked out for the Broncos and Jets this week, and beginning Monday will visit eight teams during a 10-day period.
The Chiefs and Browns have already worked out Taylor and will end up hosting him for visits. The Titans and Saints will meet with him as well. Some teams have concerns with Taylor's ability to stay in shape and keep off excess pounds (he's ballooned up to about 380 pounds in the past before trimming down and putting forth an excellent season in 2010).
"Taylor has only done it for one year," said a coach who evaluated Wilkerson. "He has very good bend for his size. He's strong at the point of attack and has some pass rush, but that needs work. Both of these kids are legitimate first-round prospects."
Teams are honing in on the weight issue. Taylor, at 6-4, 337 pounds, attributed eliminating "fried food and eating late at night," for his weight loss and said he is dedicated to maintaining a healthier lifestyle. In fact, he requested during his facility visits that teams put him in hotels with workout facilities in order to do one hour of cardio per night.
"My conditioning is big for me," Taylor said. "I'm in great condition compared to where I was before when my weight was up. I'm really focused on keeping my weight down and that's helped me tremendously."
Coaches and scouts have also prodded Taylor about an incident from his past. He was thrown off the Penn State team in 2008 after getting into a fight at a fraternity party. In retrospect, the discipline appears harsh and Taylor has been contrite and remorseful with teams about his actions that night.
"Teams, they see the good side of me," Taylor said. "What people heard from what happened back in the past, that wasn't the real side of me. That's not me. I learned from the past and tried to make the best out of my second chance. I've changed from that and I think the teams see that I'm a people person."
I suspect teams will see enough to covet in both players to create a surprise or two once names start coming off the board on April 28.
Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.