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Former Purdue star is latest model in line of defensive ends

INDIANAPOLIS -- Maybe Purdue needs a new nickname.

The school once known as the Cradle of Quarterbacks has now become an annual assembly line of undersized defensive ends. This year's newest NFL draft model is Cliff Avril.

The former Purdue standout, projected to be a second- or third-round pick, is trying to impress scouts at this week's NFL combine.

Avril believes the Boilermakers' history of developing quality players at his position should help him on draft weekend in April.

Just look at the record.

Since 1997, Purdue's draft classes have featured players like Anthony Spencer, a first-round pick in 2007, the underrated Shaun Phillips, Rosevelt Colvin and Ray Edwards. Other Boilermakers in the club are Akin Ayodele, Rob Ninkovich and Chike Okeafor.

Avril hopes to take the same path into the NFL, and he's heard all about it.

"A lot of people try to compare me to those guys, and I take it because they're all doing well in the league," Avril said. "That's a good thing."

In Purdue's case, the draft weekend phone calls have become an annual tradition - even if they don't always project to playing along the defensive line.

Avril fits the mold perfectly.

He played last season at 6-foot-3 and 261 pounds, small by NFL standards, but was productive enough to finish with 41 tackles, 6½ sacks and four forced fumbles playing primarily against the Big Ten's mammoth offensive linemen.

NFL decision-makers noticed how physical he was.

And like other Purdue players, he wasn't always a natural lineman.

Avril spent his first two seasons playing linebacker before moving to end midway through his junior year. After that, his career took off.

"Purdue is known for their defensive ends, so I thought it was a great move for me," he said. "Being a little quicker than the average defensive end, I think it played to my advantage. I was happy to make the move.

"It wasn't hard to grasp the concept because I played defensive end in high school. It was just going back to my old days."

Although Avril is listed as a defensive end at the combine, he could wind up playing outside linebacker if he goes to an NFL team that prefers a 3-4 package. Many of Purdue's former defensive ends have made a smooth transition to linebacker in the pros.

Phillips and Colvin have been at their best on the outside, chasing down quarterbacks, intercepting passes and creating general mayhem for opponents as linebackers.

Others, like Edwards and Spencer, have excelled as more traditional ends.

Avril doesn't have a preference which position he plays.

"I like both," he said. "I like getting after the quarterback, and I wouldn't mind dropping into coverage."

With a strong performance at the combine, Avril could solidify his status as a high-round pick in April. But with a talented crop of defensive ends entering the draft, it won't be easy.

Former Virginia star Chris Long, considered the top defensive end by some experts and a possible top 10 draft pick, said this year's field is one of the strongest in years.

"It's a really deep class and I'm happy to be in the thick of it," Long said.

Phillip Merling, a former defensive end at Clemson, agreed.

"There are a lot of big names in our class," he said. "It's real deep, but we're all different at the same time. I don't think one of the defensive ends in this class are exactly the same. We're all different, and we all bring different things to the table."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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