Kirwan: Being Where They Want To Be

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It's easy to get caught up in the stories about the athletes that decide not to compete in Indianapolis, but that's a story for another time. For this weekend, I will talk about the young men who feel competing is an important aspect of their desire to show the NFL decision makers what they are all about.

I got into Indianapolis on Friday afternoon and immediately went inside the RCA Dome to watch the punters working out for the general managers and coaches. As for the punters, Tom Malone, the man who decided to return to USC last year instead of leaving school early, was the most impressive performer in the dome. His high, towering punts reminded me of the year Todd Sauerbrun impressed every team looking for a guy who could change the field-position battle. I caught up with Malone at a local restaurant Friday night and we spoke about his workout and why he stayed in school.

Malone told me he felt there were still some things he wanted to refine as a punter by staying at USC, and even though he was injured most of the season and is just now rounding into shape, he was ready for the Indianapolis Combine from a maturity point of view. Imagine that! An athlete who actually thought being more mature might help him in the long run as an NFL player.

Next stop after the punters was into the media center to listen in on a few interviews and ask a few questions of the players on the podium. The first player I listened in on was Olympic skier and former Colorado receiver Jeremy Bloom. Now here's a guy who was downhill skiing just days ago in Italy, yet he will still compete in as many events as possible this weekend. He called coming to the Combine a "dream come true."

He knows he has a lot of football conditioning to do and his weight is down to close to 170 pounds for skiing, but he plans on being up close to 185 by the time football starts this summer. The most important conditioning point he made was that wearing ski boots locks your ankles almost like they were in a cast, which is not what happens when you run around on a football field. He's going to compete in Indy while others who had nothing to do for months but get ready for the Combine say they aren't ready to lay it on the line. By the way, as I stood with former NFL quarterback Neil O'Donnell and listened to Bloom talk about his love of the game, both of us felt like we were listening to a young Wayne Chrebet.

Soon after the Bloom press conference I had a chance to listen in on the new Vikings head coach Brad Childress speak about his team. Of course, most people were more interested in asking questions about QB Daunte Culpepper than what Childress' objectives were at the Combine. Childress got the earliest start of all of the 10 new head coaches in the NFL and he still doesn't feel ready to evaluate his entire football team, so I can only imagine how tough it has to be for a staff like the Raiders that started close to 40 days later than Childress.

The Vikings are in Indy to evaluate all of the 300-plus athletes, but after talking with the new coach it looks like special attention will be placed on the running backs and linebackers. I asked Childress what kind of running back he was looking for and he was quick to point out that his team could go in a few directions. A big-time feature runner who could carry the ball 25-plus times a game would be one way to go, or a complementary back who could split time with some of the guys already on the roster like Mewelde Moore is another possible scenario. He mentioned that his running back coach, Eric Bienemy, had a good handle on this draft class and probably recruited most of them coming out of high school when he was a college coach.

As for his wide receivers, Childress felt pretty good that the group in Minnesota was better than some might expect. That is a good opinion to arrive at headed into this draft class, which appears weak as compared to recent years.

Well, Saturday starts up the first day of intense workouts at the RCA Dome and it is the perfect time to see how the offensive linemen from some of the smaller schools work out. As one NFL offensive line coach said to me walking out of the RCA Dome at the end of a long day, "I know our club will not take an O-lineman high in this draft, but I still have to find two guys to add to my group, so I want to see the kids from Cornell (Kevin Boothe), Bloomsburg (Jahri Evans), Weber State (Paul McQuistan) and Troy State (Thomas Olmsted). The point is everyone is here for different reasons, and as the week goes on, I hope to take a look at as many of them as possible.

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