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Upshaw leads Alabama Senior Bowl contingent

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MOBILE, Ala. (AP)

Courtney Upshaw sidled up to his Alabama coach with a big grin and asked, ''Do I look slim?''

''Yeah, you do,'' Nick Saban responded.

Sure, the 6-foot-2, 273-pound linebacker has more to worry about than appearances during the week leading up to Saturday's Senior Bowl, but the thickly-muscled Upshaw has far less to prove than his participating teammates from the national champion Crimson Tide.

Upshaw, safety Mark Barron and Tide underclassmen Trent Richardson and Dre Kirkpatrick are all projected first-round picks, and two or three might even make it into the top 10.

Wide receiver/punt returner Marquis Maze and center William Vlachos have to overcome height deficits while cornerback DeQuan Menzie and tight end Brad Smelley had lower profiles going into the game.

Safety Mark Barron and noseguard Josh Chapman both declined invitations because of injuries.

Upshaw is working at defensive end after playing a hybrid linebacker/end role in the Tide's 3-4 defense. He already has an impressive resume: Butkus and Lombardi Award semifinalist, defensive MVP of the national championship game against LSU, second-team AP All-American.

He has been in demand in Mobile. Officials from several teams stopped to chat after Monday's opening practice, then a security guard dropped by summoning him to visit with Saban.

Upshaw said moving up to the line is an easy transition since he spent plenty of time there at Alabama. He said he still wants to prove that he can do more than just use his power and explosiveness to try to plow through opposing offensive linemen with the bull rush.

''I like to stay humble,'' said Upshaw, who's aiming to drop about eight pounds. ''I like to just go into it like I've got something to prove, and that's what I'm here to do, is to prove that I've got more of a pass rush in my arsenal than what people expect.''

Some such highly rated senior prospects choose to skip the game. Upshaw said he wanted the chance compete with other top ends like North Carolina's Quinton Couples.

''I wanted to play regardless,'' Upshaw said. ''It's not because of where I was rated, high or low, it doesn't matter. It's just because of the competition. That's why I'm out here, to compete with these guys and compete with the best.''

Upshaw was second in the Southeastern Conference with 18 tackles for loss and had a team-high 9.5 sacks. He finished his Alabama career with seven tackles and a sack to spearhead a defense that limited LSU to 92 total yards.

''I think he has a fantastic future,'' Saban said. ''He's a guy that's really hard to block. He's a good pass rusher. He's got great size and strength to play outside linebacker and be a designated pass rusher on third down. People are always looking for those kind of guys, and I think he's going to fit well with a team, especially a 3-4 team.''

Maze and Vlachos, key figures on the two Tide national championship teams, just want to prove they fit well in the NFL.

At a hair under 5-foot-8, the 184-pound Maze is the shortest player on the Senior Bowl rosters. Plus, he's limited by a pulled hamstring sustained early in the championship game and is still testing it to see if he'll be able to play in the game.

''It's very frustrating, because I was looking forward to this game and wanted to play here,'' Maze said.

He's still had a chance to field punts and embraced the chance to meet with representatives of various NFL teams. ''I know I have nothing to hide,'' Maze said.

Vlachos can't hide his stature. The 6-foot, 306-pounder is easily the shortest of the Senior Bowl offensive linemen.

He's still trying to answer the question, is he big enough to make it at the next level?

''I faced those questions my entire career,'' Vlachos said. ''Maybe one day they can measure the size of the chip on your shoulder. I think that can go a long way in some cases.

''That's kind of always the approach I take is to do my best to prove people wrong and prove that I belong here. That's my goal this week.''

He gave NFL scouts plenty of film to review. A finalist for the Rimington Award given to the nation's top center, he started 40 straight games in a league that has won the last six national titles.

Saban, a former Miami Dolphins coach, knows that Vlachos might not measure up to NFL teams' ideal size criteria but said he has the intangibles.

''I think they also do a lot to evaluate a player's character, intelligence, toughness,'' the Tide coach said. ''And William Vlachos is going to be off the charts in all those areas except his height.''

Tagged: Alabama, Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, Marquis Maze, William Vlachos

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