SEATTLE -- The University of Washington found itself grievously low on draftable talent through the acid bath of the Tyrone Willingham era (that's how 0-12 seasons happen), but when Steve Sarkisian took the program over in 2009, some of the kids recruited by Willingham and his minions finally found ways to pay serious dividends. Quarterback Jake Locker parlayed an impressive senior season into an eighth-overall selection by the Tennessee Titans in the 2011 NFL draft, and Locker was back at the University's Dempsey Indoor -- the site of his own Pro Day -- to observe the coronations of the class of 2012.
Chief among them were running back Chris Polk and defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu. Polk, who ran for 3,902 yards and 25 touchdowns in his Huskies career, found himself on a path quite like Locker's the year before -- a less-than-impressive Senior Bowl, a slightly better combine, and a Pro Day that really set his stock in motion. In Mobile, Polk looked slow in drills, and his pass-blocking raised some real red flags. He tightened things up a bit in time for the combine, but the 4.57 he ran on a track at Lucas Oil Stadium was a disappointment.
Shaving off 12 pounds between the Senior Bowl and Pro Day, however, allowed him to regain his speed and run much better times at Dempsey. He measured in at 5-10 and 212 pounds after some very intense work with Travelle Gaines down at Athletes Performance in Los Angeles. On the turf of the Dempsey's indoor field (not a track), Polk ran times in the 4.45-4.50 range, and looked great in receiving drills. Locker, who threw to all receivers on the day, benefited from Polk's acumen in running routes during his time with the Huskies, and it looked to be so once again on this day. Polk finally put it all together as scouts from at least 16 NFL teams (and the B.C. Lions of the CFL) looked on.
"I'm just glad that I came out here and improved on my time -- I wasn't working out as much after the season, so the fat kind of went down in this area a little bit more," Polk admitted, pointing to his midsection. "When I went to the Senior Bowl and I was at the weigh-in, I was flexing and I was looking down and I didn't see any abs! "I said, 'OK, I've got to get right. This isn't my body I'm used to.'"
Jake Locker lets it fly. (AP)More comfortable with his body and his surroundings, Polk once again looked like the player that NFLDraftScout.com senior analyst Rob Rang called the second-best running back in this draft class, behind only Alabama's Trent Richardson.
"If you look at the tape, there's no question that he's the No. 2 back," Rang said at the Pro Day. "And he's one of the very few players in this class where I really didn't care that much about his workouts, because he has so much good tape against so much high-caliber competition, that he really couldn't hurt himself too much in this kind of environment. He has the ability to lower his shoulder and run through tackles, but I don't think Polk gets enough credit for his receiving ability."
Rang believes that Polk can develop into an every-down back in the NFL (as much as that concept still exists, which is to say that it doesn't), and that his production and versatility might have teams looking at him in the late first round.
Ta'amu is more of a mixed bag, because there is such a disparity of effort from game to game -- and from play to play.
Alameda Ta'amu gets down during a cone drill. (AP)There are times, such as during Senior Bowl week, where the 6-foot-2, 347-pound Ta'amu will look like an embryonic cross between Kris Jenkins and Vince Wilfork. However, there's just as much game tape in which he basically disappears. From a personality standpoint, he's a gentle giant whose parents raised him to respect others -- and this leaves some to wonder whether he has the nasty streak common to all great defenders. The raw talent is not at all in question.
At the scouting combine, Ta'amu said, there were some NFL teams that tried to get a reaction out of him by showing his less than flattering moments during individual interviews. "The Raiders showed my bad film," he said. "I knew it was coming, because the coaches told me that, but when you're actually in there, it's different. All the things you had in your head that you were going to say just go blank."
Ta'amu didn't do the vertical jumps he wanted to -- his caution was the result of a hamstring injury at the combine -- but in defensive line drills, he was most definitely showing his good side. He displayed impressive lateral agility for a man his size, and when it was time to blow through the defensive line drills, he swatted the high weighted bags aside as if they were kids' punching bags. He's not an interior pass rusher in the Warren Sapp/Marcell Dareus mold, but 3-4 teams looking for true block-soaking nose tackles could do a lot worse.
"I've been working on those big bag drills ever since coach Sark came in here," Ta'amu said. "It's important for the combine -- just staying low and being violent with your hands."
Ta'amu has been working on speed drills to persuade teams that he's a "big man with speed" and can thus kick outside to one-tech shade or even three-tech defensive tackle in some schemes. Any versatility shown now will obviously increase his draft stock. Rang sees Ta'amu as a third- to fourth-round prospect, but schematic needs could accelerate his position.
"In our defense here at Washington, I played some shade, as well as straight over the center in that zero-tech," he said. "Wherever the coaches want to play me, that's where I'll go."