MOBILE, Ala. — High expectations sometimes lead to disappointments.
Such might have been the case for Missouri LB Sean Weatherspoon, a playmaker who made 155 tackles (18½ for losses) and three interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) and was named second-team All-American and a Butkus Award finalist.
Something just wasn't the same as a senior.
The tackles (111) were down. The big plays (one interception, one forced fumble) were fewer and further between. And he simply didn't look like the same player as he was a year prior.
The litany of questions flowed through the scouting community. Was he playing not to get hurt? Had an agent gotten in his ear? Did Weatherspoon think he was better than he was?
One undeniable factor is that there was far better and more experienced defensive talent surrounding him the prior two seasons. Although his play ended up rising down the stretch, Weatherspoon understands the criticism that he has heard.
"My production was a lot better (in 2008)," Weatherspoon said. "Overall, I feel like I had a pretty productive (senior) season. We did some good things. We didn't have the great season we had the year before that, but I feel like we accomplished a lot of things. I feel like I also accomplished a lot, like becoming a better leader."
The leadership part comes naturally for Weatherspoon. He was one of the few starting seniors — offense or defense — whom Missouri fielded last season. When things went wrong, such as blowing a 17-point lead at home to a Baylor team fielding a third-string quarterback, Weatherspoon wasn't afraid to let the troops know he wasn't happy.
" 'Spoon has been leading this team since before his junior year," said Missouri WR Danario Alexander, Weatherspoon's roommate all week at the Senior Bowl. " 'Spoon, Jaron Baston, Kurtis Gregory and I, we were the team captains, and after the Baylor game we had a team meeting to get us on the right path.
"He's very energetic when he talks. He can make you laugh or make you cry, depending on the day. He's a very emotional guy. He's one of my best friends, and I am glad I am going through this process with him. He'll keep me on the right path. I know it."
It's a role that was quite obvious in Monday's North team practice right from the start of team drills. Weatherspoon and TCU ILB Daryl Washington were getting guys lined up, shouting out instructions for the defense that they have had to learn in a crash course the past 24 hours. Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, who is coaching the North, said those players' being vocal not only shows leadership but that they can pick up a scheme quickly.
"(My being vocal) developed over the last few years, ever since I started as a sophomore," Weatherspoon said. "I learned from the guys who were ahead of me. I learned how to lead. I wanted to be the guy that, when they looked at me, they knew that we were going to be fine."
And judging by his auspicious start during Senior Bowl week, Weatherspoon should be fine, too. He is likely going to nail the interview and workout portions of the draft equation, and he showed up several times in the backfield to make plays, once tag-teaming with Washington on a stop of Oregon RB LaGarrette Blount for a loss. Weatherspoon moves well laterally, sheds blocks and scrapes on tacklers, as he did on Fresno State RB Lonyae Miller, putting an exclamation point on the play with a fierce "ahh!" that could be heard all over the field. But Weatherspoon also can overplay the ball, taking a bad angle on a play where Miller beat him to the sideline.
Because the North has only five linebackers, Weatherspoon will be on the field a lot this week. He played the weak, strong and middle spots on Monday and expects to do the same all week. Weatherspoon said he has no preference for where he plays in the pros. Most likely he fits as an outside 'backer, but when the coaches used some 3-4 alignments, he lined up as one of the inside players. It's a position he thinks suits him just fine.
"We did a little of it today, and I thought I fit in there pretty well," he said.
And though he's listed at 250 pounds on the Senior Bowl roster, don't buy it. Weatherspoon said he's at 241 right now and that he "kind of like(s)" being there after playing the season in the 248-249 range. He has been working out at Velocity Sports Performance in Orange County, Calif., working a couple of tail-whipping machines called VersaClimber, a pseudo mountain-climbing contraption, and a Woodway treadmill.
Mizzou defensive coordinator-LB coach Dave Steckel thought Weatherspoon might have been too heavy by season's end, so he dropped a few pounds, which also should help him in advance of the upcoming NFL Combine next month. Weatherspoon also blames eating a little too much Shakespeare's Pizza, a Columbia, Mo., delicacy, and going to the dining hall a little too often with the freshmen.
With the pizza weight gone, Weatherspoon looked fast and fluid in his first football action since Missouri's New Year's Eve loss in the Texas Bowl to Navy, which was not Weatherspoon's finest game. So, naturally, the color of the North uniforms? Navy blue.
"I see this blue (uniform) and I get a little upset," he said with a smile.
When it comes to the topic of his draft stock, though, he turns serious and introspective.
"I just hope to come out here and run around and make some plays, just get my name back in there," he said. "It was a lot of different things. I played at a heavier weight, a new defensive coordinator, a new role ... there were plays I should have made, and I need to make them.
"I just want to come out here and play better than I did my senior season. I want to show I am a respectable guy and a guy that really cares about football."
The first part, which likely will take a very strong week, will be the toughest to prove. The second will be the easiest. You can tell as soon as you see — and hear — him.
Watch for multiple postings each day this week from the Senior Bowl, including blogs.
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