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Alabama's Upshaw doesn't shy from contact

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Posted Jan. 26, 2012 @ 10:43 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

MOBILE, Ala. — Will Courtney Upshaw be a defensive end or an outside linebacker in the NFL? The Alabama star and surefire first-round pick has insisted throughout Senior Bowl week that he has no preference.

But this much seems assured: The preference of opposing offensive tackles would be that he take up another line of work.

One of the standouts of a dominating Crimson Tide defense, Upshaw has had a fine week of practice at the Senior Bowl. He has worked with the defensive ends throughout the week, though he plans to do OLB drills at the Combine and at Alabama's pro day. However, Upshaw did get some work standing up in a 3-4 look this week, noted Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, a member of the South coaching staff this week.

Haslett is among those who have been impressed by the first-team All-American, who garnered BCS championship game MVP honors with seven tackles and a sack in Alabama's shutout of LSU.

"He's a tightly built guy that's powerful, extremely fast," Haslett said. "... I think he's got so much upside. I think he's a heck of a football player."

Power is the 6-1½, 273-pound Upshaw's game, whether he's playing the run or getting after the quarterback. The opposition knows this. What follows is a lot of pushing — and pulling, as Upshaw noted.

"With me, it's all about getting leverage on them, keeping my gap," said Upshaw, who notched 9½ sacks and 18 tackles for loss as a senior. "And by doing it, you've got to strike 'em, because they're trying to come out. Half the time they expose their chest, so with me, I want to get into their chest before they get into me, because they'll hold you.

"So with me, I like to strike. The contact part, man, I love it."

Upshaw's go-to pass-rush move — the bull rush, or simply "the bull," as he puts it — doesn't involve much dancing.

"Get a guy retreating, get him on his heels, stick my helmet into his chest and knock him off balance," Upshaw said.

Upshaw's physicality will be his calling card vs. the run and pass. Should he play outside linebacker in a "30" front in the pros, however, he'll have some coverage responsibilities. In that realm, fluidity, agility and reliability trump strength, especially the further away from the line of scrimmage a linebacker drops. Upshaw knows that he'll have to prove his coverage skills are of NFL caliber for the position, but he's confident he can do so.

"Coming from 'Bama, it's not tough," he said. "It's just make sure I get to my spot. If it's man, making sure I lock up on my man, and not get out of coverage, not get out of my zone, not lose my man."

One advantage Upshaw has as he readies for the professional ranks: He could not have been trained much better, having played for head coach Nick Saban at Alabama, where he was drilled on knowing the game inside-out.

"I played under Nick Saban and Coach Sal (former Crimson Tide assistant head coach and LBs coach Sal Sunseri). Coach Sal, he made it mandatory that we knew what every position had to do in the coverage, and if this play was called, what coverage it was on the back end," Upshaw said. "Because it ties in with pass rushing. That's what Coach Sal taught us as outside 'backers."

Upshaw's all-around game will have to be strong to please NFL coaches, but even if he's technically sound in every other aspect of his game, he'll primarily be judged on whether he can get to the quarterback. Such is the life of a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Which brings us back to his battles with offensive linemen. If he's going to succeed on the next level, he will have to deal with the opposition trying to take his calling card away from him. He already has experience in this realm. "A lot of times when I go to the bull, they grab me and I'm trying to get off the block," he said, noting the importance of needing secondary moves.

Upshaw roughly estimated he was held about 80 or 85 percent of the time in college. He said he dealt well with it throughout his college career, save for an incident against Vanderbilt this season, when he kicked a Commodore player and had to sit out the first quarter of the next game.

"That particular game," Upshaw said of the Vanderbilt contest, "I already had some stuff running through my mind, and (I) really wasn't focused that game, and it kind of (added) fuel to the fire, and I reacted in a way I shouldn't have."

He'll be put to the test that way and countless other ways in the NFL. When it was suggested he was a little short for the position, he joked, "You don't think I'm tall? I feel 6-3."

Then, he described his on-field mentality.

"I'm a competitor. It really don't matter to me. If you're a competitor, you'll go out if you're small or tall. I'll go out and try to fight every play."

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