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Ferguson faces weighty concerns

WashPost: Tackle likely top 5 draft pick despite concerns about lack of bulk
Virginia All-American D'Brickashaw Ferguson, left, doesn't weigh as much as NFL teams would like, but that shouldn't stop him from being a top-five pick in the NFL draft on Saturday.AP

He was named for a priest in "The Thorn Birds" and is a youth minister with a degree in religious studies, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that D'Brickashaw Ferguson is considered more of refined, polished pass-blocker than a bulldozing, menacing run-blocker among the offensive line prospects in the NFL draft.

But because of his extraordinary seven-foot wingspan and exceptionally quick feet, the University of Virginia all-American is projected to be among the first five selections in Saturday's NFL draft, possibly as high as No. 2 by the New Orleans Saints.

"He's certainly got the ambition and the durability, he proved that while he was here, and he's got the work ethic and he's got that level of ability," Virginia Coach Al Groh said. "There should be every expectation that he can have a long and very productive career. It's been constantly chronicled how valuable those pass protectors are and how hard they are to find. If he can build his skills and lives up to his billing, he ought to be able to be in demand for quite some time."

That Ferguson is in such high demand four years after enrolling at Virginia is an incredible feat in itself. A lightly regarded prospect from Freeport High School on Long Island, N.Y., Ferguson started as a freshman at Virginia in 2002 despite weighing less than 250 pounds. Back then, Ferguson had to hold off pass-rushers with superior technique and athleticism because he wasn't as strong as most of the linemen he faced.

Ferguson survived his first college season, then added more than 40 pounds during his career. He was considered a probable NFL first-round draft choice by the end of his junior season in 2004. Ferguson stunned many pro prospects when he returned to Virginia last season, even though he was ranked by most NFL teams as the best available offensive tackle in last year's draft.

"One of the reasons I decided to go back to Virginia was because I really felt the information the coaches were giving me was very valuable," Ferguson said during a telephone interview yesterday. "I wanted to work on recognizing keys, reacting to different pass-rushing moves and just gain more experience."

Ferguson, 6 feet 6 inches and 308 pounds, added about 10 pounds after playing in his last college game, a 34-31 victory over Minnesota in the Music City Bowl in Nashville. He then further cemented his place among the top 10 NFL prospects with outstanding workouts at the Senior Bowl in Mobile and the NFL combine in Indianapolis. Those performances also alleviated any concerns NFL teams might have had about a knee injury that caused him to miss two games last season, the first time in his college career he was sidelined.

But Ferguson is still dogged by concerns about his weight, or lack thereof. He is about 20 pounds lighter than the average starting left tackle in the NFL, and 28 pounds lighter than former Auburn star Marcus McNeill, another offensive tackle prospect. Ferguson weighed 312 at the NFL combine, then lost nine pounds before Virginia's pro day workouts in late March.

"Honestly, it's not something I'm always thinking about," Ferguson said. "It's something I've dealt with throughout my career. I gained a little weight after the season just to see what this weight feels like. I know when some team selects me, they'll tell me what weight they want me to play at."

Groh, who coached the New York Jets in 2000 and was an NFL assistant for more than 10 seasons, believes Ferguson's slight frame won't hinder his ability to protect quarterbacks in the pros.

"In terms of athletic skills for the tackle position, he's got a unique set of skills for that position compared to what I've been exposed to and what all the NFL people have been exposed to," Groh said. "His lateral movement and his arm-span certainly give him some unusual skills for that position. But besides that, it's about who D'Brickashaw is. He's such a purposeful, driven and achievement-oriented person."

Ferguson, 22, was given a first name that is a variation on the surname of Father Ralph de Bricassart, the Roman Catholic priest played by Richard Chamberlain in the 1983 TV miniseries. Ferguson was born with a heart defect and underwent surgery when he was 9 to correct it. He has had no serious physical ailments since.

Because of his height, many NFL scouts believe Ferguson has the potential to still add a lot of weight. Until then, Groh said, Ferguson will have to compensate with his swift feet and long arms.

"If he's going up against [New England Patriots defensive tackle] Richard Seymour at the point of attack, that's going to be a challenging task for him," Groh said. "But here's one thing that lots of people discount in terms of a player as a run-blocker: on running plays, there's a 50-50 chance the ball is coming to you or going away from you. It's very important to be a good run-blocker at the point of attack, but it's also equally important to be a good run-blocker away from the point of attack, to be able to cut off the backside pursuit. So many plays get ruined when the front side gets blocked well, but the pursuit to the back side comes down and closes the crease off."

In the Duke game during Ferguson's junior season, the Cavaliers ran the ball nine plays in a row to the right side, behind former all-ACC guard Elton Brown and tackle Brad Butler. But what NFL scouts saw was Ferguson sealing off the back-side pursuit on nearly every play, allowing tailback Alvin Pearman to break away for several long gains.

"Some guys who are very powerful at the point lack the athletic ability to be good away from it," Groh said. "If you're real good at the point of attack, but every time they run away from you, your man can get inside of you and make the play, you're really not that good of a run-blocker at all. His athletic ability and his quickness certainly enable him to be very good on the back-side cutoffs and he's underrated at the point of attack. That's all part of the total package of being a good run-blocker."

Because of his early struggles — Ferguson nearly quit the junior varsity squad at his high school because he was so light and then was often overpowered again at Virginia — Groh believes his former star will adjust well to the NFL.

"He's already been through this circumstance once before," Groh said. "Certainly the early pick he is going to be, he's going to be expected to come in and contribute a great deal early. That's a big task for an offensive tackle, particularly on the left side. But he's kind of already done that. Not in that league, but he came in as a first-year freshman here and started the first game. He's already been a rookie starter once and that should help him as he goes through this experience in the NFL."