Linebacker Alfred Fincher obviously attended the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine to increase his draft stock, but he couldn't help trying to promote the University of Connecticut as an up-and-coming football program.
While the Huskies have received plenty of attention for their men's and women's basketball programs, Fincher didn't mind trying to put them on the pro football map.
"Absolutely. The combine, yes, is an individual thing. But I'm here for a university to prove that Connecticut, we can play. A football player is a football player, and it doesn't matter what school you come from, whatever," Fincher said at the combine. "If I had an Oklahoma helmet on, people would get excited, but it's the same thing. We're football players, we're all on the same page right now."
Just like Connecticut has to prove its football prowess to the personnel powers of the NFL, so Fincher had to prove himself at UConn.
He continued that process at his pro day, where he impressed several NFL scouts and coaches, including Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, late last month.
"He'll go in the first day, in my opinion," Cottrell told reporters in attendance. "I think he can go in the second round."
Since the UConn season ended, Fincher's stock has risen sharply. He was once considered a late-round pick, but he's no longer a "sleeper" in draft parlance.
"Sleeper? Heck no," Cottrell said. "He woke up a lot of people down at the Senior Bowl. Alfred's not a sleeper, everyone knows that, and if they don't there's something wrong with them."
Fincher started as a special-teams player his freshman season and worked his way up to earning All-Big East kudos in 2004. He led the Huskies with 140 tackles and was fifth in the nation with 11.91 per game. And his five forced fumbles last year were only one shy of the national defensive player of the year, Derrick Johnson's, total.
Fincher ended his collegiate career with 354 tackles and 33-1/2 tackles-for-loss, fifth and fourth, respectively, in the UConn history books.
His mission to prove himself as a star at the Division I level was a success. Now he's out to prove he can repeat his success at the NFL level.
His size is a question mark at 6-foot-1, 238 pounds — which may be a little light for middle linebacker. And his position is a question mark — he played almost exclusively at middle linebacker but may have to translate into an outside linebacker in the NFL, and he says he can play them both.
But his light weight, he says, shouldn't be an issue.
"No, you've just got to be able to run. The weight is not as big a thing. It's how you study and how you prepare yourself and just how aggressive you are, stuff like that," he said. But speed isn't his biggest asset, either. "I think my best asset is I'm a smart football player. That makes me faster."
His weight-lifting and agility numbers at the combine were average, but his speed proved to be better than average among the middle linebackers in attendance at the combine. He ran a 4.72 and 4.76 in the 40-yard dash, both slightly better than the 4.78 average among his peers.
With good speed and lighter weight, his pride is large. He's proud of his school, and he was proud of its first bowl game, the Motor City Bowl, during his tenure there.
"I took the ball — nobody's supposed to know that," he said of his bowl appearance. "But I got the game ball and also got some memorabilia from the game and got a bunch of the guys to sign it."
Fincher has flown under the radar much of his football career — he says Boston College and Syracuse showed an interest in him but didn't produce a scholarship offer — but the NFL bevy of scouts haven't gone without taking notice.
At the combine, he said received interest from the New England Patriots, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers.
He says the biggest challenge for him entering the NFL will be dealing with receivers in coverage. "I'm a better run-stopper — I'm a linebacker, that's what I'm supposed to do, stop the run," he said.
He did that with an impressive display of linebacker instincts at the his postseason workouts, showing he can cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield and is adept at stopping the run. To get to that level, he has become a workout fiend.
Last season, a campus policeman was sent to the UConn stadium to check out a report of noise. What he found was Fincher and his close friend and workout partner, quarterback Dan Orlovsky, running the stadium steps.
"We like to work out. It was late. Nobody's up, and you know you're getting better than everybody else when everybody else
is sleeping," Fincher said. "It's something we like to do."
He hopes to keep climbing those steps as his career progresses into the professional level.
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