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It took Indiana's Antwaan Randle El only half of the Senior Bowl to bid farewell to his record-setting career as a college quarterback—he was the first Division I-A player to throw for 40 touchdowns and score 40 touchdowns in his career—and say hello to his new vocation as a wide receiver. In the first 30 minutes of the game in Mobile last Saturday, Randle El caught a three-yard touchdown pass, returned a punt 40 yards and made a twisting 31-yard catch with :04 left before halftime to set up a field goal. After he caught another three-yard touchdown pass in the second half, he was voted the game's most valuable player, even though his North team lost 41-26 to the South.
For Woody Dantzler of Clemson, the other noted quarterback trying to impress pro scouts while playing a new position, the Senior Bowl experience was bittersweet. As a tailback he rushed three times for 14 yards and threw a 52-yard option pass for the South but also lost a fumble. Dantzler, who last fall became the first major-college quarterback to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season, did little to relieve the frustration he felt in the days leading up to the game. At the start of the South's second practice, running backs coach Johnny Roland called Dantzler to the sideline to go over footwork, but when Roland turned to watch a play, Dantzler, ball in hand, practiced his five-step drop. Old habits die hard, and so does the urge to play quarterback. "That's where my heart is," Dantzler said after the practice. "That's where I'm home."
By working closely with the NFL to identify the best pro prospects, the Senior Bowl has become the most prestigious of the seven all-star games. The scouts, coaches and general managers who flocked to Mobile last week didn't want to watch the 5'10" Dantzler and the 5'9" Randle El throw the ball; they wanted to see if the two players' ability to make would-be tacklers miss would transfer from college to the NFL. "Hines Ward is one of the hottest guys in pro football," Buffalo Bills quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe said of the Pittsburgh Steelers wideout, who was a standout high school quarterback and saw action under center for Georgia as a sophomore in 1995. "Are they the next Hines Ward?"
Dantzler and Randle El, both of whom played quarterback in the East-West Shrine Game in San Francisco on Jan. 12, could have turned down the Senior Bowl invitation, as Heisman winner Eric Crouch of Nebraska did. Crouch was asked to play running back in Mobile but opted for this Saturday's Hula Bowl when that game offered him a quarterback spot. "Right now I'm a wide receiver—punt returner—running back kind of guy," said Randle El last week. After a pause he added, "At this game."
It's nerve-racking enough for a Senior Bowl player to have to display his talent alongside other top players at his position. Dantzler had to showcase himself at a position he'd never played, taking turns with such highly rated running back prospects as Travis Stephens of Tennessee, DeShaun Foster of UCLA and Adrian Peterson of Georgia Southern. In his first practice Dantzler failed to catch several punts, dropped one handoff and botched a pitch. "It was awful out there," Dantzler said. "I felt out of place. I felt sorry. I felt uncoordinated."
A few NFL players used the Senior Bowl to take the first public step toward a successful change of position. For instance, two years ago New Mexico safety Brian Urlacher switched to linebacker in Mobile; he's going to the Pro Bowl this month. The move from safety to linebacker, however, is like an American learning to speak the native tongue in London; a quarterback moving to running back is an American in Paris. A rare example of the latter in recent years is Brian Mitchell, a former passer at Southwestern Louisiana who has set NFL records as a kick returner.
Asked to name a quarterback who had successfully switched to running back in the NFL, Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson showed his age. "How about Dan Reeves?" he asked, referring to the Atlanta Falcons' coach, who played quarterback at South Carolina from 1962 through '64 before playing eight years at running back for the Dallas Cowboys. "It's more difficult to go to running back," Peterson said. "A back has to get to the hole and read the block. He has to know when to be patient and let the blocks develop, and when to see the room outside and take it."
There's also the matter of collisions. Quarterbacks are taught to avoid them, but running backs can't, especially between the tackles. In Dantzler's third practice he ran into a hole that was quickly filled by Georgia linebacker Will Witherspoon and got nowhere. After the play Roland, a member of the Arizona Cardinals' staff, which coached the South, counseled Dantzler to be the aggressor. "Sometimes you have to dip your pad and be your own best blocker," Roland said later. "He's starting to hit the hole better." Other NFL coaches watching Dantzler remained skeptical. Some questioned whether he could handle the blocking. Some were concerned about his speed, which will be scrutinized at the scouting combine in Indianapolis this month.
After his junior year Randle El figured it would be in his interest to switch from quarterback to wideout if he wanted to play in the NFL. He spent all of spring practice and August practice learning the position. However, after his replacement at quarterback, junior Tommy Jones, failed to move Indiana in a 35-14 opening loss at North Carolina State, Randle El returned to quarterback.
Although he didn't appear as raw as Dantzler in Mobile, he clearly had some learning to do. In a one-on-one drill against Kansas State safety Jon McGraw, Randle El ran a dig pattern, in which he was supposed to sprint downfield, stop and catch a ball already on its way to him. When Randle El tried to stop, his feet went out from under him and he sprawled on the grass. But, oh, how Randle El caught the ball. He may be small, but his hands are large, and in skeleton drills he caught nearly everything thrown to him.