Until recently, National Football League scouts harbored doubts about the professional prospects of running back Christian Okoye of Azusa Pacific University even though the 6-2, 252-pounder led the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics in rushing average and scoring and earned Division II All-American honors as a senior.
Sure, the 25-year-old Okoye shattered virtually every rushing and scoring record in Azusa Pacific history with career totals of 3,569 yards and 34 touchdowns in 528 carries but that was against small colleges.
Scouts wondered what Okoye could do against the "big boys" of college football.
They aren't wondering anymore.
After he rushed for a record-breaking four touchdowns and won offensive player of the game honors against major-college stars in the Senior Bowl two weeks ago at Mobile, Ala., the only question remaining among NFL scouts may be how high Okoye will be drafted.
Scouts may have a better indication after Okoye appears in the NFL combine scouting camp today through Saturday at Indianapolis, Ind. Okoye was invited on the strength of his performance in the Senior Bowl in December.
The camp, which will include about 200 of the top pro prospects, tests players for speed, strength and agility under the watchful eyes of scouts from all 28 NFL teams.
Most are already convinced of Okoye's ability.
"How could you not be high on a guy that has the kind of character and athletic ability he does," said Joe Mendes, director of college scouting for the New England Patriots. "He has rare size and very good speed. He's just very, very impressive."
"He's an unusual athlete," added Tony Razzano, director of college scouting for the San Francisco 49ers. "He's big, strong and fast. That's a combination you don't always see."
Mendes said he was impressed with Okoye before the Senior Bowl, and his performance in the game only enhanced his reputation among scouts.
"Every player from a lower level of competition who asserts himself at a higher level really helps himself," Mendes said. "He certainly accomplished that."
Not that Okoye wasn't concerned at first about playing against stronger competition.
"Everybody told me it's going to be a lot tougher," said Okoye, a Nigerian who speaks with a soft British accent.
"It was different but not as much as people made me believe. It didn't really feel much different from what I was used to. Only the players were a little bigger and they hit harder."
Okoye admitted he had a case of jitters when twice-daily practices started for the South team, which was coached by Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins and his staff.
"After the first day I felt a lot more comfortable and I guess my confidence was built up," Okoye said. "I enjoyed my practices after that."
Okoye suffered a setback when he sprained an ankle two days before the game.
"I sprained my ankle on Thursday and the following day it was very, very sore. I couldn't run on it."
That may explain why Okoye had an inauspicious performance at the start. "I couldn't run like I usually do in the first half because my ankle was bothering me."
It does not explain what happened in the second half, when Okoye powered his way for three one-yard touchdown runs and displayed good moves on a six-yard scoring run to lead his team to a come-from-behind 42-38 victory over the North.
"I didn't expect to play that well," Okoye said. "I was hoping to do well, but I didn't think I'd do that well. I feel real good about it. I couldn't feel any better, even with the sprained ankle."
Neither could his coach, Jim Milhon, who attended the game.
"He was very competitive at all times," Milhon said. "He was poised. One of our concerns was that he has a tendency to fumble, but he didn't."
As good as Okoye's performance was, Milhon said his practices may have left a more lasting impression among scouts.
"We felt Christian did as much in practice to enhance his position in the draft as he did in the game," Milhon said. "He had a very good week of practice, and I think the scouts noticed that."
Mendes certainly did.
"That's the first time I had seen him in a live game and I was impressed," he said. "But the thing that was impressive was how he progressed during the week. He seemed to improve during practice. He blocked a lot better later in the week than in the beginning.
"The game was just the icing on the cake."
That does not mean that Okoye does not have weaknesses in the eyes of scouts.
Perhaps the biggest question is experience. Okoye, one of the top discus throwers in the world, came to Azusa Pacific in 1982 on a track scholarship and has played football for only three seasons.
"If he has a weakness, that's it," Razzano said. "He hasn't played a lot, but he's not a youngster."
After watching him play, however, Mendes says Okoye may be further along than he first suspected.