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January 17, 2007

Shrine Game East notes: A gunner with size

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MORE: West: Together again

HOUSTON Mark Zalewski has caused a few eyebrows to be raised this week. He hopes to raise his profile, too.

A middle linebacker from Wisconsin who is among the East all-stars in the annual East-West Shrine football game, Zalewski took some people at the Houston Texans training center by surprise earlier this week when he lined up as the gunner a spot usually reserved for defensive backs on the punt coverage team.

In fact, he was among those who were surprised.

Linebackers usually aren't used as gunners. Especially not middle linebackers. Especially not middle linebackers from Wisconsin.

"I don't think that was anything for real," Zalewski said. "It was more like the right guy was nowhere to be found. But if (the coaches) want me to line up there and let me run, that's fine."

On Wednesday Zalewski was no longer occupying one of the gunner spots, which were manned by LSU's Daniel Francis, Hampton's Travarous Bain, Alabama State's Michael Coe and Georgia Tech's Kenny Scott all defensive backs.

Yet, Zalewski still kept showing up at places where he might not have been expected like running step-for-step with a running back on a wheel route or tracking down a back on a sweep.

That's why the 6-foot-2, 232-pounder, who led Wisconsin with 90 tackles last season, might be an intriguing option on draft day. He runs faster than many may realize.

"I think some guys don't know how well I can move," Zalewski said. "I'm hoping to get my 40 times down to a 4.55. Last year I ran a 4.6 flat and I've been working hard. I think a lot of people have been pleasantly surprised."

Maybe they shouldn't have been.

Last August, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema suggested that speed at linebacker would be among the Badgers' strong points. He wasn't just referring to outside linebackers DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas.

With Zalewski stationed in the middle of the defense, the Badgers allowed an average of just 12.1 points per game, the second-fewest in the nation last season.

Speed is always a precious commodity in the NFL, but middle linebackers also need good size and proven tackling ability.

Zalewski, a two-time team captain, is trying to show that teams interested in him won't have to settle for two out of three and maybe that will help his status.

He won't be a first round pick. However, with a good time in the 40 and a good performance in Saturday's game he could have a shot at being taken on the first day.

"Hopefully, I'm on the rise," Zalewski said. "I can't give a round and say that's set in concrete. Maybe it will change after I run."

Big Ten players, big play: Perhaps the most notable play in Wednesday's scrimmage was a 50-yard touchdown pass from Iowa quarterback Drew Tate to Michigan receiver Steve Breaston.

Hurricane force: Miami defensive lineman Baraka Atkins was one of the standouts in pass rushing drills. He showed good quickness in getting around blockers and bull rushed his way over Air Force offensive tackle Robert Kraay.

Seen this before: LSU safety Jessie Daniels provided deep help for cornerback Daniel Francis, his teammate at LSU, and intercepted a Zac Taylor pass intended for Jerard Rabb. Daniels had four interceptions in his career at LSU.

MORE: West: Together again

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