NFL Draft: Who'll Go Higher, UVA's Ras-I Dowling or VT's Ryan Williams?

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NFL Draft: Who'll Go Higher, UVA's Ras-I Dowling or VT's Ryan Williams?
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On the football field, Al Groh's Virginia teams were a woeful 1-9 against in-state rivals Virginia Tech during his 10 years as head coach from 2001-09—but they almost always beat Tech in the first round of the NFL Draft.

From 2004, when the first class of Groh's recruited seniors graduated, up to this past April, the Cavaliers have sent five first-rounders to the next level.

Among them, Heath Miller (2004) turned into one of the NFL's best tight ends, and offensive linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson (2006), Branden Albert (2008), and Eugene Monroe (2009) have become fixtures up front for their respective teams.

The Hokies have only sent three: DeAngelo Hall and Kevin Jones in 2004, and Duane Brown in 2008. Aside from Hall's Pro Bowl appearances in 2005 and 2006, none of them have found much success.

Throw in the two colleges' second-rounders, of course, and Tech instantly overtakes Virginia by a 9-7 margin. Adding their draftees in rounds three through seven widens it to a decisive 34-23 advantage for the Hokies.

Still, the Cavaliers have clung tenaciously to their upper hand at the top of the draft. Even after this past season, which saw Virginia finish last in the ACC Coastal at 3-9 overall (2-6 in conference play) while Tech ended up ranked 10th nationally, the Hoos sent cornerback Chris Cook to the NFL 18 picks ahead of the Hokies' Jason Worilds.

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For those keeping track, it marked the fifth of Groh's seven recruiting classes where the highest-drafted Cavalier went before the highest-drafted Hokie.

In next year's draft, even without Groh on the sideline in 2010, Virginia's Ras-I Dowling will have a chance to make it six out of eight. His biggest competition from Virginia Tech will be redshirt sophomore Ryan Williams, a third team All-American running back who ran for 1,655 yards (an ACC freshman record) in 2009.

Barring injury, neither player's draft stock will be limited by his physical attributes. Dowling (6'2", 200 pounds) has rare size for a corner, and Williams (5'10", 210) is built well for 300-plus carries a year at the next level.

It's the 40-yard dash—the be-all, end-all event of the annual NFL Combine—that will likely keep these two out of the top 10 overall. Neither is likely to cripple his stock with a slow time, but both have been clocked closer to 4.5 seconds (Dowling barely over, Williams just under) than the ideal of sub-4.4 speed.

The competition they'll face within their position groups is tough to gauge before the underclassmen have officially declared for the draft, but the stars are easy enough to spot. At corner, LSU's Patrick Peterson and Nebraska's Prince Amukamara both have size comparable to Dowling and better timed speed.

Among the 2011 class of running backs, on the other hand, Williams might play spoiler to Penn State senior Evan Royster. He'll be hard-pressed to go as high as Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray or Alabama's Mark Ingram, though—the fastest and strongest, respectively, among this year's top-tier prospects.

Positional value, the last conceivable tiebreaker between Dowling and Williams, is pretty much a toss-up. In the last three NFL drafts, 11 cornerbacks and 11 running backs have gone in the first round.

The difference in their average draft position (20th overall for corners, 19th for backs) is negligible, though the cornerbacks were less likely to go extremely high or low in the first round. Most NFL teams, arguably, could sensibly upgrade one corner spot, whereas a first-round running back is usually either a game-changer or a luxury.

And that's what it'll come down to, ultimately—whether it's Dowling or Williams who suits the tastes of a team picking higher. An early run at either's position could tip the balance; otherwise, expect both to come off the board in the mid-to-late first.

Unlike Virginia and Virginia Tech's November 27 clash in Blacksburg, their race to the 2011 NFL Draft podium figures to be neck-and-neck 'til the end.

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