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More than players

MOBILE, Ala. -- The years of training and teaching are finally paying off here in lower Alabama. The former University of Alabama football stars participating in the Senior Bowl are seeing the fruits of long meetings on agent education and career development, the lessons they suffered through as underclassmen who wanted nothing more than to tune out the lecture and play Xbox, grab lunch, go to the movies -- anything more entertaining than sitting still and listening.

As much as performing well on the football field is a priority, so are moments such as these when hordes of scouts, coaches and general managers are watching and analyzing a player's every move on and off the field. Playing the game of football is one thing. Playing the business of football is another. It's about more than height and weight, 40-yard dash times and total tackles. It's about one-on-one interviews, chalk talk and answering questions that range from the uncomfortably intimate to the insanely irrelevant.

Michael Williams won three national championships in his five years at Alabama. The 6-foot-6, 269-pound tight end stands out on the practice field. He's bigger than any other skill player on the South roster, and his reputation as a tenacious blocker precedes him. His position coach, Detroit Lions tight ends coach Bobby Johnson, said he has a "niche" at the next level because of his size and dependability. But Williams needs to do more than show he can block and catch this week. He needs to answer the tough questions. And unlike some of his wide-eyed teammates from other schools, Williams is unfazed by the constant scrutiny thanks to the polishing he received at Alabama.

"We've been prepared for this, for me personally, five years," Williams said. "Nothing is coming as a surprise. I feel like I can handle every situation they throw at me outside of the field. Coach [Nick] Saban did well. He knows what he's doing.

"All those summers we didn't understand why we were doing it, it's all showing right now."

As a young player at Alabama, Williams didn't get the rush to prepare for something so far down the road as the Senior Bowl. But as he was interviewed by dozens of reporters in a media-only event Monday night, it began to sink in. The hours of media training were paying off. Williams spoke confidently and with poise in the face of television cameras, voice recorders and purposeful notebooks.

"All of it is making plenty of sense now," Williams said. "In my redshirt freshman year, I remember coming in after running, and you're sitting there and people are talking and teaching you about how you think and all that when you just want to go to bed, you just want to go lay down somewhere.

"As you get older, you realize every teaching they give has a purpose."

Williams said that by the time Tide players graduate, they're "battle-tested." The next step is hiring an agent and performing in events such as the Senior Bowl and the NFL combine.

Former Alabama safety Robert Lester said that if there's one area in which he and his former Crimson Tide teammates have a leg up, it's in having been coached by Saban, who spent eight years as an assistant or head coach in the pros. Lester said the "insight into how an NFL system works" is invaluable.

"It was very beneficial," he said. "No one wants to go through a process they know nothing about what they're about to get into. Alabama guides us and helps us with what we need to be prepared for, and warn us what we need to watch out for. It helps us out a lot."

Members of the Lions' coaching staff raved about the Alabama players' ability to retain coaching and ask the right questions on the football field. While Lester, Williams and linebacker Nico Johnson might not be surefire early-round draft picks in terms of talent, they make up for it with football knowledge. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, no college football program has produced more first-round draft picks (11).

Said Lions defensive backs coach Tim Walton of Lester: "He's obviously well-coached coming from Nick, so he understands the game well."

Nico Johnson said there's "no pressure" for him and his teammates in Mobile. They've grown up as football players with scouts and general managers on the sidelines. There's rarely a day during the football season at Alabama when a handful of NFL player personnel types aren't walking the halls of the Mal Moore Athletic Facility on campus.

"We all understand we have to go out and perform our best to impress the people we need to impress," Johnson said. "It's no use sitting there wondering if this scout is looking at me or that scout is looking at me. You just have to go out and do your job and not worry about that. We feel like if we do that, then everything else will be OK."

With an NFL career on the line, the pressure is obvious. But as Johnson put it, "Pressure busts pipes." Having seen teammates such as Dre Kirkpatrick, Courtney Upshaw, Rolando McClain, Mark Barron and close friend Dont'a Hightower go on to the NFL, he's comfortable he can do the same.

"With my mindset I'll be OK," Johnson said. "Being under Coach Saban, it's pretty much an NFL program. Talking to Dont'a, Courtney, Rolando and Mark, the transition was easy for them. I'm ready to experience that and see how it is for myself."