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In the FCS Huddle: Ijalana at head of FCS draft class

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - What's important to remember about mock NFL drafts is that most projections are wrong rather than right.

They might be fun at this time, or really any time, of the year, but they are opinions. Nothing is cast in stone.

And opinions vary. These days, Villanova offensive lineman Ben Ijalana is showing up in the first round of some mock drafts, in the second round in others, even in the third round of some drafts.

Ijalana used to pay attention to the countless projections and the assessments of his talent until, "I came to the conclusion that you just gotta make things happen for yourself. I don't know the minds of the guys who pick for the teams. They say all it takes is one team to fall in love with you (and) I'm a believer in that."

There's a lot to love about the other Big Ben in Pennsylvania, who is expected to be the first Football Championship Subdivision player taken in the draft, April 28-30 in New York. Even the "small-school" label that is attached to players coming out of the division doesn't faze Ijalana.

He is expected to switch from tackle to guard in the NFL. Vlad Ducasse made the same move after the New York Jets selected him in the second round of last year's draft out of Massachusetts, which, like Villanova, competes in CAA Football. Ijalana's skills are generally considered stronger than Ducasse's coming out of college.

"Now it's on to the biggest stage," Ijalana said, "but I've done this hundreds of times before."

If Ijalana hasn't seen them, he will be glad to know the many profiles suggest more strengths than weaknesses with his skills.

Ben Ijalana is small for an NFL tackle, but perfect for a guard.
At 6-foot-3, 317 pounds - which is small for an NFL tackle, but perfect for a guard - he has a thick body with 36-inch arms. He is agile, strong and has an excellent initial punch, which helps him to reach the second level in run blocking.

He still has to improve his drop step in pass protection, which would make him susceptible to the NFL's faster defensive players. That's another reason for the move inside to guard.

"He's a very athletic offensive lineman," Villanova coach Andy Talley said. "I think in college football and pro football, that's what you're looking for because you end up playing against real fast, speed guys on the edge. It's real hard to get around Ben because he's very quick and he's a big strong guy as well. His pass-protection principles are very good and he's a good run- blocker as well. He's very consistent."

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock calls Ijalana a "really good football player with a lot of upside."

Ijalana's career already is legendary at Villanova. He was inserted into the lineup as a freshman, didn't have a redshirt season and never missed a start in 53 college games. In 2009, he helped the Wildcats win the FCS championship and was named to the FCS All-America first team for the first of two times.

As a senior this past season, he was the only lineman named as a finalist for the Walter Payton Award (the FCS' outstanding player, sponsored by Fathead.com) and the only FCS player named to the Outland Trophy Watch List for interior offensive linemen.

"What I've done best I feel is I'm a pretty good pass protector," he said. "I feel like that's how I was able to start playing since freshman year, and then from then I started learning the trades of run blocking. I've got a lot of experience on my hands, so I'll switch on techniques. I just come to play every day.

"It wouldn't hurt to be a little more explosive (and) just maintain leverage. Not that I'm high usually, but the human body gets tired, and when that happens you need to force yourself to have the same technique you did in the first quarter as you do in the fourth quarter."

Scouts want Ijalana to play with more of a mean streak, but his toughness can't be questioned after he played with a sports hernia in Villanova's final four games, including three in the playoffs.

Subsequent surgery kept him from playing in the Senior Bowl and at the NFL Combine he could only interview with teams. He hopes his intelligence with the X's and O's came across to teams.

"I haven't been able to do anything since our last game of the season. I had surgery, I was sitting on a couch for like three weeks and then I finally started rehabbing, and I'm ready to run," he said. "Not quite as fast as this analogy I've about to give you, but something like a racehorse right before a race. And the doors open and boom! It's good to be sweating again, just doing things that make me feel athletic."

Ijalana, 21, graduated from the same high school as former NFL standouts Franco Harris, Irving Fryar and Alonzo Spellman. A long-time fan of former Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl offensive line Walter Jones, Ijalana wore the same No. 71 as him while at Villanova.

So many small-school players have gone on to NFL fame, including two Payton Award winners out of Villanova, running back Brian Westbrook and wide receiver Brian Finneran. Ijalana could have played at any FBS football factory and been a standout as well, so the concern about his level of competition isn't valid.

"The biggest adjustment, and this might not even be bad, is just the fact that it's a job - 24/7," said Ijalana, who is being represented by Tony Agnone of Eastern Athletic Services. "This is the only thing I have to worry about, just take care of your body and become a football player, help service your team, whereas right now I have to worry about graduation, senior seminars, finals and papers and stuff. That doesn't happen in the NFL.

"I'm a little anxious, but who doesn't get butterflies before a big game or before a big audition? I'm just going to take my same old zone steps and my same old kick slide and do what I know I can do."

The many mock drafts don't have to tell him that.

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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