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CBS: Linebacker from Ukraine could be first-round pick


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Linebacker from Ukraine could be first-round pick

April 21, 2004

SportsLine.com wire reports


SAN FRANCISCO -- Igor Olshansky was just 15 but already a behemoth at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds.

A high school football coach spotted him in the stands, watching a sport he was still learning eight years after emigrating from Ukraine.

"I put him up against a wall and spoke for 30 minutes," Vince Tringali recalled. "I told him, 'You're crazy kid. You have to get out there. If you keep growing, you'll be worth a lot of money."'

That prediction could soon prove true: Olshansky has parlayed his rare combination of strength, size and speed to shoot up the draft board in recent weeks, becoming a possible first-round sleeper in this weekend's NFL draft.

According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Olshansky would be the first player born in the former Soviet Union in the NFL.

It's been a rapid ascension for a player who just a few years ago didn't even know there were 11 players a side in football.

"I didn't know anything about football," said Olshansky, who played in college at Oregon. "I'd seen it, but I didn't understand what I was watching. It looked kind of crazy."

That's not surprising considering where he came from. Olshansky was born in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, an industrial city known more as a destination of American men seeking brides than it is for football.

He came to the United States when he was 7. Growing up in San Francisco, Olshansky played basketball and boxed -- sports more familiar to Eastern Europeans.

"How many Igors do you know in the NFL? You find them in hockey and a few in basketball or maybe soccer. In the NFL? I don't think so," said Tringali, who coached Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts at the same high school, St. Ignatius, but retired before Olshansky started there.

"He was very raw," Tringali added. "But he learned football. Football is not a rocket science. There's something about this kid. He's destined for greatness."

Professional football wasn't exactly what Alexandra Olshansky had in mind for her son -- she would have preferred he go into medicine -- but she has accepted that his passion is sports, even if she and her husband don't understand football.

At least the fans at Oregon made it easy for them to know when their son was successful. After almost every tackle, chants of "I-gor! I-gor!" rang out in Autzen Stadium. "They knew that I had made a big play whenever they heard my name," he said.

The personable Olshansky -- fluent in English and Russian -- ate up the attention, talking back and gesturing to the fans to fire them up.

Olshansky heard his name quite a bit last season. He had 58 tackles, including 15 for losses and 6½ sacks, on the way to being named the Ducks' top defensive lineman for the second straight year.

Despite that, many questioned why he left early, saying he could have been a high first-round pick had he stayed for his senior season. He was motivated by the chance to help his parents financially and the belief he could be a first-rounder already.

NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt sees tremendous long-term potential for a natural player who is still learning some of the ins and outs of football.

"You can always teach people to do things who have ability," Brandt said. "It's awfully hard to teach someone to do things who don't have ability. When you have someone who is that size and who can run that fast, that in itself is a big plus."

Olshansky gets his strength from his grandfather, a World War II hero wounded 11 times in battle.

Now 6-5 and 315 pounds, Olshansky wowed NFL teams with his impressive pre-draft workouts. He had a vertical jump of 33½ inches and ran a 40-yard dash in under 5 seconds. But where he really shined was the strength drills.

After bench-pressing 225 pounds 41 times at the NFL combine - one short of Isaac Sopoaga of Hawaii and four shy of a record -- Olshansky wouldn't be outdone at Oregon's pro day.

With his father looking on, and a legion of scouts and his teammates counting each rep, Olshansky recorded 43 lifts at 225 pounds. Now some project Olshansky as a first- or second-rounder. He had visits with Kansas City, Dallas, Jacksonville and San Francisco scheduled before the draft.

"I wasn't even on the radar," he said. "When I declared, everyone said I'd probably be a third- or fourth-round pick. I don't think they really looked at my game film and realized my abilities.

"There are a lot of big, strong, fast kids out there, but a lot aren't playing football or can't play football. I can also play. I make plays."

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