- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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MOBILE, Ala. -- Four years ago, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz convinced Matt Roth to turn down Nebraska by promising the suburban Chicago high school star that he wouldn't have to play defensive end. He could continue to play linebacker.
Roth, a two-time All-Big Ten defensive end, smiled Wednesday when asked about it.
"I love playing linebacker," Roth said. "Once they put my hand on the ground, it felt like a natural fit. I had a knack for it."
If 30 sacks over the last three years is any measure, Roth has a knack for defensive end.
He has spent the first three days of practice at the Senior Bowl doing to the best offensive linemen in the nation what he did as a Hawkeye.
"He's extremely well-coached," Oakland defensive ends coach Pat Jones said.
"Excellent quickness. High motor." Jones, the longtime coach at Oklahoma State, paused for a second and grinned. "I can see why Iowa wins a bunch of ballgames."
At 6-foot-3, 262 pounds, Roth isn't much bigger than a linebacker. However, NFL talent pickers put stock in hand size, and only five players on either roster have a bigger hand (10½ inches) than Roth. Few of them have as quick of a first step, either.
No one at the North team practices conducted by the Raiders is tackled. Practices are "thud" only. But Roth has at least four "sacks" this week. On Wednesday, Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton got Roth to jump offside. On the next play, Roth quick-stepped around Eastern Washington tackle Michael Roos, and instead of unloading on quarterback Charlie Frye of Akron, flicked the ball out of Frye's hands onto the ground.
A few plays later, Vanderbilt tackle Justin Geisinger, in his first practice as a replacement for the injured Rob Petitti of Pittsburgh, attempted to block Roth. Geisinger, playing on the right side for the first time since high school, struggled at best. On one play, he didn't do much more than wave as Roth went by.
"He didn't make it easy for me," Geisinger said in admiration. "He's quick."
"I've told NFL guys that he's a defensive line version of a Bob Sanders," Ferentz said via phone Wednesday morning, referring to the Indianapolis safety, a second-round pick out of Iowa who played in the Senior Bowl a year ago. "Matt's all football player. He practices 100 miles per hour. Like Bob, he was rough around the edges early.
"If every play was a run play, he could have been an All-American linebacker," Ferentz said. "He didn't have much feel for the passing game."
Ferentz promised Roth a shot at linebacker. Roth played linebacker and special teams as a freshman, and the next spring, he agreed to give the line a chance. As a situational player, he made 10 sacks in 2002. He increased that to 12 as a junior.
This year, Roth had eight sacks. But the attention he drew is a big reason that Hawkeye tackle Jonathan Babineaux had 11 sacks. Babineaux is playing in the Senior Bowl, too.
The biggest question that Roth must answer concerns his size, and he said Wednesday that he understands he will have to answer it from all 32 NFL teams.
"The NFL teams are still a little skeptical," Roth said. "A guy like (Indianapolis end Dwight) Freeney has kind of opened that door for us. Some teams play big guys. Some teams want small, quick, speed."
Roth edited that description.
"Not small. A little undersized," Roth said.
He seems to have a handle on the skepticism.
"You only have to convince one team," Roth added.
Roth benefited by playing for Ferentz, a former Baltimore Ravens assistant who has developed a reputation among NFL coaches for turning out well-schooled players. The Hawkeyes have sent several offensive linemen to the NFL over the last two years, including Robert Gallery, the second overall pick in 2004.
Roth went to school against them, and he has displayed that knowledge daily at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
"You watch him in practice. That's just how he is," Ferentz said. "He competes full speed. He's extremely quick and explosive. You won't find any tougher player. Matt is not the biggest defensive lineman in the world. One thing we know. He is a football player."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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