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February 25, 2013

Marquardt could add intrigue to NFL draft

INDIANAPOLIS — In one of the most unpredictable draft classes in years, Luke Marquardt might be the most unlikely prospect.

A 6-foot-8 1/2, he was the tallest offensive lineman at the NFL Scouting Combine last week. And he hails from one of the littlest-known universities — Azusa Pacific, an NAIA school making the transition to NCAA Div. II in suburban Los Angeles.

Marquardt, who met with the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots early in the combine process, played quarterback and outside linebacker until the ninth grade. Then he switched to basketball.

His mother played hoops at the University of Washington. His father was the child of missionaries and spent his first 18 years in West Africa.

Marquardt grew from 6-1 as a freshman at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., to 6-8 as a senior. He decided to continue his basketball career as a walk-on at Azusa Pacific, but a chance encounter with football coach Victor Santa Cruz led to a tryout at tight end.

“I went out on the field, did a couple routes, threw with the quarterbacks, and (the coaching staff) offered me a little bit of (scholarship) money, and then I eventually got a full-ride scholarship,” Marquardt said.

He also got a position change.

Halfway through his first season, Marquardt volunteered to move to left tackle and help a struggling offensive line. He thought the switch would last just the remainder of the season, but the coaches were so impressed they asked him to stay in the trenches.

He was reluctant at first, but they swayed him in part by mentioning how much elite left tackles can earn in the NFL.

“It’s been a dream ever since,” Marquardt said, “and I’ve worked hard to get here.”

Much of that work came under the tutelage of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater.

When the former Rams great first showed up at practice, Marquardt had no idea who he was. He asked Slater where he’d played, and the only answer was “a small school in Mississippi.”

After going home and doing a little Internet research, Marquardt texted Santa Cruz and begged him to bring Slater back. Two years later, Marquardt praises Slater for the player he’s become.

“He’s improved my game in every aspect, as far as every bit of advice for every situation,” Marquardt said. “He’s been great.”

Marquardt was the first player from the Cougars program to be invited to the combine in 13 years. No player has been drafted out of Azusa Pacific since the Kansas City Chiefs took running back Christian Okoye in the second round in 1987.

The Nigerian Nightmare attended a Cougars playoff game two years ago, but Marquardt never got the chance to meet him.

Soon, he could join Okoye in the NFL fraternity.

“I have a lot to prove coming from a small school,” Marquardt said. “I’d like to show that I’m a dominant force.”

Marquardt did 31 reps on the bench press at the combine, but he couldn’t compete in other drills because he’s still recovering from a broken foot that cost him much of his senior season.

He could have taken a medical redshirt, but Azusa Pacific is ineligible for the postseason as it completes its transition to Division II. With the hype he was hearing about the NFL, Marquardt thought the time was right to make the jump.

He’ll have his Pro Day on March 26, and by then he hopes he will have done enough to convince some team to take a chance on him during the three-day draft at the end of April.

“I love being the underdog,” he said. “I love coming in here and catching people’s eye. I definitely feel there’s some intrigue, and I’m excited to prove myself at the next level.”

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