Working the room

Times Staff Writer

Some people light up a room. Ryan Kalil rearranges one.

The former USC center, among the fastest-rising players in the NFL draft, walks into a room the way he saunters to the line of scrimmage: surveying, assessing, critiquing. This picture would look better over here. The mirror should be hanging on the other wall. Wouldn’t the couch look better in that corner?

Yes, this interior lineman can appreciate the finer points of interior decorating, but it’s more than that.

“When he walks into a room, he looks at things a lot differently than I would,” said his father, Frank, who’s never surprised when the living room of his Corona home is reshuffled after his son visits. “He looks at pictures and colors, and I just think he does the same thing when he looks at a defense. It’s just easy for him. The game for him has been a lot easier than for most. It just comes really naturally to him.”


That has become increasingly apparent, even since Kalil’s college career ended. Impossible-to-ignore performances at the Senior Bowl and NFL scouting combine have boosted him from a likely first-day pick -- which encompasses the first three rounds -- to a possible first-rounder. He is considered by many experts to be the most technically sound offensive lineman in the draft.

The last time NFL teams went the first two rounds without picking a center was 10 years ago, when Cincinnati waited until the middle of the third to select Michigan’s Rod Payne. In three of the last four years, the top center was taken in the opening round. Few people, if anyone, question that Kalil is the best center in this draft.

“Because he’s such a safe bet, some of the teams near the end of the first round probably have his name in their back pocket,” said Mike Mayock, draft analyst for the NFL Network. “If that defensive end you were hoping for isn’t there, then Ryan Kalil is a safe backup plan.”

After four years of heavy perspiring, Kalil isn’t sweating the wait. He has planned a draft party at his parents’ home and has become preoccupied about planning his wedding next March to Natalie Nelson, a USC song girl.

While his dad, a former NFL and USFL offensive lineman, peruses websites to check out what people are saying about his son, Ryan seems to take it in stride. He has done what he can do to prove himself.

“The thing I always kept in the back of my mind when I was thinking about the Senior Bowl was, the guys I’m going to go against are nowhere [near] as good, or just as talented as any of the guys I’ve played against at SC -- Mike Patterson, Shaun Cody, Sedrick Ellis,” Kalil said. “We’d do those drills over and over at SC. It was one of the most intense practicing programs in the country.... Having that thought process going into it, my confidence was way above a lot of the other guys who were there.”


One of Kalil’s defining moments at the Senior Bowl came when he lined up opposite Louisville defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, the 19-year-old phenom considered the best -- or possibly second-best to Michigan’s Alan Branch -- interior defensive line prospect in the draft. The drill required Kalil to keep his hands on Okoye, and Okoye to swat them away. Dozens of pro coaches and scouts crowded around for a look.

What they saw was Kalil get -- and keep -- the upper hand.

“The advantage Ryan had is he used his hands better than Okoye did,” Mayock said. “Every team in the league watches tape of those practices, so when you see one real good player going up against another real good player it catches your attention. The fact that he was able to handle the quickest defensive tackle in the draft means something.”

Around the Kalil home, Ryan shares the spotlight. His self-described “All-American family” includes father Frank, mother Cheryl, who was Miss California in 1981, brother Matt, a 6-foot-8, 280-pound junior at Servite who is among the nation’s best offensive tackles and already has committed to USC, and sister Danielle, a model and aspiring singer.

Ryan’s interests extend beyond the sidelines. He has given thought to working in the film industry after football, and his collaboration with comedian Will Ferrell on a football training spoof for NFL Network will air on Saturday during the network’s draft coverage.

As a kid, he made home movies by creating clay characters, then painstakingly adjusting them, frame by frame, to bring them to life.

“It took him hours,” his father recalled. “He’d take a snap [with the camera], move an arm, take another snap, move the other arm.... He’d have guys driving down the hall, getting out, climbing up the chairs onto the table.


“He’s just got a creative flair.”

That was obvious in the way Kalil proposed to his girlfriend. It happened on his birthday, when he invited her down to the Coliseum, supposedly to watch him pose for a Sports Illustrated photographer. When they got there, the camera equipment was on the field but the “photographer” had gone back to his car. Suddenly, someone turned out the stadium lights, and a video featuring the couple began to play on the scoreboard. Nelson was stunned. She watched it, then turned back to Kalil, whom she found on bended knee.

Their immediate future is equally unpredictable. Because Kalil is expected to be selected no earlier than the bottom third of the first round, he conceivably could wind up with any of the NFL’s 32 teams. Typically, he isn’t stressing about it.

He’ll wait for the word, and arrange his life accordingly.

Then, rearrange it.



Local players looking for an NFL home

Along with USC center Ryan Kalil, these local college players could land NFL roster spots:

* Andy Collins, QB, Occidental -- Oregon transfer will probably take the free-agent route into camp.

* Justin Hickman, DE, UCLA -- Possible late-round pick could move to OLB in the NFL.

* Dwayne Jarrett, WR, USC -- Should still go in the first round, but stock has dropped some.

* Riley Jondle, LS, UCLA -- A few long snappers have carved out nice, long NFL careers.

* Oscar Lua, ILB, USC -- A probable late-round pick or free agent bound for special teams.

* Chris McFoy, WR, USC -- Good size, decent speed. Could hook on with somebody.

* Justin Medlock, K, UCLA -- Considered second-best kicker in the draft. Should go in the fifth or sixth round.


* Ryan Powdrell, FB, USC -- Probably will get into a training camp as a free agent.

* Dallas Sartz, OLB, USC -- Probable second-day pick. Scouts like him as a backup and special teams player.

* Steve Smith, WR, USC -- Scouts love his route-running precision. Solid first-day pick.

* Junior Taylor, WR, UCLA -- Could make it into a camp -- but probably not as a draft pick.

* Travis Tofi, DE, USC -- Potentially could get to a camp as a free agent.

* Kyle Williams, OT, USC -- Trojans right tackle should warrant a look from some team.