INDIANAPOLIS — Towson defensive end Ryan Delaire regularly lowered his shoulder pads and accelerated into opponents' backfields during the past two seasons, leveling unsuspecting quarterbacks and running backs.
It was a recurring display of skill that earned Delaire an invitation to the NFL scouting combine this week at Lucas Oil Stadium.
It was also an example of how a "tweener" draft prospect such as Delaire can provide value to a defense, especially in the 3-4 defensive scheme, where smaller college defensive ends often project as outside linebackers at the next level.
"To be honest, I feel like I'm a hybrid," Delaire said Friday. "I feel like I can stand up or put my hand down. I feel like I don't have a set position."
Delaire isn't alone. For years, NFL teams have prized players with his kind of size (6 feet 4, 255 pounds) and athleticism (an expected 4.6-second time in the 40-yard dash).
Since Hall of Fame outside linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Charles Haley's dominant days in the 1980s and 1990s, NFL teams have devised schemes to take advantage of players who are too small to play defensive end but are big and fast enough to play outside linebacker.
"I know that great 49ers coaching staff with George Seifert created that position," Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "They took it out of what was going on in New York" with the Giants' Taylor. "It has become a position of prominence. It's really an outside backer position and a rusher that can also drop. It is a hybrid spot that's really suited for guys in that 250-pound range with speed and athleticism who can do a little bit of everything.
"We've always looked for it. You can go back to our college days [at Southern California] when we had Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews. That's the epitome of what you are looking for on this level, too. It's become a big part of the game. The flexibility that those players bring to the passing game as well as the rush game is what makes it so unique."
Although Delaire is regarded as a later-round prospect, the draft is headlined by several excellent pass rushers who, like him, lack ideal size.
That includes projected first-round draft picks such as Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory (6-6, 240 pounds), Missouri defensive end Shane Ray (6-3, 245), Kentucky defensive end-outside linebacker Bud Dupree (6-4, 269), Florida outside linebacker Dante Fowler (6-2, 261) and Clemson outside linebacker Vic Beasley (6-2, 235).
"I think it's a good thing to be a tweener, because we're so versatile," said Dupree, who is set to meet with the Ravens at the combine. "We can help teams in a lot of ways at more than one position. I can play inside or outside or defensive end. I try to pattern my game after Aldon Smith, Clay Matthews and Von Miller."
What separates Gregory, Ray and Dupree from a large group of pass rushers is their speed and ability to close passing lanes.
Dupree had 74 tackles last season and finished his career with 23.5 sacks, the most among active Southeastern Conference players. He might have to bulk up in the NFL or drop weight, depending on where he lines up.
"It doesn't matter to me; I still move the same," Dupree said. "I don't think I need to lose weight. In the 3-4 scheme, I think I'm at the right weight."
Growing up in Connecticut, Delaire was a basketball player and didn't play football until his senior year of high school, after which he earned a football scholarship to Massachusetts-Amherst.
"Football grew on me, and being in a helmet, going hard and being in a brotherhood, you don't have in other sports," Delaire said. "As far as athleticism and being able to jump and do a lot, I was a small forward."
After a coaching change at Massachusetts, Delaire transferred to Towson. In two seasons with the Tigers, Delaire emerged as an All-American who finished with 22.5 sacks.
Delaire declined invitations to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and Medal of Honor all-star games after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in late December. Fully healthy now, he plans to conduct a full workout at the combine. He's hoping to post a 35-inch vertical leap and bench-press 225 pounds 25 times.
Delaire had 14.5 tackles for losses and forced three fumbles last season.
"As a pass rusher, I'm a little versatile because I'm able to bend the edge each move," said Delaire, who has a combine meeting with the Ravens. "I try to do a double-arm swipe or a dip-and-rip. I dip after each move to create a path past the offensive tackle. I use the speed rush and the bull rush. I try not to be a robot out there, basically.
"I feel like I'm one of the premier pass rushers in the draft this year. I feel like I bring a lot of bend around the edge. Not too many pass rushers can do that. That's something I have to offer."
Delaire said he hopes the Cleveland Browns' selection of former Towson running back Terrance West (Northwestern) in the third round last year has raised awareness about the Tigers' program. Towson cornerback Tye Smith also was invited to the combine.
"It just basically brings more attention to Towson University," Delaire said. "Having those players brings a lot of scouts to our school. Coming from a small school, you have something to prove."