Steve Weatherford has been like a kid in a candy store the past few days.

The former Terre Haute North and University of Illinois punter is currently rated as the best player at his position at the National Football Scouting Combine, which is currently under way at the RCA Dome and Indiana Convention Center.

But he’s also a huge fan of college football, so it isn’t much of a surprise that Weatherford is enjoying the experience of hanging out with the likes of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, among others, for a few days.

“I was getting my medical exam and Reggie Bush just comes over and sits next to me while we were waiting to undergo some tests,” Weatherford said during a round of media interviews Thursday. “I didn’t see who it was who had sat next to me. I just looked out of the corner of my eye and thought, ‘Man, that’s Reggie Bush sitting there.’ That was very cool. I didn’t get a chance to ask him for an autograph, but I might do that later.

“[Virginia offensive tackle] D’Brickashaw Ferguson came up to me when I first got here and shook my hand. That was kind of neat too. Just to have a chance to be around guys like that for a few days is pretty nice.”

A former multi-sport standout for the Patriots, the 6-foot-2, 217-pound kicking specialist has drawn a lot of attention on his own after a strong collegiate career with the Illini. After red-shirting as a true freshman in 2001, Weatherford punted 190 times in four years and averaged 43.6 yards per kick.

He had 11 career punts of 60 yards or more, 51 punts that went over 50 yards and had 16 punts that were downed inside opponent’s 20-yard line. Weatherford was a finalist for the Ray Guy award as the nation’s best punter in 2005 with a 42.8 yard average on 64 punts.

That’s impressive enough. But the thing that has caught of eye of National Football League scouts has been his ability to deliver deep kickoffs with sufficient hang time that allows coverage teams enough time to get downfield. He had only nine of his 29 career kickoffs returned the last two seasons.

“That’s been the thing that a lot of people of talked about since I’ve been here. I think the fact that I can do both well helps my chances [in the upcoming NFL player draft]. I think those two things, plus my size, are plusses for me,” he admitted.

Weatherford credits time spent with the father of former North (and University of Michigan) kicker Kraig Baker as keys to his future success in high school and in college.

“I was basically a soccer player before he got me to start thinking about kicking a football,” he said. It certainly take him a lot of time to learn what to do. Weatherford ended up earning 10 letters at North for football, track and soccer, and was an all-state selection in both football and track. He set a state record with a 55-yard field goal against Lawrence North as a senior.

“I think the fact that I have played a lot of sports has helped me [in his football career]. I like to go down on punts and kickoffs and mix it up a little bit. I think [NFL] teams see that I’m not just a kicker. I’m an athlete who can kick and who can also play the game a little bit,” he said.

“The fact that I have been invited to the combine and that they’ve rated me as the best punter here means a lot. But that won’t help me when we go in there and start kicking. You never know where you’re going to end up being drafted or what team is going to have an interest in you. Being here is just about having that chance to show and to prove what you can do along with some of the best players in the country.”

Weatherford, who has been projected to be drafted anywhere from the late second round to the seventh round, is scheduled to go through his first round of individual drills today at 1 p.m. He has scheduled a personal workout day at Illinois for March 15.

n Missouri State’s Scifres also showing his stuff — Jonathan Scifres, who has played the last four seasons at Missouri State, will join Weatherford and nine other kicker/punters for drills this afternoon.

The younger brother of San Diego Chargers punter Mike Scifres — who played at Western Illinois — is expected to get plenty of looks from NFL teams looking for a punter-placekicker-kickoff specialist.

“I’ll be happy doing whatever teams want me to do,” Jonathan Scifres said Thursday. “They want a punter? I can do that. They want someone to handle field goals and kickoffs? I can do that too. Just do kickoffs? That’s fine with me.”

n Colts expected to scout kickers — With Mike Vanderjagt an unrestricted free agent, fans shouldn’t be too surprised if the Indianapolis Colts will be in the market for a kicker during the off-season.

Vanderjagt has had a running verbal feud with Indianapolis team president Bill Polian over the past couple of seasons. But matters may have finally come to a head with his appearance on the “David Letterman Show” a few days after missing a potential game-tying 46-yard field goal in a divisional playoff loss to Pittsburgh.

There have been indications that team officials were none too pleased with his participation on the late-night show.

n No franchise tags for Indianapolis — The Colts did not use either their franchise tag or transition tag designations on any of their remaining unrestricted free agents, paving the way for players — most notably running back Edgerrin James — to test the free agent market.

NFL teams had until 4 p.m. Thursday to designate players with either tag. In addition to James, Indianapolis’ unrestricted free agents include defensive end Raheem Brock, linebacker Rocky Calmus, placekicker Jose Cortez, safety Joseph Jefferson, linebacker Rob Morris, running back James Mungro, linebacker David Thornton, defensive tackle Larry Tripplett, offensive tackle Kurt Vollers, wide receiver Troy Walters and Vanderjagt.

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