Kenny Cain wants to take Area 51 to the next level.
The former TCU linebacker, who will be eligible for April's NFL Draft, hopes to prove to scouts this winter that he's big enough to play outside linebacker in the NFL.
His journey begins tonight at the Casino Del Sol College All-Star Game at Kino Stadium in Tucson, Ariz.
Area 51 is more than a nickname for Cain, who wore No. 51 with the Frogs and led the team in tackles the past two seasons. It's a state of mind.
He began using the nickname last summer to describe the area on the field that he owned.
"It's a spot you don't want to be in," Cain said.
Teammates Elisha Olabode and Marcus Mallet started addressing Cain as Area 51, but it didn't take hold until he wrote it on the tape wrapped around his wrist for TCU's Thanksgiving Night game at Texas. Cain led the Frogs that night with 14 tackles, the most in a game for a TCU linebacker since 2004.
"The team kind of picked up on it and it kind of stuck and fit me perfect," Cain said. He's hoping NFL scouts take notice of performances such as the Texas game and see in him sheer talent for the game instead of his size. He's 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, which may limit interest, until scouts see him play in a game. He's focused on fulfilling his boyhood dream of playing in the NFL, ever since idolizing receiver Jerry Rice while growing up in New Orleans. During his youth he played every position but offensive line. At TCU he has been the chief on-the-field motivator and heart of the defense for the past three seasons. He's in the market for an agent but hasn't found one yet.
"I look at it as an opportunity to show the scouts that I can play with the best of them, even though they think I'm just an undersized linebacker," he said from Tucson this week. "I don't feel like it's that big of a deal. I've seen a lot of smaller guys that make it. It's about whether you can play football or not. And I think I'm a very good football player."
He'll get no argument from TCU fans. Cain led the Frogs with 86 tackles in 2012, becoming the first TCU player to lead the team in consecutive seasons since former Frogs standout Jason Phillips accomplished the feat in 2008. Phillips went onto to the NFL, just as four other TCU linebackers the past five years -- Robert Henson, David Hawthorne, Daryl Washington and Tank Carder.
Cain is hoping to make it six in April, although he'd love a chance to come back and play with the 10 returning starters he played with as the only senior in 2012. Especially after losing his final game with TCU, a disheartening 17-16 defeat to Michigan State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
"We felt like we lost to a team that wasn't better than us," he said. "It's one of those things, as a senior, you wish you could have back. And you wish you could come back and prepare for next year, but I can't. I'd give two of my fingers to come back next year and play."
Wouldn't he need them to make tackles?
He laughs. "Not with those 10 other guys on the field."
He helped TCU lead its conference in defense all four years, including last season, the Frogs' first in the Big 12. He credits TCU coach Gary Patterson for teaching him football, but also about being a man.
"The person I am and the passion I have for the game and the sacrifices I'm willing to make" are because of TCU, he said. "I always thought there's no one out there working as hard as me or who wanted to win more than me until I met Gary Patterson. He's a winner. He'll teach you about football, but at the same time he'll teach you about life."
Christmas morning, while TCU prepared for its final game in Scottsdale, Ariz., Cain texted Patterson Christmas wishes. The coach replied, "Merry Christmas Area 51."