Ndamukong Suh might be the heavy favorite to be the first overall pick of the 2010 draft, but that isn't stopping him from doing everything possible to stand out at the Scouting Combine to add to his impressive collegiate game film.
Nebraska's star defensive tackle turned down an invitation to the Senior Bowl last month to enroll immediately at the Michael Johnson Performance Center.
|LSU's Brandon LaFell participates in a hands drill. (Layne Murdoch)|
Suh is one of 10 prospects working out under the tutelage of former Olympic track star and world-record holder Michael Johnson at the Dallas facility that bears his name. Other 2010 draft prospects training alongside Suh are former Ole Miss standouts running back Dexter McCluster, defensive lineman Greg Hardy and linebacker Patrick Trahan, Texas pass rusher Sergio Kindle and linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy, LSU wide receiver Brandon LaFell, Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer, Southern wide receiver Juamorris Stewart and Texas Southern quarterback Bobby Reid.
They all hope to reap the benefits of working out with Johnson's team, which has prepped former first-round picks including Eli Manning, Alex Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson, Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Knowshon Moreno.
Most of Johnson's previous focus has been on offensive skill position players, which bodes well for McCluster, LaFell, Dwyer, Stewart and Reid, but how does Johnson anticipate tweaking his coaching and training strategies to get the best out of defensive linemen Suh and Hardy?
With the exception of a few football drills intended to improve the ball skills of receivers and running backs, the throwing accuracy of quarterbacks and the drops of linebackers and defensive backs, much of the preparation for the combine is the same for all players, regardless of position. The goal is turning their natural athleticism and prowess on the football field into results in the weight room, meeting rooms or on the track. It's about teaching track speed to guys with good football speed.
"It isn't necessarily about teaching guys to be fast," Johnson said. "We're teaching guys how to run a fast 40-yard dash. It is all in the start and getting a smooth transition out of the drive and acceleration phase into the maximum velocity stage. These guys have been running their way all of their lives. I have to pick and choose my battles with changing their technique. It is a lot of different things that we're trying to teach them in a very short time."
The Daily Grind
All prospects begin their day with breakfast at 8 a.m. By 8:45, they're off to the trainer's room to be taped or receive any other necessary treatment.
They start off with a "dynamic warm-up" before heading outside to work on linear speed or multi-directional speed. During linear speed days in "Speed School" for example, the players work together in resistance or assisted drills to develop speed before moving on to more practical drills (like their starts for the 40-yard dash) in preparation for actual combine events. For multi-directional speed, the focus may be on the 5-10-5 drills that require changing direction and quickness. Players then move on to explosive drills designed to boost their effectiveness in the vertical jump.
Drills designed to make the athletes better football players (rather than track stars) follow. Johnson is at his best improving the athletes on the track. For on-field work he relies on a group of former NFL standouts, including former All-Pro wide receiver Tim Brown, former Texas Tech running back Ricky Williams and former Dallas Cowboy defensive end Tony Tolbert.
After lunch, the players go through a round-robin of drills focusing more on their minds than their bodies. One group will be undergoing "mental skills" training, another will be in "interview preparation," and then others will be getting a massage. Following this is time in the weight room and a "chalk talk" hour in which the players' work in drills is dissected on film.
And you thought your day was regimented.
Exploding IndustryWith millions of dollars at stake over tenths of a second in a 40-yard dash or eighths of an inch in a vertical leap, pre-draft training has exploded into a highly competitive -- and big-money -- industry the past decade.
Over that time, agents have begun using their favorite trainers as part of their sales pitch to prospective clients. In some cases, selecting a combine preparatory facility has become even more of a priority for today's top prospects than picking an agent.
"I didn't have an agent yet when I chose to come down to Michael Johnson's," Suh said. "I chose this facility for the simple fact that I wanted something more on the elliptical side of the ball. Most of the literature I read and that my family provided me on other facilities had similar ideas on how to improve speed. There is an extra edge working with Michael.
"Also, the fact that here I'm working with Lance Walker, who has worked closely with my strength and conditioning coach at Nebraska, Coach [James] Dobson, appealed to me, as well."
LaFell had similar feelings.
"I had pretty much picked out Michael Johnson's facility before I settled on an agent" LaFell said. "I declared early last year and when I came out, I went here to see what it was all about. I liked it -- and I'm a Houston boy -- so this was close to home, too. Guys from my conference -- Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Mike Wallace -- they went here and they said it was a pretty nice spot. They got to compete and learn here and recommended it. I pretty much told my agent, if you don't have ties there, you'd better learn how to get ties, because this is where I want to go."
|Michael Johnson (left) says Dexter McCluster's athleticism will turn heads.|
"I've been working on getting my starts down," LaFell said. "When I came here, my starts were terrible. I consider myself a fast guy, but to do well in that drill [40-yard dash], I had to improve my starts."
LaFell's focus on improving his speed came at the cost of missing the Senior Bowl. A sprained MCL suffered against Arkansas in the regular-season finale limited him in the Citrus Bowl loss to Penn State. LaFell characterized his knee at "about 70 percent" for the bowl game. Instead of risking injuring the knee further, LaFell decided to give it time to heal.
In addition to working on his speed, LaFell has also been tutored in route-running two-to-three times a week by Brown.
Suh naturally wants to perform well in the 40-yard dash, but he realizes that this drill isn't nearly as important as others when scouts compare him to other defensive linemen.
"My personal opinion is that the 5-10-5 drill is probably the best indicator of whether a player has the quickness to get to the ball from whatever position he's been asked to line up from on the line of scrimmage," Suh said.
This area has been a focus for the Heisman finalist, though Johnson doesn't believe his star pupil has much to worry about athletically.
"Everyone knows that Suh is strong, but for his size, his ability to move laterally is pretty impressive," said Johnson.
Poised to Impress
As impressive as Suh and LaFell hope to be, the one prospect working out at the facility who will undoubtedly turn heads is McCluster. "Dexter McCluster is just amazing," LaFell stated.
"Everybody knows he's small, but we call him 'Big Dexter' because he may walk in the weight room like a little guy, but he puts it up like a big guy. He's explosive. He's going to surprise everybody." Suh couldn't agree more.
"I've been watching McCluster from a distance, but he's definitely one that I think is going to wow the scouts. He's a freak athlete," Suh said.
McCluster may be one of the few players so athletically gifted that he can impress scouts regardless of his technique, but Johnson feels that his work over the past 10 years in preparing athletes for the NFL has been proven effective.
"There are always going to be guys that run faster than people expect and guys that don't run as fast as people expected," Johnson said. "That's something that I've accepted as part of it. You only have so much control when you're training these guys as to what they're going to do. You can put them in the best position, but at the end of the day, they're the ones who have got to execute it."
Rob Rang is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.