MARTINSVILLE, N.J. (AP) - Other than special teamers, wide receivers and the guys who cover them, football players rarely break into a sprint. Yet every prospect coming out of college, from the slippery scatback to the behemoth linemen, is measured on his ability to cover 40 yards more quickly than his peers.
With so much riding on those players' times at private workouts, pro days and, most especially, the NFL combine, it makes sense to train them to run as fast as the wind. Or, in the case of the 330-pounders, a stiff breeze.
Teaching prospects at the TEST Football Academy to make like Olympic sprinters is Ato Boldon, who merely owns four Olympic medals and a world championship. He's been working with TEST for three years, which recently teamed with Parisi Speed School to give players hoping to break into the NFL every opportunity to cut crucial tenths of seconds off their 40 times.
I am basically turning football players into sprinters for a while,'' Boldon says.When we first talked about it, I didn't know how my expertise could be used.''
Boldon then accompanied Brian Martin, CEO of TEST's academies in Florida and New Jersey, to the NFL combine, and his eyes popped open wider than Calvin Johnson's get on a post pattern.
``My first thought:
Oh my god these guys are awful.' It was 95 percent their technique. It was bad. And I said,Now I understand why they want to bring me on board.'
``At the combine last year, my guys did not look like the others. By the end of the combine I have the fastest guys.''
That would include Patrick Peterson of LSU, who went fifth overall to Arizona and wound up tying a league record with four punt returns for touchdowns as a rookie, Stevan Ridley of LSU and Da'Rel Scott of the Super Bowl champion Giants.
Peterson was the most coachable athlete I have had in my life,'' Boldon says,and I coach many athletes.''
This year, he is working with approximately 60 collegians, ranging from Notre Dame guard Trevor Robinson to Sherbrooke - yes, in Canada - receiver Simon Charbonneau. Many of his students will be in Indianapolis for next week's combine, but even more must impress at pro days held at school campuses, or in private workouts.
TEST/Parisi Football Academy will hold a pro day for its players on March 30.
For now, though, the emphasis is on getting the likes of Richmond quarterback Aaron Corp, Arkansas State linebacker DeMario Davis and UMass fullback Emil Igwenagu ready for Indy.
The first few weeks football players look at you like you are speaking a foreign language,'' Boldon says with a laugh. The native of Trinidad speaks perfect English, of course.My job is to get them to trust me, trust the system. I ask them to run in a way that makes no sense to them. Some of them are fast and have run high school track, but most of what high school kids are taught is completely inaccurate.
``We are making a little portion of their brains be sprinters; they are 100 percent football players, but for these purposes, they must learn the proper way to run.''
That does not mean ``grunting and take as many steps you can,'' Boldon says.
Instead, Boldon seeks to make their running style and strides more efficient, eliminating any wasted movements, especially to the side and with the arms. He gets them early in the morning and, hopefully, by day's end he is seeing a more fluent, skillful sprint through improvement in technique, attention to detail and, Davis says, ``lots of hard work.''
``We have the tool set and Ato is giving us the technique to use it,'' Davis says.
What (Boldon) teaches us is different, obviously,'' adds Igwenagu, considered a rising talent on draft boards after solid showings in two all-star games.I am used to running the way that's natural for football, and football is not a linear game. Running the 40 is all about linear running, no side-to-side running, no cuts. It's a different focus and it was tough at first.
``I am 23 and he is breaking habits I learned when I began to play. He really is teaching a different way to run.''
The 40 hardly is the only way players' mobility is tested at the combine or the other workouts watched by scouts, coaches, general managers, and even some team owners. The prospects do three-cone drills and shuttle runs designed to display their agility, too.
The lanky Corp, who began his career at Southern California before getting injured, losing the starting job to Matt Barclay, then transferring, figures his 40 speed won't be a deciding factor in who drafts him and how high. For quarterbacks, so much more goes into the evaluations: arm strength, toughness, leadership.
Still, he knows it would be foolish to dismiss movement among the criteria in the evaluations.
``I want to prove I can run, but I'm not going to run a 4.4 and I am not going to do a 38-inch vertical. I want to show I am a good enough athlete to play at that level,'' Corp says.
Martin recalls how Joe Flacco, with a similar resume to Corp's - transfer from a BCS school to the Colonial Athletic Association, then an outstanding career at that level - did the three-cone drill at the combine in 6.82 seconds. Get this: Michael Vick did it in 6.85.
You might not think of guys like Joe or Aaron as an athlete, and then you see what they can do with the proper training,'' Martin says.It's all in their hip flexibility, the biomechanical techniques. It's the opposite way than how most athletes train, and once they master it, the improvement is right there in the numbers.''
Martin says the faster prospects can take .2 seconds off their 40 times, and the linemen chop as much as .4 seconds.
The 40 numbers Boldon loves to see flash up at the combine and workouts are 4.4 seconds or faster for skill positions. Even more satisfying to him is when the big guys post lifetime bests.
I like to call me the Ferrari mechanic. They are already Ferraris but you can tune them,'' Boldon says of the receivers and defensive backs and running backs who can blaze through a 40 once he has finished with them.I take more pride in my bigger guys running fast because, yeah, the cornerbacks and receivers come here fast, so we can take them from 190 to 195 mph. To take a Ford Explorer from 90 to 120 mph is much more gratifying.
``If I correct your technique and you put in the work, you are able to do anything as a sprinter.''