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Tracking the combine

Posted Feb 18, 2013

The NFL Scouting Combine has come to this when it gets underway Wednesday as the college prospects begin reporting to Indianapolis.


Vontaze Burfict

The NFL Scouting Combine has come to this when it gets underway Wednesday as the college prospects begin reporting to Indianapolis.

It makes Clif Marshall, director of Cincinnati's Ignition Sports and that new breed of coach known as "NFL Combine Trainer" wake up the echoes of his central Kentucky roots.

"I will feel like Bob Baffert at the Kentucky Derby," Marshall says of the fabled trainer. "They know who the trainer is now. That's who I feel like when they start the workouts. It can be stressful, but that's how it is now."

Marshall heads into his eighth combine as one of the more recognizable Bafferts of Indy as his card of 16 prospects competes with the huge gyms of API and IMG in this new era of scientific combine preparation that turns football into track for one week of the year.

He has split his group of 32 and taken 16 combine prospects to Ignition's facility in Naples, Fla., for the past six weeks while partner Ted Borgerding has stayed in Cincinnati working with non-combine invitees that are ticketed for an NFL team's local workout day in April. Marshall thinks at least 10 of his guys are going to get drafted, mainly between the third and seventh rounds.

"It's just the scope of our business and the way it's changed," Marshall says. "It's gotten to the point where I'm now going into homes to recruit. The players now, more than the agents, are deciding where they want to train and you have to sell your facility. The day the combine ends, I'm back on the road recruiting."  

Marshall steered University of Cincinnati tight end Connor Barwin into the top 50 of the 2009 draft as a defensive end with a monster combine, and Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty showed he could run fast enough in 2010 to go late in the first round. Marshall has also had several players run the fastest 40-yard dash in their position groups that aided their draft status. Abilene Christian wide receiver Clyde Gates was billed as the fastest offensive player at the 2011 combine with a 4.31 40. University of Cincinnati offensive lineman Jason Kelce led all offensive linemen at least year's combine in the pro agility drill.  

But as one of those rare trainers that has seen the combine from all sides as a college coach at Louisville, an NFL assistant with the Bengals, and now running his own gym, Marshall still calls himself "a football guy," and offers reason among the track work of 40s, vertical jumps and shuttle runs.

Balance, the way he sees it. Strength and speed and, most of all, football.

"Facilities like Ignition sometimes get too much credit when a guy tears up the combine and does great or gets too much blame when an athlete doesn't do as well," Marshall says. "The order goes like this:

"First, God blessed him. Second, he's got great genetics. Third, the college strength coach has developed him for four or five years and we've had only him for six, eight weeks. Then you've got the combine training."

Plus, Marshall knows the names of Andre Smith and Vontaze Burfict and how teams like the Bengals don't fall in love at the combine.

TEAMS CAUTIOUS AT COMBINE

Divide the history of the NFL Scouting Combine into three epochs. Start with the prehistoric age when all media was frowned upon in Indianapolis until the middle of the 1990s. Then there is the Age of Reason that opened in the late 20th century with a makeshift media room. Now we're in The Modern Era that has welcomed the 24-7 coverage of NFL Network.

Then it would be hard to dispute that the two worst combine efforts of the Modern Era have been offered by Alabama right tackle Andre Smith in 2009 and Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict in 2012.

And yet, as if to say the joke is on Rich Eisen, both have become big-time players since joining the Bengals.

"I see guys like Vontaze Burfict and on the flip side I've had some of the fastest guys to ever run in Indianapolis who can't stay on a team," Marshall says. "For the Bengals, it's not a make-or-break deal. I think (players) can help themselves at the combine if they do run fast. But at the end of the day, it comes back. Are they a football player?"

Smith and Burfict have proven to be just that despite their man-made disasters in Indy. Smith left his combine before working out after an awkward media appearance and Burfict probably should have left before he finished with the worst 40-yard dash time among the backers.

It took Smith two years to get settled, but he has been a key figure in the run of back-to-back Bengals Wild Card berths, emerging as a solid enough player to go from an Internet punch line to being ranked in the league's top five tackles by Pro Football Focus.

Burfict's slide from his first-round projection became a freefall in Indy and he ended up FedExing himself out of last year's draft. The rest is Bengals history. They signed him as a free agent and he ended up leading the NFL's seventh-best defense in tackles with a club-record 174 even though he played on the outside for the first time in his life.

So what's it all mean? It means the 24 analysts and 25 cameras of NFL Network make the combine important and trainers like Marshall worth their weight in a signing bonus. But Marshall can also tell his players that their game tape is more important.

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, who has become the Walter Cronkite of the combine with his no-frills, well-researched commentary, tells them the same thing. He says they've already put in 85 percent of their work with their college careers and that teams should only use the combine as a complement in the draft process and "not as a leader."

"One of my favorite sayings is that fast guys run fast, slow guys run slow. It's not a story (until) the opposite happens," Mayock said in his mega 150-minute State of the Union conference call Monday. "All of a sudden a guy runs slower than you expect, faster than you expect. You've got to go back and watch his tape. You've got to give Cincinnati credit. Especially on the Burfict kid because the kid's tape was bad and his combine was bad.

"But the Bengals … you've got to give them credit. … They went beyond the surface and they understood there was a good football player underneath all that and were willing to invest time in a free agent, which a head coach will hardly ever do. They did their homework, they got the kid in shape, and he turned into a tackling machine this year."

Marshall also knows the story of Bengals Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, a fourth-rounder from 2010 who now works at Ignition with Marshall during the offseason starting in March.

"The Bengals have done a good job because the front office and the coaches understand that 'We're not going to buy into that hype of a 40-yard dash. It's not going to be a game-changer,' " Marshall says. "Geno ran a 4.7 (40-yard dash) at 290 pounds and that was good, but they knew he was a player at the Senior Bowl. They drafted him because of how he played."

KEY INGREDIENTS

But if the combine is not everything, it's more than something. The combine is the one place where the scouts can compare how players on the draft board go head-to-head and can gauge who's actually faster and stronger. And the watch matters.

"The 40-yard dash may be an arbitrary distance, but we've been doing it for so long that there's now a huge database from which you can draw certain conclusions about lack of speed," says one AFC scout. "There are very few corners and receivers that survive in the NFL that run 4.7, 4.65 because there are so many other guys that are fast enough to shut them down. Sometimes a slower corner in college, because of the unlimited bump rule, can control a receiver down the field with his hands and strength, and his lack of speed gets exposed in the NFL when he has to take the hands off at five yards.

"If a skill player runs slower than what you would consider to be normal for that position, it raises real doubts; particularly corners and receivers. If you have a receiver who is a good player but runs a 4.7, there are going to be corners that will line up in bump and run and they simply can't get away from them. For an offensive lineman, if they run a 5.5, that indicates they don't have the quickness in their feet to pass protect on this level. At that point, you may have to start looking at what they did in the first 10 yards."

The bench press, where lifting 225 pounds and locking it into place with straight elbows counts as a rep, can also be a harbinger.

"It's become a higher game because of the rules when it comes to blocking people," the scout says. "You've got to have that upper body strength if you're an offensive lineman. That's more important now than it has been."

If their combine measurements are just a sliver of the draft process, it can be a major piece depending who it is. Look at Barwin, whose times and measurements in the drills (4.59-second 40, 40.5 inch vertical leap) first showed he could make the conversion from tight end.

And two of Marshall's guys this year, half-brothers Ray Graham, a Pittsburgh running back, and Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene, two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year, can use good times this offseason. Graham needs to show his speed in the 40-yard dash after coming back from an ACL injury earlier in his college career. As Greene continues to make the conversion from safety, a dominant showing in the pro agility drill and other movement sets at the combine could help get him into the first round.

The pro agility drill consists of lateral moves and is really tailor-made for backers. Turn and sprint five yards, touch the line, turn back and go 10 yards, touch the line, and sprint back through the starting point.

"He's done a great job getting our bodies back ready for the combine; it's not football anymore, it's testing," Greene said Monday during his lunch break in Naples. "It's kind of like running track. Getting ready for the 40, getting quicker for the lateral movement of the drills. He's helped me from the aspect of being a better runner and not a being a football player. Football is on film."

FEEL OF THE NFL

Definitely not your father's combine training regimen. Not even your older brother's.

Marshall thinks he can help his prospects get an NFL feel because he runs his program like the training camps at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky., working for Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and strength coach Chip Morton. They meet at 8 a.m., have their first workout at 9:30 a.m., break for lunch, work out again at 1:30 p.m., followed by dinner, and another evening meeting.

The program is also supplemented by pool work, video analysis, taped interviews like they'll undergo at the combine, as well as a simulation of the Wonderlic aptitude test. Marshall also brought in this year for a few sessions former Bengals assistants from his Georgetown days in defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan and wide receivers coach Mike Sheppard to work with them in position drills. McCourty also visited to talk about his experiences.

Now that combine training has become a cottage industry, Marshall fights the big boys with the pitch for individual attention he can give them with just 16 prospects, as well as a glossy program handbook that contains testimonials from guys Barwin and McCourty, now playoff veterans of the Texans and Patriots, respectively.

"Training at Ignition was the best and most important decision I have made for my football career," McCourty says on the guide. "Clif is a true student and coach of the science of the NFL  Combine. The daily individual attention in every drill we did made all the difference. The spiritual aspect of the program was my favorite part as it helped me become a better person and athlete.”

Marshall also offers a weekly Bible study and makes no bones about how his program is faith-based. He has adopted Morton's theme, "As iron sharpens iron, another man sharpens another," from the Book of Psalms.

"It's unique because not a lot of training staffs focus on the spiritual part of it. It's deeper than just football," says Greene, who was in one of the living rooms that Marshall recruited in November. "That's the thing that pulled me to Coach Clif. Faith was such a focus down there and when I was growing up that was a focus for our family."

But as "a football guy," Marshall also knows that the combine can't be the sole focus of the draft process. One of his guys last season at his pro day broad-jumped a supersonic 11-foot-9, but he's working on his third team.

No, the combine may not be the end all and be all. But any little bit helps. Maybe it isn't really about the numbers after all.

"My job is to put confidence in my athletes; that's part of the balance," Marshall says. "Make them feel like they're fast enough."

 

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