February 25, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) UCLA's Eddie Vanderdoes barrels toward the orange cone, plants his left foot outside it to make a cut, then slides his right foot to the inside before finishing the drill.

Two of his workout partners notice the gaffe and chuckle, though Vanderdoes doesn't seem to notice, his focus more on trying to catch his breath.

Vanderdoes takes his second turn on the agility course and again slips his right foot inside instead of planting it around the orange marker. This time everyone notices, the laughing and trash talking starting even before the 6-foot-3, 320-pound defensive lineman crosses the finish line.

''That's what you call athletic ability right there, fellas,'' Vanderdoes says in his own defense.

That part's true, but it's still not right.

''Do that at the combine and you'll have to do it over again,'' EXOS trainer Victor Hall tells Vanderdoes. ''You'll need to work on your stamina, not your footwork, `cause they'll keep making you do it until you get it right.''

Players who earn invites to the NFL combine are the elite of college players, finely tuned athletes accustomed to pushing themselves to the edge in the weight room and on the field. The pre-combine workouts at the EXOS performance center in north Phoenix are nothing like even they have encountered before.

To get ready for the combine, the players go through very specific movements designed to enhance their performance in front of NFL executives and coaches at next week's combine in Indianapolis. They work on footwork, technique, strength, speed, explosiveness - all with an eye on the different events of the combine.

EXOS also works with the players on nutrition, flexibility, recovery, media training and the mental side of the combine, including preparation for the Wonderlic test.

Football players are used to position-specific drills during the season. At EXOS, they prepare specifically for the drills of the combine.

''It's been intense. A lot of the stuff they do here, I've never done before,'' Washington defensive tackle Elijah Qualls said. ''The work is different, the lifting, the endurance drills. Just how much technique matters, in lifting, running, drills, technique on your technique. It's insane, but it makes a big difference. I can feel it, see it whenever we watch film. It's huge.''

The eight-week program - shorter for players whose seasons ran long - includes two to three workouts a day, six days a week. The workouts are typically broken up into upper and lower body sessions, both in the weight room and on-the-field drills.

The players do get position-specific workouts with professional coaches a couple times a week, but for the most part the workouts are the same for every group, with only the weights varying.

That's because everyone is training for the same thing.

On the football field, every position has its own specific needs, and the drills reflect that. Every player at the combine goes through the same drills, so the EXOS workouts are designed specifically for those, with particular focus on the two money makers: the 40-yard dash and bench press.

''We not playing football anymore, we're training for the combine so it's just different,'' Clemson All-America receiver Mike Williams said. ''It does make a big difference.''

The primary focus at EXOS is three-fold: technique, power and body composition.

The technique aspects cover everything from footwork on cuts to proper form on the bench press, allowing the already-tuned-in athletes to get the most of their speed and strength.

For the bench press, a big focus is on speed; the more reps a player can get in the first 10-15 seconds, the more he can get overall with the 225-pound lift. On the field, the players go through a variety of drills with bungee cords, harnesses and sleds as the EXOS trainers help to hone their technique.

''They may have the horsepower, but if their horsepower isn't locked in, they're not going to have the time they need,'' EXOS performance specialist Jon Barlow said. ''It's like a race car driver who has the pedal to the metal, but is just bouncing off the walls. Your car is working hard, but you're not going anywhere, so the technique is the first important thing.''

The horsepower comes from the work in the weight room, including squats, trap-bar dead lifts and clean pulls to build overall strength and explosiveness. They'll also do plyometrics and box jumps on the field to work on speed.

The workouts vary, from high repetitions of moderate weights to max lifts to workouts specifically designed to be like the combine drills.

''You have to have the horsepower,'' Barlow said. ''You can drive the family sedan as hard as you want, but if you don't have the engine inside it, it's only going to go so fast, so you need the horsepower from the weight room.''

The body composition aspect varies by individual need.

Some players come to EXOS needing to drop weight, so the workouts and nutrition plans are set up so they lose the weight, but don't lose strength. Some players need to gain weight, so the balance is trying to find those extra pounds and build strength without taking away from their speed.

''You just have to find the right balance,'' Barlow said. ''It's different for each player.''

And all pointed toward the same goal: impressing at the combine.

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