HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- The football season may be over, but this is the busiest time of the year for trainer Travelle Gaines and his staff at the Athletic Gaines gym in West Hollywood. Now that the Senior Bowl and other all-star games have come and gone, the next part of the schedule has to do with next week's scouting combine, and the Pro Days that follow. Gaines is getting several draft-eligible players to the next level right now, and two from Oregon -- running back Kenjon Barner and defensive end/outside linebacker Dion Jordan -- are headed to Indianapolis with specific goals in mind.
When we caught up with them in January, both Barner and Jordan were looking to put on weight naturally, while maintaining their functional speed and agility. Barner, who has been tagged with the "too small" label by some, wants to bulk up from under 190 pounds to 200 by the time he hits the field at Lucas Oil Stadium for running back drills. And Jordan wants to meet the NFL at 250 pounds by next week, after playing for the Ducks in 2012 at closer to 230. Both players are within their target weights, and Barner really showed out at the Senior Bowl. Criticized in some circles because Oregon's offense didn't require him to block, Barner went to Mobile looking for a fight in the blocking drills, and turned some heads. Jordan stayed behind, choosing to avoid any further issues with the labrum injury he played through in 2012.
"I felt good about it -- I was able to get out there and show some things that I could do," Barner told me this week. "Talked to a couple of coaches, and they thought I did well. I wanted to go out and prove that I was willing to [block], because there were a lot of questions about that."
As Gaines said, the focus for the combine is to put the focus back on Barner's pure athleticism -- the speed and lateral agility that allowed him to amass 2,023 yards from scrimmage in his senior campaign. So, while the heavy weights are still a focus in the power portion of the program, Barner is also leading the way when the group heads out to the field at nearby Fairfax High to run through three-cone drills and specific explosiveness exercises.
"The difference with guys when they were getting prepared for the Senior Bowl and now ... in dealing with Kenjon and Dion, you were dealing with two guys who just got done playing football a week prior to getting here. So, my goal was to make sure that from a corrective standpoint -- getting them back in the correct posture and getting them feeling as good as they could after finishing a 14-game season. I wanted to make sure that they showed up at the Senior Bowl looking the part."
"Everyone knows that Kenjon is a smaller back -- he showed up at the Senior Bowl weighing 185 pounds. He's now up to 196. Our focus for Kenjon since the Senior Bowl is that we took the feedback that his agent got from the 32 NFL teams, and we said, 'Okay -- let's address these weaknesses.' People thought he was too small, so the goal is to have Kenjon show up at the combine at a lean 200 pounds. A natural 200 pounds, where he can keep the world-class speed that made him one of the top running backs in the 2012 season."
The question is, how do you keep gaining weight -- again, naturally -- without losing that quick burst? Gaines said that it's about the overall process ... a step at a time.
"That was the thing -- we put his weight on, and the weight on the other kids, and it's been a very natural process. All we did was to change their diets. The other thing is, these guys are now professional athletes. And they now have the resources they need. When you're a college student, you have to focus on school, and you're only allowed 'X' amount of time in the weightroom, and 'X' amount of time at the training table. Now, you have the resources from an educational standpoint by being here. If all you know is one certain kind of workout, and you eat whatever you want but your weight stays the same ... but once you educate the kids, and say, 'If you need to gain weight, have 3,800 calories per day, have these proteins, and these carbohydrates...' these things will allow you to naturally put on lean muscle mass.
"The kids now know how to do it, and we continue to over-emphasize movement. All of my workouts are based on athletes being able to move very fluidly and move very well and be very explosive. So, as they're gaining one pound here and two pounds there, they're still moving with the same fluidity as they did when they were smaller."
It doesn't feel too different to Barner, which speaks to the success of the gradual rate.
"For me, it's really the same thing -- I'm doing the same kinds of workouts, and I have to take the same mindset. It's a job interview, and that was the same thing with the Senior Bowl. That was the second-biggest job interview, and now, this is the biggest one. You just have to amp it up a little bit more."
And while he's bulking up, a quick look at his drills through the week would tell you that Barner hasn't lost a single step. Whether he's burning it straight ahead or making cuts in space, he's simply a more muscular version of the back that gave linebackers and safeties fits at the FBS level. He knows that the NFL will require more.
"It's not a tough thing when you have the kinds of trainers we have. It's easy when they know what they're doing. They know how to put the proper weight on you and keep your speed up, so it really hasn't been a tough transition at all."
Jordan, on the other hand, is going through a few transitions. His demon speed on the field must be supplemented by more upper-body power, and a more comprehensive array of hand and foot moves. Like many of the recent speed ends coming out of the draft (think Bruce Irvin in Seattle), Jordan needs to round out his game. To that end, he's been working with NFL veteran linebacker Kirk Morrison, who's trained with Gaines for years. And for the soon-to-be rookies, that's one of the best parts of the training experience -- the vets who work here in the offseason are more than happy to share when they know.
However, Jordan's corrections started with power and leverage, from Gaines and Jay Glazer, the FOX Sports reporter and MMA trainer who shares gym space with Gaines. At 6-foot-6, Jordan doesn't just have the weight gain issue to deal with -- he's also got to get lower off the blocks, so he can display the "dip and rip" that makes the NFL's best pass-rushers so valuable.
"With Dion, he's such a tall kid," Gaines said. "Jay did a great job from a corrective standpoint, working with his hip mobility, so he gets used to staying low and playing low. Because if he gets high, he's gonna be dead meat [in the NFL]. Jay did a great job with MMA Athletics, teaching him leverage and body position and how to stay low. How to be agile against the athletes he's facing.
"So, we've supplemented him with two things every day: One, he's with Jay, doing MMA training. Then, he spends an hour a day on the board, learning how to be a better defensive end and outside linebacker from Kirk Morrison. Kirk teaches him different schemes and sets, which has really helped him out. Jay's worked with Dion on having very violent hands -- 'Blunt Force Trauma' is what you'll hear me say when he's working out. We've been installing that mentality, and the goal for Dion is for him to be the most complete D-end/linebacker ... the guy you have to have."
Morrison, who was selected in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft and is coming off a rough season with the Buffalo Bills, is more than happy to pass on the knowledge he wishes more kids would have before their combine experience.
"I'm just giving back what was given to me. When I was coming out in the draft, I sought out older guys who had been through the process. I wanted to know what to expect, because it's scary. You've never been through it in your life before, and it's the first time in your life when people tell you why you can't make it, why you're not good ... this and that. Your whole life, they've always given you pats on the back, and when you get to the NFL, you get grades out on you. You see strengths and weaknesses, and as a player, it's kind of hard to deal with. Nobody wants to hear that they're a mid-level guy."
Recruited to Oregon as a tight end, Jordan made the switch to a hybrid defensive role in 2010, and he's still learning the finer points. That's where Morrison comes in.
"That's just one thing in talking with Dion -- just getting him to relax and understand that he's going to be projected at a lot of positions," Morrison said. "People will tell him what he should and shouldn't be, but as I told him, 'At the end of the day, it's just football.' It's all about getting to the quarterback and making plays, and wherever they line you up, you have the ability to be a playmaker. And that's where I want to get him -- don't be frustrated with what this coach or that coach says. When they ask you what you're best at, just say, 'Wherever you line me up, that's what I'm here for."
"I just want to get him focused on different ways he can line up. He's a very versatile player, especially with what's going on. It's become a passing league, and he can play outside linebacker in the base package, But when you get to the passing downs, he can slide to the end position, and they don't have to take him off the field. He can be an every-down player, but it's all about how fast he can pick it up. So, we're drawing stuff up on the board -- just different scenarios, and [testing] where his football mind is. The biggest difference between college and the pros is scheme, and terminology, and new philosophy. That's why people say, 'Oh, the NFL game is so fast!' Well, it's so fast because of the learning curve."
And the learning curve is obvious here. As intense as things were before the Senior Bowl, the month's difference is clear. There are more players at the gym every day now, the music is louder, the workouts more focused, and everyone understands the seriousness of what's to come. Less than three months before the draft, and with just a few more chances to show what they can do, this year's group of prospects are giving it their all.
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