He is a big man with big plans, a titanic tackle projected to go at or near the top of the 2009 NFL draft and become a dominant force on the line of scrimmage.
So how did former Baylor standout Jason Smith, expected to be one of the prospects who'll be in New York City on draft Saturday and who might even end up in Detroit as the No. 1 overall selection, ascend to this lofty perch? The answer, in his eyes, is simple.
"This is the big leagues, and guys like us got here by being professionals," Smith said last month during a workout at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., with two dozen other top prospects, all clients of the renowned Athletes' Performance Institute in nearby Tempe. "When you've got money on the line, you want to have that résumé looking good. That's why we're here at API – this place has proven results.
"We're high-performance athletes, and here it's all about performance. I can't imagine where I would have been without it, and I feel bad for the guys who go to the [scouting] combine [in Indianapolis] without coming here first."
In addition to establishing strong credentials for a career as a celebrity endorser, Smith was voicing the 21st century collegiate standout's increasingly popular refrain: The morning after your last college game is the first day of the rest of your life. Just as a prospective lawyer might take Stanley Kaplan classes to prepare for the LSAT, players with legitimate designs on an NFL future are becoming increasingly proactive in their preparation for the all-important draft and the financial security it promises for the first few dozen picks.
Over the past decade, it has become commonplace for prospects to quit school after the end of their fall semesters – sometimes even earlier – and treat draft preparation as a full-time job, often relocating to training centers such as API thanks to arrangements facilitated by their recently hired agents.
In participating in what amounts to a comprehensive boot camp geared toward preparing them for the combine, their respective pro days at college campuses and individual workouts for interested teams, the off-site training experience is viewed by many players as a sound and obvious career investment.
"More than anything, I think it's just the mental aspect that provides the edge," said former Arizona tackle Eben Britton, one of Smith's API training partners who's projected to go later in the first round. "We've gone through all the drills and prepared for all the tests and interviews, so we know exactly what to expect at the combine and beyond. It takes the excitement and the nerves out of the process."
Given the advantages of programs like those at API, which also has facilities in Southern California and the Florida panhandle and has trained more than 25 first-round draft picks since 2001, including the past two NFL offensive rookies of the year (Adrian Peterson and Matt Ryan), who wouldn't take advantage of such an opportunity?
Well, Joe Thomas, for starters.
Thomas, the tackle picked third overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2007, was a player who followed his own path, a fact illustrated most notably by his decision to spend the draft's opening day on a fishing boat with his father on Lake Michigan.
After signing with agent Peter Schaffer following his senior season, the former Wisconsin star was offered a chance to leave chilly Madison and train in Naples, Fla., under the tutelage of Derek Touchette.
"I think my guy [Touchette] is the best, and we send a lot of our guys to him," Schaffer says. "But Joe was a different ballgame. He had a great relationship with the strength coach at Wisconsin [John Dettmann, who has since been replaced]. He was about to graduate, and his fiancée was there.
"All these [agents] were promising him API and all these other things, but he knew what he had in Wisconsin and was comfortable there. He wasn't one to be swayed by goods and glamour. He knew what he wanted to do and wasn't one of those guys who needed guaranteed structure. He had as much maturity as any player who has gone through the draft. So he stayed."
Given that Thomas made the Pro Bowl after each of his first two NFL seasons, it's tough to question that decision. He's not alone, either – Wisconsin guard Kraig Urbik, a highly ranked prospect, also stayed in Madison this winter and spring to train; and Cal's Alex Mack, the top-rated center, remained in Berkeley. "I just wanted to stay in my comfort zone," explained Mack, who didn't even begin interviewing agents until last week, after working out for NFL scouts at Cal's pro day.
Waiting to pick an agent helped make Mack's decision about whether to stay in his comfort zone for him, as most players who end up in off-site training programs are directed there by newly signed representatives. API, for example, has exclusive relationships with a handful of agents, including CAA's powerful duo of Tom Condon and Ben Dogra. Before founding Athletes' Performance in 1999, exercise physiologist Mark Verstegen ran a performance institute in Florida for IMG, then a top sports agency.
For a hefty fee, API puts prospects through an extensive program that features Monday through Saturday sessions that go from early morning through nighttime, complete with group drills, weight-lifting regimens, instruction from former NFL position coaches and nutritional advice. There's even a field trip to a local grocery store designed to teach players how to shop properly for a performance-oriented diet, and they're housed in nearby apartments – across from an In N' Out Burger whose offerings they're highly encouraged to ignore.
There are also exercises in which players take sample exams of the Wonderlic, the 50-question intelligence tests given to prospects at the combine. Mack, who last December won the Draddy Trophy as college football's top scholar-athlete, believes his test score, which he described as "slightly above average," might have suffered because of his lack of familiarity with the Wonderlic.
"Aw man, I'm so glad we did that," said former Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman, another API Arizona attendee. "The first one's always way harder than the others. The answers are all relatively simple – it's how they're asking the questions that trips you up."
"You have to use a special technique to get through it fast," added former Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo. "You can't spend too much time on each question."
Smith, having just finished a grueling session that included a pair of practice 40-yard dashes and extensive work on the shuttle drill, cracked up everyone in attendance with his impression of a bewildered Wonderlic examinee. The big tackle's routine was just another moment of camaraderie shared by this collection of competitive athletes posting up for the prized spots in a limited job pool.
"We push each other," said former Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, another possible No. 1 overall pick. "We're all trying to be as good as we can be. But we feel like teammates, and it's great to be around the best. This is definitely the place to be."
Somewhere out on Lake Michigan, a Pro Bowl tackle might beg to differ.
It doesn't take a high score on the Wonderlic to figure out that Thomas and Smith could both be right.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
I'm not a big fan of the term LOL, because I believe it's factual about 0.24 percent of the time. In this case, however, I came pretty damned close to laughing out loud. Such is the power of King Henry IX.
"I liked the Alex Mack story. Several mock drafts have the Steelers taking him. Count me in as hoping so. If they do, I might even start reading your 'Cal is the center of the universe' pieces."
Cool. As it happens, the center of the universe is currently celebrating an improbable and incredibly exciting NCAA championship, the first won by the Cal women's swimming and diving team. Over the weekend in College Station, Texas, the Bears – ranked ninth going into the meet – showed that amazing team chemistry can overcome presumed individual excellence. Fittingly, Cal won it on the final relay, with NCAA swimmer of the year Dana Vollmer bringing home the anchor leg of the 400 free relay in resounding fashion and setting off a raucous celebration that ended with coach Teri McKeever joining the rest of the team in the pool. In my book "Golden Girl", which detailed former Cal great Natalie Coughlin's path to Olympic glory, McKeever was rightfully portrayed as one of the greatest swimming coaches in the country, if not the absolute best. She's even better than that now.
"Re: Alex Mack How screwed up is the NFL when a guy who winds up on the ground at the end of a play is questioned for his ability? These are the same people who criticize cut blocking and call the Denver Broncos linemen 'dirty.' If you want to watch NFL-caliber blocking today, you are treated to watching 300-plus lb. men rub their bellies against each other. No wonder so many of the defensive linemen don't wear thigh pads anymore. Give me the guys who play solid fundamental football every time. When the NFL gets back to basic blocking and tackling, the better the league will be. Thanks for illustrating the absurdity of NFL thinking. I always enjoy your reporting."
When I'm in charge of the NFL, at the very least, we'll have a Belly-Rubbing Cam on all telecasts.
"Love the Mack article. You were totally at Pyramid! you should have said so =) "
I would have – but we were at Jupiter.
"Where are you? I miss you."
I was at Jupiter. Now I'm back.
"Hi Mike, In my humble opinion, you are right much of the time [e.g. Michael Vick] and wrong much of time [e.g. that prima donna Jay Cutler]. However, in every single instance you seem to support the players over coaches, owners, or even fans. I was wondering whether you actually believe all your stated viewpoints of if you're just trying to stay friends with the players so you can keep your 'texting' access with them? C'mon, be frank here … do you have the 'White House Reporter' syndrome or not? Thanks in advance for your honesty."
White House Reporter syndrome? Could you insult me a little more? Wow. Key analogy-busting distinction: In the examples you seem to cite, I'm taking on the people who wield the power (owners, GMs, coaches, NFL honchos), which doesn't seem very sycophantic to me. I've also been largely unsupportive of plenty of players, including a certain ex-Packers icon with whom I've had a terrific relationship for a decade-and-a-half. The bottom line is that I call it like I see it, and if that ends up earning me more texts from players than if I were more of a knee-jerk pro-management guy, I'm not apologizing for it. And if I ever stop "actually" believing my stated viewpoints, I should be pelted with rotten tomatoes. By the way, I am right ALL of the time. Thank you.
"Michael, RE: Broncos and Cutler I appreciate you pointing out what nobody seems to be saying about this mess: [Pat] Bowlen's huge errors in judgment in this whole mess. Cutler is one of the few things that has gone right for the Broncos the last couple of years, and for most fans here in Denver, we felt that he was going to be at the center of what the Broncos needed to do to get to the next level. We were surprised to see [Mike] Shanahan fired, but realize that nothing lasts forever. The true shock set in when this kid [Josh McDaniels] was hired in Shanny's place. I mean, are you kidding me? We dumped arguably one of the best coaches of the past 10-20 years for this guy? This guy, who totally benefited from operating under 'everyone's [least?] favorite evil genius in a hoodie.' What have the rest accomplished once they left the comfortable umbrella of [Bill] Belichick? Not much. So when this whole mess began, I thought 'OK, great, here we go.' That this guy even considered for one second that he could replace Cutler with [Matt] Cassel is a joke. Give up a rising star just when he's reaching his prime, but still with untapped potential? For a guy who was a backup at every level, who had one good year because he was in a very, very good situation? Yeah, that makes a LOT of sense. If I was Cutler, I'd be pi$$ed off too. As for the supposed Broncos fan who said that fans are 'tired' of Cutler, I don't know who he's talking to. There's not a person I know that is not taking Cutler's side in this whole mess. Bowlen needs to fire this idiot, and go crawling back to Shanahan and beg him to take the job back again. With this punk as coach, I will not support the Broncos. The best I can hope for is that they go 1-15, and he gets canned next year. And then we can hire a real coach."
If Cutler is in fact traded, it might not take a 1-15 season to get McDaniels fired. Right now, from my vantage point, he's got that Kevin Gilbride (4-12 in his first year as the Chargers' coach in 1997, 2-4 the next year before being fired in October) look.
"Hello Mister Silver, First, sorry for my English. It is not my first language. Please fix any mistakes and try not to pick on me too much. I love the Broncos. American football is so fun to watch! But I do not understand Mr. Bowlen anymore. Maybe he forget he did not want to give the next coach so much power. If they lose Mr. Cutler, I can not see some way to replace him. The season will go bad and Mr. Bowlen and Mr. McDaniels will look like more than rookies. They will look just silly. And to answer Mr. Cook in your last post: If the only people that can sit in the 'big chair' are people that sit in the 'big chair' before, how will any one ever take over when they leave?"
Congratulations, Vinh: You've managed to express yourself in your non-native language more eloquently and coherently than about 60 percent of your fellow emailers.
"[When a team has]' no proven alterative'? Did your spell checker start celebrating St. Patrick's Day a little early?"
He and I both, evidently. Hey, it's not easy being green.
"What is 'alterative'?"
An alternative spelling of alternative.
"Very much enjoy your writing and, like you, am a big fan of Kurt Warner [even back in the dark years when he was hurt]. My question involves the Cards ownership and its impact on the 2009-10 team. Will the team spend the bucks to re-sign Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Adrian Wilson and do they have the talent evaluators in place to bring in those lower priced 'role players' that oftentimes make the difference between winning and losing? This should be a simple question but when you look at the teams' history [even back in St. Louis] it's pretty obvious that putting the best possible product on the field with the strongest possible chance of winning wasn't always the main priority for the Bidwills. What Kurt's Cards did this year was amazing. Next year could be an even better story. In your opinion will the Bidwills screw up this team the way they did Jake Plummer's 1998 team?"
Prescott Valley, Ariz.
It's a very good question, and while the jury's still out, there are some very positive signs. Most notably, after a short game of chicken with Warner, the team stepped up and re-signed its most important player. The Cardinals are at least talking about the possibility of extending Boldin, and Dansby and Wilson aren't going anywhere. The emergence of Bill Bidwill's son, Michael, as the team's president and most prominent executive has been for the better, and general manager Rod Graves and player personnel director Steve Keim [who I featured in a column before Super Bowl XLIII] have done an excellent job of acquiring talent. Simple answer: I think the Cardinals will stay competitive.
"Why can't Maryland play Cal every game of every sport, ever? We whomped your [expletive] in football and left Jahvid Worst on his knees puking his guts out. And how bout that sweet tourney run you all had planned, ended in one game to Dave Neal and UMD."
College Park, Md.
Congratulations on beating us in football last season and in the first round of the NCAA tournament last Thursday. In both cases, the Terrapins outplayed the Bears and deserved the victories. … Be sure to come out to Berkeley on Sept. 5, and we can continue the conversation at Memorial Stadium.
"OK, I admit, I am going into this with a bit of a dog in the fight. I am a substance-abuse counselor. But, this Donte' Stallworth incident is a terrible and tragic affair that should excite a wave of response far beyond the Michael Vick problem. I have a great deal of compassion for people who struggle with substance abuse, I truly do. But, I will never understand why a freakin' millionaire can't get a freakin' cab. It just pisses me off. Talk about punk, idiot, or derelict, whatever folks called Michael Vick in those responses to your article. This situation is far more egregious. I am waiting to see the outcry. Just wanting to write to you, because I believe if any sports writer will call it as it is, you will. I really appreciate your work Mr. Silver. I thank you for your honesty, integrity, and willingness to see sports for all it's glory and its' social impact. God bless you. Thanks for your time."
Craig D. Greatman
White City, Ore.
Let's wait until this plays out in the courts, but if Stallworth is convicted of DUI manslaughter, I will most certainly draw a comparison. Given what I wrote about Rams defensive end Leonard Little in the first column I wrote for Y! Sports in August '07, I would tend to agree with your views on the respective offenses.
"Hey Michael, just wanted to say I love your columns, but I was wondering, you should do like a live chat or something … that would be pretty awesome … "
Gracias, amigo, but where have you been? I did Live Trippin' about 15 times during the season and, most recently, this LT from SB XLIII. We'll get it up and running again at some point this offseason. Stay tuned.
- Jason Smith