NFL draft prospects flock to fitness academies

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 13, 2013 - 11:54 PM

Combine and pre-draft training has experienced a significant spike in popularity and sophistication over the past decade.

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Corey Lemonier, who spent more than a month at Athletes’ Performance Institute in Phoenix, ran linebacker drills for scouts during Auburn’s pro day.

Photo: TODD J. VAN EMST • Associated Press ,

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When Corey Lemonier’s junior season at Auburn ended last December, his gut told him it was time. Lemonier felt confident his length and strength, his high energy and versatility provided a chance to pounce on his NFL dreams right away.

Yet even with that decision made, the promising defensive end/outside linebacker knew he would need a bridge from his New Year’s Eve declaration to turn pro to the weekend of April 25-27 when he will learn his NFL destination through the draft.

So through the urging of his agent, Eric Metz, Lemonier headed west.

If his NFL dreams were to be maximized, he would aim to strive for a higher draft position.

To strive for a higher draft status, he’d need to excel at February’s NFL combine and Auburn’s pro day two weeks later.

To make a splash at the combine and pro day? Well, that’s why Lemonier wound up in Phoenix at Athletes’ Performance Institute spending more than a month at the 30,000-square-foot training facility working about six hours a day, six days per week with strength trainers and speed experts, nutritionists and physical therapists.

“At this stage, you’re looking for that edge — every edge you can find,” Lemonier said. “For me coming out as a junior, I think getting into a program like this was especially key. Because I don’t have that extra year of film. So it was important I prove my full athleticism.”

Whether it’s players seeking that extra edge or simply making sure they don’t fall behind in the ultracompetitive frenzy to land in one of 254 draft slots, combine and pre-draft training has experienced a significant spike in popularity and sophistication over the past decade.

Across the board, prospects and their agents understand that to eschew the highly developed pre-draft preparation that’s now available would be creating an unnecessary handicap. So the door has opened for high-tech, high-intensity athletic body shops to thrive nationwide.

Athletes’ Performance, founded in 1999, is widely considered one of the industry leaders and has expanded with sites now in California, Florida and Texas.

Combine preparation programs are similarly popular at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., Performance Gaines in Los Angeles and Performance Enhancement Professionals in North Scottsdale, Ariz.

There’s also the Nike-sponsored Michael Johnson Performance center in Texas, overseen by the four-time Olympic gold medalist sprinter.

Speed matters. Power matters. That’s the sell.

Sure, NFL scouts, coaches and general managers issue frequent reminders that, despite all the hype and pageantry that accompanies the combine, the speed and athleticism testing there is only a small fraction of the evaluation process.

Still, the players’ push to excel on that stage has become bigger than ever.

“Are these tests — the 40-yard dash and the vertical leap and the 5-10-5 [shuttle run] — the be-all, end-all for guys? No,” said Nick Winkelman, the director of performance systems at API. “But obviously the combine has lasted and grown because teams feel very strongly that there is some utility to it.

“At that level, it’s not enough just to be a good football player. They also want to see, ‘Is this a good football player who’s also a great athlete?’ It’s our responsibility to help our guys be at their best in answering that question.”

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