Nike Camp Report: A Day in the Life

9:00 A.M. The line was already two hundred deep outside the gates of Kyle Field. Kids from all over Texas and all across the country were lining up at the Nike Camp at College Station for the chance to go up against some of the best players in the country and to showcase their talent to dozens of college coaches. It was only the beginning of their nearly eight-hour odyssey.

9:00-11:00 A.M. For the next two hours, nearly 350 top prospects file into Kyle Field to be processed. Separated alphabetically, the players strode to their section with their name card and number in hand, tired of the wait and ready for the opportunity to make their mark. One by one, each player is checked in. Most are quiet, courteous, and all are anxious to get started.

"Next," signifies another one down.

Herman Johnson: I'm Herman Johnson.

Jeremy Warren: Number?

HJ: One-thirty-six, sir.

JW: Shirt size?

HJ: Double X, please.

JW: You going to knock 'em dead?

HJ: Yes, sir.

All are given their special Nike workout shirt with their number and name written in large, block letters in black magic marker on the front (195 D. Patrick) and sent to the next stage.

Once processed and itemized, each player is dispatched to the Aggie indoor weight room facility.

11:00 A.M. The kids making their way to the weight room are diverted to Kyle Field for the beginning of workouts. In front of a handful of excited family members, assorted on-lookers and dozens of college and high school coaches, the players stretch out and prepare for their first real work of the day. Stretching, calisthenics and running, the backbone of any workout program, will keep the players from injuring themselves during the next few hours, but it is not exactly the way for them to strut their stuff. They're ready to show the coaches and each other what they've got.

11:30 A.M. By now, each prospect has finally made his way toward the weight room. Inside, each player is weighed and measured; each player takes his turn: bench press, squat, vertical jump. They are given their measurables on their numbered cards and sent out to the practice field. It's time to run.

NOON -1 P.M. One-by-one, the prospects are broken into groups of six and spread out across the artificial turf field. GO! Each line sprints down field at top speed, pushing themselves to their limit as, 40 yards downfield, a Nike position coach clocks his time with a stopwatch. That coach than barks out the prospect's time to another Nike coach five yards behind him who then adds yet another number to the ubiquitous card. Each prospect gets two shots to impress.

There is no rhyme or reason to the race. A defensive back, two offensive linemen, a wide receiver and a linebacker run in one group. Three defensive linemen, a running back, a defensive back and a receiver in another. While kids are mentally comparing themselves to the runner next to them, the real opponent is the stopwatch at the end of the line. What always stands out is when the largest man in the group sprints ahead of the pack. That is the case when Alto linebacker Tad Scott (233 T. Scott) outpaces his line, running a high 4.6.

Number 277, Todd Walker of Pflugerville, causes quite a commotion when he follows up his 4.4 40 with a 4.28 in his second run. "Did you get it?" asks one coach. "Yeah, I got it," answers another. Walker adds an additional 4.4 time on a third run to cap off a tremendous performance.

From the 40, each prospect proceeds to another demanding time trial, the 10-yard shuttle run. Broken up into three different groups, each prospect must run five yards to his left, touch the line marker, sprint ten yards to the right, touch that line marker and then sprint back to his starting position. Again, a Nike coach clocks his time and relays the prospect's time to another coach who adds more numbers to the card.

More than a few prospects slip while changing direction in this drill. As in the 40, each has two opportunities to shine, though nearly everyone who slips is offered an additional run if they so choose. Quarterback Kirby Freeman (86 K. Freeman) follows up his impressive 40-yard times with a very strong showing in the shuttle, scoring a 3.94 and 4.07 in his two runs. It is only the beginning of a very notable day for the Brownwood QB.

1 P.M.-2.P.M. Warm-ups are complete; it is time to get down to some serious business. The prospects are broken into three separate groups: big, bigger and biggest. The big group consists mostly of quarterbacks, wide receivers, defensive backs and running backs. The bigger group is made up of running backs, linebackers, receivers and defensive backs. The biggest group is comprised of the offensive and defensive linemen. Each group will participate in three different drills at three separate stations.

In the beginning, Station One is more about attentiveness and discipline, as Nike coaches explain to each recruit what is expected of them and the importance of each drill. The coaches also explain the importance of conditioning and finishing every drill today and all season. It is nothing they haven't heard before and some minds wander, something that is noticed by at least one D-I head coach watching off to the side. Georgia Tech head coach Chan Gailey watches the mental drills to get a sense of who is paying attention and who isn't. If he is not paying attention, will his mind also wander in a team meeting or even in the huddle? At the Nike Camp, there are no unimportant moments. Every single moment of every single drill is monitored and cataloged whether the recruit knows it or not.

After the discussion, the group begins a series of short, hard 10-yard sprints. The coaches emphasize technique and finishing off each run. If Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders can judge a professional prospect by how he starts his 40-yard sprint, this is the area for college coaches to get a sense of the innate athleticism and physical discipline of each prospect. To the untrained observer, it is just a bunch of talented young men running ten yards. But to the trained eyes of college coaches it is another place for prospects to shine. North Shore quarterback Bobby Reid (20 B. Reid) has stood out enough to the Colorado coaching staff that they hustle over to Station Two to grab Head Coach Gary Barnett to come take a look. It is not the first, or last time, that Bobby Reid will impress the gaggle of coaches in attendance.

At Station Two, the prospects are introduced to Nike position coach Harold Nash, a 10-year veteran and All-Star defensive back in the Canadian Football League. Imagine Marine drill sergeant F. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket combined with Chris Rock and you get an idea of Coach Nash. He's fast, funny and just a bit scary, but damn effective. If he can't motivate you, you're dead and have no business looking to play college football.

Coach Nash is in charge of agility drills. Five 10-yard vinyl ladders are spread out vertically across the field. In rapid-fire succession, each prospect is cajoled by Nash up the ladders. First, a straight-ahead sprint, knees high, one foot after the other in each space. Then, one foot inside and one out. Next, sideways to the right, sideways to the left. The prospects punish themselves, high-stepping through the ladders cheered on by Coach Nash and their fellow players.

It is when the largest group -- "the offensive and defensive lineman" -- work out at Station Two that the most coaches gather around and the cheers grow loudest. Big men like offensive linemen Herman Johnson of Denton (No. 26 on IT's initial Texas Top 100) and Eddie Rollman of Burnet display incredible foot work and speed as they fly through the ladder drills. Coaches from across the country watch as these big men and others demonstrate the balance, coordination and determination necessary to be quality linemen in the college game.

At Station Three, each prospect is strapped into a harness with two handled straps coming out of the back of it. Consider it a leash for your running back. Two prospects are paired up, one wearing the belt, one holding onto the leash. To get more resistance and train for power running, the prospect wearing the belt, pulls his partner for fifteen yards. At that point, the man being pulled hits a button which completely releases the belt, allowing the runner to sprint the last fifteen yards. It is excellent training for running through tackles and building explosion, creating that extra gear you often hear about.

After the straight-ahead sprints, time for a little side-to-side power running. Drag your buddy for 15 yards to the right, then release. Now to the left, then release. Over and over again. According to the coaches, this drill will improve first step acceleration in and out of cuts and the all-important lateral quickness.

2 P.M.-4 P.M. Position-specific drills, the time for each player to show what they've got. Players are divided up into categories: defensive linemen, offensive linemen, linebackers and running backs on the practice field while the quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs make the short jaunt to Kyle Field for their respective drills. With 326 prospects and little time for to evaluate every position, I decide to watch the offensive linemen before reviewing the quarterbacks.

The first drill is a simple footwork drill. The linemen set their stance, slide left and explode forward at the simulated snap before running it out. First right, then left. Right, left; over and over again. The drill evaluates the width of each player's stance and their technique for that all-important first step. Proper balance, speed and limited movement are emphasized. "No wasted steps" is the theme of this drill.

On the right hand side of the field, Denton High offensive lineman Herman Johnson isn't wasting any steps. For a young man that is already a legitimate 6-8, 335 pounds, Johnson's technique and footwork are very solid and the coaches encourage him to continue to work hard.

Next up is a one-on-one, on-the-move blocking drill. Each lineman gets set in his stance. Five yards up field and five yards to the right, another lineman with a blocking pad sets up. At the snap, the offensive lineman explodes out of his stance, rolls right and takes on his opponent. First right, then left, each lineman repeatedly pulls his block, springing an imaginary runner for a big gain. While most prospects hit the pad and push forward a few yards, again it is Herman Johnson who stands out. On each occasion, Johnson mauls his opponent pushing him 10 or 15 yards out of the play. It is an impressive display of technique, athleticism and power that leaves some of the other linemen laughing.

Next is two-on-one zone blocking, much derided by UT fans. Here, two linemen attack a single opponent holding a blocking pad driving him off to the side. After engaging the block, one lineman rubs off and moves up field to pick up an imaginary linebacker. Over and over again the linemen practice their technique and teamwork and that all-important first step. The Nike position coaches warn their charges to make sure that that first hit is solid, because one false move and the opponent will split the double team (Texas fans saw that on more than one occasion in 2002).

Now I wander off to Kyle Field to watch the quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs who are spread out in three different sections. At one end, Nike position coach and noted quarterback guru Bob Johnson puts the kids through their paces, orchestrating a series of drills that emphasize accuracy, recognition, footwork, arm strength and movement in the pocket.

The first drill is a simple read and recognition drill. Receivers are set up at four spots in the back of the end zone while one quarterback sets up at the five yard line, the position coach standing behind him and off to the side. At the snap, the coach points to one of the receivers, who quickly raises his hand. The quarterback must spot his receiver and fire at the end of his quick drop. Following his pass, the quarterback runs forward and replaces one of the receivers as they all shift. This simple drill is not so simple, as the quarterbacks repeatedly rush their throws, missing their target. Those who wait too long to throw are admonished: "You just got sacked, son."

Several drills down the line is my favorite, the "zag" drill. Administered by Johnson, the zag drill emphasizes footwork and pocket awareness. Three yellow pads, approximately four feet long by one foot wide by four inches high are placed on the field about 18 inches apart; the quarterback lines up to the left of the first pad. When Johnson yells "over," the quarterback quickly steps over the pad, eyes up and forward. When he yells "zag," the quarterback shuffles forward or backward in the pocket between the pads. If Johnson says nothing, the quarterback must continue to perform the most recently commanded maneuver. When Johnson yells, "throw", it's time to wing it to the receiver at the back of the endzone.

"Over!..Over!..Zag!...Eyes up!...Keep zagging!...Throw!"

Many players trip; many more glance down at their feet. Even more simply freeze, awaiting a change of order that never comes. Of all the drills, nothing demonstrates Bobby Reid's athleticism quite like this one. After an initial struggle, the North Shore quarterback takes to this drill like a duck to water, showing off his quick feet, balance and arm strength as he dances over and around the pads before firing a strike to his receiver.

Another Johnson pocket awareness favorite is the "six inch drill". Two, round orange markers are set up approximately 8 yards apart, representing the two tackles on an offensive line. The quarterback lines up in the middle and drops back, watching Johnson's hand as he gestures. Finger toward his chest means step six inches forward; finger away from his chest means step six inches back. Direct point toward one marker or the other means sprint out, set and fire. The drill mimics a collapsing pocket and how each quarterback must maneuver and throw as the pressure comes.

At first, each quarterback triples or quadruples Johnson's order, running two sometimes three feet forward, back or to the left.

"Where you going, son?" asked Johnson. "Six inches. You just ran right into that defensive end. You've only got a little bit of room to work with here."

Some fall as they roll out, others forget to set their feet and throw a wounded duck or a lawn dart into the ground terribly short of their target. After one or two reps, however, each quarterback makes dramatic improvement.

Now comes the fun part. The quarterbacks are separated into two groups and paired with receivers of equal ability, studs like Tory Degrate of Waco and Bobby McCoy of Klein Forest. The quarterbacks and receivers work on their timing and routes: 10-yard outs, skinny posts, go-routes. Pass after pass, cut after cut, catch after catch, the quarterbacks show off their arm strength and accuracy, the receivers demonstrate their explosiveness and quality hands.

Two quarterbacks again stand above the rest, Reid and Brownwood's Freeman, as they rain deep bombs and laser short passes to their talented targets. But this is just the warm up act for the next and final drill.

Now it all comes together: quarterback and wide receiver vs. defensive back. Fifteen to 20 minutes of straight up, in-your-face competition.

Johnson and the receivers coach give their charges the play, a 10-yard out. Reid drops back, spins and fires a frozen rope left, right into his receiver's hands. Freeman delivers a perfect deep ball down the sideline. Receiver 108 J. Haynes, makes an unbelievable double move and hauls in a deep pass, to the oohs and ahs of on-lookers. Tory Degrate accelerates by his man and makes a phenomenal grab on a pass that looked well out of reach. Jared Harrel, a tight end from Massachusetts, uses his big body to shield off his defender and snares the 17-yard pass. The defensive backs get theirs as well, breaking up sideline routes and staying step-for-step with fleet-footed receivers, but the deck is stacked against them today.

Taylor Bennett, an unknown lefty from St. Louis, MO continues to show off his skill. At first sight, you can't understand why this skinny southpaw with the rubber arm is working with the top quarterbacks. Then he fires a quick strike on an out route; then he demonstrates perfect touch on a deep pass. Time and again the unknown fires a perfect pass and runs over to congratulate his receiver. The Nike Camp is tailor made for players like Bennett, unknowns to some but talented enough to stand out, even in the glare generated by players such as Reid and Freeman.

4 P.M. The players gather in the middle of Kyle Field and receive their last bits of coaching and encouragement. College and high school coaches finish up their conversations about this player and that drill and begin to make their way toward the sidelines and the exits. The kids look for their parents and head toward the parking lot, eager for a bite to eat and some rest. It is the end of a long, often trying but always exciting day for these prospects. Thankfully, only a handful of players are injured on this day and several unheralded players serve notice that they plan on moving up the ranks. The top stars demonstrate why they are so highly regarded and plan for the season ahead.

The permanent Nike coaches take a deep breath and relax for a moment while sharing thoughts of the players they saw today. Talk of this pass, that catch, this run and that lift fill the room as the coaches enjoy a slice of Little Caesar's pizza and a cold Coke. When they're done eating, it's time to pack up and prepare for the next camp, for the next group of recruits in the next city. Hello Palo Alto, bye-bye College Station.

All in a day's work.

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