While media were still obsessing over the aftermath of the NFL Combine early last week, Rock Hill native Jibrille Fewell was busily plowing through his final workouts before Liberty University’s Pro Day on March 4. Clowney, Johnny Manziel and Michael Sam may have dominated the conversation in Indianapolis, but there will be little discussion of Liberty’s individual workouts for NFL scouts, held in relative obscurity on the school’s campus in Lynchburg, Va., on Tuesday.
The March 4 Pro Day will be the single most important job audition in Fewell’s life thus far. According to David Epstein's 2013 bestselling book Sports Gene, one extra centimeter of height or 6.5 extra pounds on a football player translates on average into $45,000 of extra income in the NFL. Fewell can’t do anything about the 6-foot, 0.003-inch frame he carries, and his weight of 301 pounds is about as svelte as he gets.
But Fewell had absolute control over his training the last few months leading up to his big day. He and John Opfer, of Proformance Sports Training in Buffalo, N.Y., where Fewell has lived on his agent’s dime since January, have worked six days a week, multiple sessions per day, to mold the defensive tackle into the best performance machine he can be.
“I feel like a brand new player,” Fewell said on Monday while driving to Lynchburg. Even through the phone it was easy to tell he was smiling. “A brand new player.”
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Fewell’s initial assessment at Proformance was enlightening. Opfer said he was amazed to discover that Fewell initiated contact with blockers almost exclusively from his back, and not from his core and hamstrings, where his power should have always resided.
“Our take on him was there is a lot of potential left in him because he’s so raw,” said Opfer, who has trained nearly 60 NFL prospects over the last 11 years for Pro Days and combines. “At his initial evaluation our eyes lit up because we couldn’t believe what he got away with, some of the dysfunctional things that he pulled off in his evaluation.”
That Fewell still had considerable speed, power and thrust while using incorrect and damaging technique was a credit to good genetics. Helping Fewell to strengthen his core was the first target in his training program.
“My core was so weak,” he said. “My core was terrible, because at school we don’t work on core ever. But with John, the first couple of weeks that was all we worked on.”
Opfer said, “Now that we’ve worked with him on how to fire out of his core and push out of his hamstrings, not just from his lower back, we’ve been able to see not only a dramatic improvement in an already fast kid, but his broad jump and vertical I think will surprise you.”
Strengthening Fewell’s abdominals, obliques, glutes and hamstrings meant that his power came from the middle of his body, and not from the periphery that he previously relied on. Fewell’s “connectedness” between his core muscles and spine has also improved dramatically, crucial for a man toting 300 pounds on his frame. Central to that aim was stretching for 25 minutes before every workout and at least 10 minutes afterward. Fewell and his four co-prospects at Proformance, all managed by the same agency, contorted in yoga-type stretches, spinal decompression and inversion tables. He also visited a chiropractor weekly to align his shoulders and collar bone, which were as out of whack as an old jalopy due to all of the impact they had received from his bad technique.
“My whole upper body was leaning to the side,” he said with a chuckle.
Opfer’s background in biomechanics falls outside of traditional football strength training, but it was just what Fewell needed to reach peak performance. Fewell laughed as he said these past few months were the first time his brain has ever sweated more than his body, a result of focusing on producing quality repetitions, not quantity.
“He mastered a lot of really good things here,” said Opfer. “He definitely improved upon what the expectation level was.”
Opfer said Fewell’s work ethic and application have been great from the first day in early January.
“I‘m always talking to them daily, ‘are you gonna waste your talent, or are you gonna see just how good you are?’” said Opfer. “He’s really received that message well.”
Fortunately for Fewell, Liberty teammate Walt Aikens has ensured that more scouts than usual will likely be in Lynchburg for the Flames’ Pro Day. Aikens, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound cornerback who transferred from Illinois, stood out at the Senior Bowl and is getting attention from almost every NFL team because of his size.
Liberty’s Pro Day will be held the same day as workouts at Alabama State, Purdue, Slippery Rock, Northwestern, Buffalo and Auburn. Singletary said that the 15 to 20 scouts expected at Liberty is an all-time high for a program that usually draws around four or five. Singletary called the Aikens-inspired exposure, “a blessing.”
To impress the scouts, Fewell will need to stand out in a couple of specific drills, including the broad jump and vertical leap, which gauge explosion and get-off. The three-cone drill and short shuttle display lateral quickness. Rooters in the trenches like Fewell need to be able to explode out of a three-point stance to gain the upper hand against blockers.
“They’re looking for movement, burst, change of direction,” said Vantz Singletary, Liberty’s defensive line coach and the school’s Pro Day organizer. “The ability to sink your rear-end and change direction on command.”
Former NFL scout Jeff Hoffman, who coached Fewell at the College All-Star Bowl earlier this month, said that when attending Pro Days, he looked at hips and feet, especially for defensive tackles who get double-team blocked.
“Do I have the flexibility to drop my hips, slide through and get my feet through?” Hoffman asked rhetorically. “You watch Reggie White, Reggie White had great hips and feet.”
The final task during Tuesday’s Pro Day will be to run the the 40-yard dash. Opfer showed his group film of Clowney’s technically-perfect 4.5 40-time at the NFL Combine; Fewell and Clowney are distant cousins, but not too distant that they don’t share uncommon speed. Opfer expects Fewell to run a 4.75, 4.8 in the 40, an excellent range for a 300-pound-plus athlete. For defensive tackles, the time in the first 10 yards of the 40 is the most important. As Hoffman noted, it’s not a good sign if a defensive tackle is running a full 40 yards during a football game.
Recall the butterflies before an interview for a highly coveted job. Something’s wrong if they’re not in there flitting around, the palms and pits a bit sweaty. An NFL Pro Day would be no different.
”It varies from person to person,” said Singletary. “There’s a lot of players who are a little jittery. Everybody handles those things a lot differently. Same thing with draft day. I think there will always be butterflies; I don’t think that’s something you can ever overcome.”
Over-exuberance might be more of an issue than excitement for Fewell and the other prospects at Liberty on Tuesday.
“I think he’s like any kid on Christmas Eve,” said Singletary. “He’s excited because it’s uncharted waters.”
As hard as it might be to sleep Monday night, Fewell said he plans to be in bed by around 9 p.m. He can sleep deeply knowing that he’s armed with the knowledge of how to wring every last drop out of his body. Fewell’s training has strengthened his core, and also his self-belief.
“I’m confident,” he said Monday afternoon. “Not saying I won’t be nervous tomorrow, but I won’t have regrets. I feel good about it. I know I’m gonna shock the world tomorrow.”