Commentary

College football's top workout warriors

Updated: June 9, 2008, 3:17 PM ET
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

After getting a bunch of emails about whatever happened to the offseason Freaks list (two years ago Owen Schmitt won top honors), thanks to some coaches and sports information directors, we are pleased to unveil the 2008 top 10 list:

1. Brian Orakpo, Texas, DE: The Longhorns haven't had an All-American end since Tony Brackens 13 years ago, but Orakpo might end the drought. To say Orakpo has blossomed in Austin would be an understatement. He arrived at Texas as a 210-pounder and now looks like an All-American: He is a chiseled 253-pounder with 8 percent body fat, stunning power and explosiveness, who throws around 100-pound kettlebells and 180-pound dumbbells. His work in the weight room is eye-popping. Orakpo also benches 515 pounds, power cleans 380 pounds, runs an electronically timed 40 in 4.6 seconds and has a vertical jump of a whopping 42 inches.

[+] EnlargeBrian Orakpo
University of Texas Athletic PhotographyBrian Orakpo's work in the weight room has led Texas coach Mack Brown to peg the DE for big things in 2008.

On the field, Orakpo missed four games with a knee problem last season, but did show in his Texas' Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State that he's a lot more than just some workout warrior by winning Defensive MVP honors after notching career highs in tackles (six) and TFLs (three) to go along with two sacks.

"Brian Orakpo is as good of an athlete as I've ever coached," Mack Brown says. "He has an unbelievable combination of power, speed and explosiveness. But what he does with that athletic ability is even more impressive. He's as hard of a worker as we've had in our program, practices and plays with great intensity and is a terrific young man off the field. We think he can be one of the best defensive players in college football this season."

2.Taylor Mays, USC, safety: Scary. That is the best way to describe Mays. His combination of size and speed in a safety is freakish. And in the Trojans' spring game, Mays obliterated Patrick Turner, the team's towering 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver on a play when he came over the middle. I suspect many Pac-10 receivers envision similar scenes before they face the Trojans and their super-fast, super-sized DB.

Mays' workout numbers are ridiculous. He's 6-3, 226 pounds, with 6 percent body fat and ran an electronically timed 40 this spring in 4.32 seconds. He did 26 reps with 225 pounds while also vertical jumping 41 inches and doing a standing broad jump of 11-4. (As evidence in his growth, Mays arrived at USC weighing 215 and posted a vertical jump of 35 inches and a broad jump of 10-0.)

Asked if he's even seen anything that big, move that fast, USC strength coach Chris Carlisle paused for a few moments: "Maybe when I walked by the cheetah cage at the wildlife park." Mays' athleticism actually presents USC with a different kind of issue: a talent with such growth potential that you have to guard against him outgrowing the position. "Our big thing is he could get too big too fast," says Carlisle, who also gushes about the player's work ethic. "He could easily be like his daddy [former NFL defensive lineman Stafford Mays] so we have to make him better without making him bigger because he could be like 260 in a month."

Carlisle predicts Mays could still run a sub-4.4 40 at that size, but says the key is keeping the DB from bulking up too much in his lower body. "We could use him like a science experiment, but that really wouldn't be of value to him or the team."

3. Carlos Dunlap, Florida, DE: Meet the newest Gator defensive star. The swift 6-7, 285-pound Dunlap replaces Derrick Harvey and takes over with huge expectations. Gators offensive line coach Steve Addazio says Dunlap might be better than both Jarvis Moss and Harvey by the time he leaves Gainesville.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Dunlap
Doug Benc/Getty Images Carlos Dunlap could be the next great defensive end at Florida.

Dunlap's stats this spring certainly didn't halt any of the hype as he clocked a 4.63 at Florida's spring 40-timing day and was credited with five sacks in the Gators' spring game. In high school in South Carolina, Dunlap was such a wondrous talent, he even returned kicks in addition to his work terrorizing QBs.

4. Robert Griffin, Baylor, QB: A 6-3, 200-pound true freshman, Griffin enrolled early and will battle for the starting QB job in the fall. A few weeks ago, "Rambo" displayed his blazing speed for the Bears track team by winning the Big 12 400-meter hurdles title at the conference outdoor championships with a personal-best and national-leading time of 49.22, making for a very rare double of QB-hurdler. Griffin is a legitimate threat to make the Olympics someday as a hurdler. New Baylor coach Art Briles describes Griffin as a "unique blend of athleticism." That's putting it mildly.

5. Rylan Reed, Texas Tech, OT: Lost in all of the talk about the amazing stats of Red Raider QB Graham Harrell or his Biletnikoff-winning receiver Michael Crabtree or their quotable head coach Mike Leach, is one of the best stories in the game, Rylan Reed. The one-time Arkansas tight end recruit, who opted to sign with the Chicago White Sox as a pitcher, is pretty special in his own right. He once retired Barry Bonds in a spring training game, which is definitely something that'll be good to tell the grandkids about. The guy's 96 mph fastball didn't get him to the majors after four minor league seasons, but he did overcome a bout with cancer where he had part of his colon removed. He signed with Tech as a 6-7, 270-pound tight end, but the Red Raiders staff believed he would be best suited as a left tackle.

Reed hit the weight room hard and last summer set a school record with a 565-pound bench. He used that strength and nimble footwork to become one of the Big 12's top linemen. In the Gator Bowl, he helped contain Virginia's Chris Long to three tackles and no sacks.

This spring during Pro Day workouts in March, Rylan benched 225 pounds 23 times. That doesn't sound like all that much, but considering Reed performed with an injured ankle that he had elevated, it was pretty remarkable that he still got 23 reps without proper balance.

6. Allen Bailey, Miami, DE: A sophomore, Bailey might be the No. 1 on this list next year. The powerhouse Georgia product is one of those rare talents with a background made for legends. Like the time he once killed an alligator with a shovel. Bailey, who wowed Miami coaches with his smooth transition from linebacker to defensive end, was almost as impressive in Miami's spring workouts where he weighed in at 286 pounds with 8 percent body fat and vertical jumped 38.5 inches and power cleaned 375 pounds -- numbers that surely are adding to the Bailey folklore around Coral Gables.

"He's about as freakish as they come," Miami strength coach Andreu Swasey says. "He's like a big Willis McGahee. At almost 290 pounds, the guy is sculpted like a Greek god. I expect him to break a lot of records around here before he leaves. He will be a 41 or 42-inch vertical jump guy, run in the 4.5s or low 4.6 and clean 400."

After spring practice, Bailey did suffer an injured pectoral muscle, but he is expected to be fine by fall camp.

For more on Bailey's amazing background, check out this story that ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach wrote.

7. Alex Mack, Cal, center: Arguably the best offensive lineman in the country, the 6-4, 310-pound Mack, a standout wrestler in high school, is everything coaches want in a center. The guy is not only the most powerful player on the team, but also the most flexible guy too. His 374-pound power clean set a Golden Bear record, while he regularly displays his freakish flexibility by doing splits and scoring the highest marks on all of the flexibility tests the players do. "The two things that make him different from anybody I've ever coached are his work ethic and his flexibility," says Jim Michalczik, Cal's veteran O-line coach. "He is the hardest worker I've ever seen." Michalczik says that uncanny flexibility not only helps prevent injuries but as a center, Mack always is forced to operate in close quarters and is able to get low and stay low. Not bad for a guy who wasn't a high-profile recruit that had come to school as a 260-pounder.

[+] EnlargeTrindon Holliday
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty ImagesLSU's KR Trindon Holliday owns the school record in the 100 meters.

8. Trindon Holliday, LSU, KR: He may be one of college football's smallest players, but he's also the fastest. Last year he smashed his own school record in the 100 meters with a blistering time of 10.02. Holliday also anchored the Tigers' 4x100-meter relay team to an NCAA runner-up finish with a seasonal best time of 38.85 in the finals at the national meet. He re-established the LSU school record in the 100 meters on four different occasions in 2007.

9. Martez Wilson, Illinois, LB: Ron Zook was at Florida when Jevon Kearse came to Florida and in Wilson, he sees a very similar talent. In fact, Zook has dubbed Wilson "Freak 2." Wilson, who arrived last year at Illinois weighing 235 pounds, is up to 248 and just as fast and even more explosive. Wilson's 4.4 speed makes him a force at linebacker as well as a red zone tight end and as a gunner on the punt team, which Zook points out should tell you about the guy's speed.

"Tez has unbelievable acceleration, and he'll be 265, 270 by the time he leaves here," Zook predicts. "And the really great thing about him is he wants to be good."

10. Jason Phillips, TCU, LB: A three-time All-Mountain West Conference selection, the 234-pound Phillips, a former high school QB, has a squat of 710 pounds, a power clean of 410 pounds and a bench press of 450 pounds. Coaches love the guy's toughness, which was shown in a recent team poster he posed in. According to a school publicist, the shot was to capture football in its essence. The photographer said the only thing missing from the intensity of Phillips' face was a little blood. Phillips said, "No problem." He grabbed a small knife from the training room and nicked a scab on top of his nose to provide the blood needed for the shot.

Just Missed the Cut: Michael Johnson, Georgia Tech, DE; Marcus Thigpen, Indiana, RB; Arist Wright, Kansas, LB; Greg Hardy, Ole Miss, DE-WR; Jacques McClendon, Tennessee, OG; Lydon Murtha, Nebraska, OT; Vontae Davis, Illinois, CB; Brannan Southerland, Georgia, FB; and Cody Hughes, W. Kentucky, OG.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.