Commentary

College football's top workout warriors

Originally Published: May 18, 2009
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

Spring football has wrapped up, and most teams have conducted their offseason testing programs. Here is the annual Freaks list of the top workout warriors in college football, thanks to the help of many coaches and sports information directors around the country:

1. Taylor Mays, USC, safety: Whenever someone in the media visits a USC practice and comes away gushing about the Trojans' stash of blue-chip athletes, there's a good chance the buzz started building after he noticed Mays, a frightening combination of size and speed. Just ask Arizona coaches how frightening he is. Last season, Mays KOed three Wildcats during their game against USC. And perhaps the only things more impressive than Mays' highlight reel of brutal hits are the numbers the 6-foot-3, 238-pound Trojan puts up in the USC strength program. Mays vertical jumps 41 inches, does a standing broad jump of 11 feet and 4 inches, can bench-press 225 pounds 29 times and in the spring of 2008 ran an electronically timed 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds. He didn't get timed in the 40 this spring because coaches didn't want to risk his pulling a muscle.

Robert Griffin
Baylor Athletics Robert Griffin is adding more strength and size to his package of speed and athleticism, making him a fearsome prospect for opposing Big 12 defenses.
"I didn't run, but I feel faster this year," Mays says. "Seriously, I am. I ran that time last year coming off ankle surgery, and this year I've taken better care of my body during the season, and my diet has been more consistent." He has strived this spring to become more flexible and has focused on drills to increase his hip flexibility.

"[Former USC linebacker] Keith Rivers told me safeties have to play a lot of man in the slot [in the NFL], and I've also worked on getting better at tackling in the open field and becoming more fluid in my backpedal."

Mays, who says his body fat is about 5 percent of his total weight, plans to trim down to around 230 pounds in time for the season and has another idea to boost his flexibility: "My girlfriend and I are going to start taking that [Bikram] yoga."

2. Allen Bailey, Miami, DT: On a wall inside the UM football offices are the team bests for each exercise by position. When you get to defensive linemen, almost all you see is one Bailey head shot after another. Some UM fans have taken to calling him "Freakzilla," thanks in part to his awesome athleticism but also to his Bunyanesque background that has created some legendary tales. Such as how he once killed an alligator with a shovel.

Bailey, who last season battled through a torn pectoral muscle while making the transition from linebacker to defensive line, had nine tackles for loss and five sacks. Now that he's healthy and more comfortable playing at defensive tackle, expectations around Coral Gables, Fla., are soaring. Some inside the program think the junior will restart Miami's streak of first-round draft picks. Lord knows he should test well at the NFL combine next year.

This spring, Bailey vertical jumped 39 inches despite weighing 288 pounds. He ran a 4.65 40 time. He power-cleaned 375. Longtime UM strength coach Andreu Swasey, who has trained the likes of Willis McGahee, Kellen Winslow II, Sean Taylor and others, gives Bailey perhaps the ultimate praise: "He is the freakiest of all the freaks since I've been here," Swasey says. "When he got here, he weighed 270, and I told the coaches, 'He's going to be 300, but it'll be a 300 like you've never seen before.'"

3. Robert Griffin, Baylor, QB: A bunch of blazing-fast football players have legit track speed (Clemson's Jacoby Ford, Florida's Jeff Demps and LSU's Trindon Holliday all come to mind), but when have we seen a guy with world-class speed who was a legit college quarterback? Never. Griffin made this list last season, when he was an early-enrolled quarterback on the brink of almost making the U.S. Olympic team as a hurdler. Turns out he's proven to be an even bigger freak athlete, as last season he set an NCAA record for the most passes to start a career without an interception. He also has made Baylor football relevant again. Oh yeah, and Griffin, who has packed on almost 20 pounds (up to 210) since arriving in Waco, Texas, in the winter of 2008, says he's even more explosive now.

Baylor strength coach Kaz Kazadi says Griffin arrived with so much top-end speed but has really enhanced his quickness and ability to change direction. "This is one of the hardest-working young athletes you'll ever see," Kazadi says. "He's just got that quiet-storm demeanor. The guy always shows up on time. Always ready to work, and he just loves to compete." Watch out, Big 12, the Bears aren't pushovers any more.

[+] EnlargeDakoda Watson
Florida State AthleticsFlorida State's Dekoda Watson isn't the biggest linebacker in the ACC, but he's surely one of the most athletic.

4. Nate Solder, Colorado, OT: A handful of five-star recruits have come to CU in the past few years. Solder wasn't one of them. He was deemed an average tight end prospect by the online recruiting services, but man, has he blossomed in Boulder. He's now a chiseled 6-8, 300-pound junior with a staggering 8.3 percent body fat according to the school, which had him tested in the Bod Pod, a system for measuring body composition. The guy practically makes Dwight Howard look like a Van Gundy. Solder's workout numbers are just as impressive: He power-cleans 407, hang-cleans 445, back squats 622, vertical jumps 34 inches and runs the 40 in 4.86 seconds.

5. Zach Brown, North Carolina, LB: There could've been a couple of Tar Heels on this list, as Butch Davis has infused a ton of athleticism into this program. Brown, a 6-2, 220-pound sophomore, has really blossomed in his first full season at UNC, having won the starting weakside linebacker job this spring. He'll be part of what is arguably the fastest linebacking trio in the country. According to UNC strength coach Jeff Connors, all three can run the 40 in less than 4.5 seconds. The Heel closest to Brown in the Freak quotient is strongside 'backer Bruce Carter, who made four consecutive blocked punts last season. (Carter set the UNC linebacker record with a 40½-inch vertical jump. He also clocked a 4.45 forty.)

But I'm going with Brown, a former stud prep wrestler who went 29-0 with 17 pins and also ran for more than 1,500 yards as a high school senior. The first time Brown ran the 40 at UNC, Connors did a triple take at his stopwatch. It read 4.28. "I was shocked by that time," Connors says. So the veteran coach had Brown run it again, and that time he had four other guys use stopwatches to clock it. Same thing. 4.28 on four of the five watches. The other guy had Brown clocked in the low 4.30s. Connors pointed out that the team was tested running on a faster Mondo track surface, which he estimated might be worth five-hundredths of a second to one-tenth of a second. Regardless, Brown is still blazing-fast. He's also pretty strong, having upped his bench press from 315 to 380 this year. "He hasn't even scratched the surface," Connors says.

6. Jeff Owens, Georgia, DT: The Dawgs really missed the anchor of their defense and one of the leaders of their team after Owens was lost for the 2008 season with a knee injury. However, the 6-3, 300-pounder is probably in better shape than he was before he went down, according to Georgia coaches. His 4.86 40-yard dash time this spring should get Bulldogs fans excited, and he proved he got even stronger. He bench-pressed 225 for 41 reps and maxed out at 535.

7. Dekoda Watson, Florida State, LB: The Noles have plucked some great athletes out of South Carolina in recent years, and Watson might be as special as any of them. Watson isn't huge for a linebacker at 6-2, 226, but he's probably as well-proportioned as you'll find. According to a school spokesman, his chest is 48 inches and his waist is 26 inches, which is enough to put him on this list. Plus, he recently gave the Orlando Sentinel one of the better quotes of the offseason:

"Right now I've been doing ab workouts like it ain't nothing," Watson told the Sentinel. "I've got abs to my throat almost. My legs are feeling great. It's just the elbow right now. The elbow is going to take a long time to heal. I take that scar with pride. That's the closest I'm going to get to a tattoo. … I'm scared of needles."

FSU Rhodes scholar and defensive back Myron Rolle is a fan of Watson's: "Aside from [cornerback] Pat Robinson, Dekoda is the best athlete on the team. He is extremely explosive, can jump out of the gym and he is very strong. He has the best takeoff on the team, which is why he blocks punts so easily. If he stays healthy, I believe he will test incredibly well when he comes out next year."

[+] EnlargeBruce Campbell
Maryland Media Relations Maryland strength coach Dwight Galt described Bruce Campbell as the "offensive line version of Vernon Davis."

8. Bruce Campbell, Maryland, OT: The Terps have been good for a few workout warriors, and the 6-6, 306-pound Campbell is a supersized version. Maryland strength coach Dwight Galt calls him "one of a kind." Campbell certainly has the bloodlines. His father, Bruce, starred for the Providence College hoops team in the '70s before he was drafted by the Nets.

Earlier this month, Campbell bench-pressed 490 pounds, which is impressive, especially considering the length of his arms. He also ran a 4.82 40. "Bruce looks like a Greek God," Galt says. "He almost looks like a bodybuilder. He's the offensive line version of Vernon Davis."

9. Brooks Reed, Arizona, DE: Reed is another under-the-radar recruit who has shone. The 6-3, 260-pounder notched eight sacks last season in his first year as a starter for the Cats, who relied on his exceptional explosiveness and burst. Reed power-cleans 450, squats more than 600 and ran a 4.62 40-yard dash this spring. The only thing the Zona sports info people figured he was missing was a great nickname. They're touting the long-haired Reed as "Mr. Freeze," in part because of his initial B.R. as in … never mind. Pac-10 offensive coaches probably have other names for him.

10. Marcus Cannon, TCU, OT: About a month ago, I asked TCU All-American DE Jerry Hughes whether there were any freak athletes in the Horned Frogs program. He paused for a moment, then began to shake his head and tell a story. Turns out Cannon, TCU's 6-5, 350-pound starting right tackle, offered to bet Hughes a few years ago over whether the mammoth offensive lineman could pull off a double front flip off a diving board. Hughes jumped at the bet, then watched in amazement as the TCU big man went all Cirque du Soleil on him. "I can do a double front flip, a one-and-a-half and some other stuff off the board," Cannon later explained. "I used to be a lifeguard."

At the very least, this might earn Cannon the title of being the world's most improbable diver since Rodney Dangerfield climbed up poolside. Cannon is a pretty good shot-putter, too. Earlier this month, he finished third overall with a personal-best throw of 54 feet, 4 inches at the Texas Invitational. On the field, he has emerged as one of the Mountain West Conference's top linemen, and he is coming off a near-flawless performance in TCU's 17-16 Poinsettia Bowl victory over Boise State.

Just missed the cut: Jacoby Ford, Clemson, WR; Adrien Robinson, Cincinnati, TE; Stephen Paea, Oregon State, DT; Arist Wright, Kansas, LB; Brandon Graham, Michigan, DE; Bruce Carter, UNC, LB; Ali Villanueva, Army, WR; Carlos Dunlap, Florida, DE; Jake Sharp, Kansas, RB; Cooper Taylor, Georgia Tech, S; Brandon Brooks, Miami (Ohio), OL; Martez Wilson, Illinois, LB; Everson Griffen, USC, DL; Kyle Parker, Clemson, QB.

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