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The secrets of the 40-yard run, according to an NFL combination coach

MARTINSVILLE, NJ – One by one, NFL prospects line up and prepare to practice for the four to five seconds that could change their lives.

They crouch, stop, and explode from a start line, and after about 20 meters stop running under the watchful eye of Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic sprinter from Trinidad and Tobago. You are at TEST Football Academy in a small New Jersey town about 20 minutes from Rutgers University preparing for the NFL Combine’s meat market. On this cold January day, they focus on how to start the 40-yard run.

Some are better than others. Sebastian Joseph, a Rutgers defensive lineman, has earned the nickname “Shrek” for the way he runs with his powerful arms (it’s effective, in fact).

But it is Marquis Haynes who stands out. In a seemingly fluid movement from his crouched start, he immediately engages second and third gears at groundbreaking speed. And that’s only about 20 yards left, with about two months of training left before Haynes does the right thing at the 2018 NFL Combine.

Is it a wide receiver at this speed? A cornerback? Maybe a security? Lower Austria. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Haynes left Ole Miss as a defensive end. At this size, it means he will have to find a new position in the NFL (he will likely be a pass-rushing outside linebacker), which could be a red flag for some teams.

But if he can show that speed at Lucas Oil Stadium this week, that’s far from a guarantee that an NFL franchise will find a role for him.

* * *

This is the mystique of the 40 yard shot. Remember how John Ross’ record run (a combine record 4.22 seconds) transformed the Washington wideout from a potential first-round player into a top 10 pick for the Cincinnati Bengals. Do you remember all the headlines about Chris Johnson’s 4.24 in 2008 and what he looked like in his prime in the open field? What about Tyreek Hills 4.24 on his Pro Day that more than carried over to the field? Or the secret of how fast Bo Jackson was before electronic timing was the norm?

You can talk about explosiveness in the shuttle run, athleticism in the long jump or strength in the bench press. But it’s the speed in the 40-yard run that becomes the biggest game changer of them all – the difference between a selection on Day 1 and Day 3 could be a matter of hundredths of a second.

So what are the secrets that can score 0.1 or 0.2 here and there to turn these NFL prospects into players with the potential to be the next Joe Flacco or Bart Scott, both of whom are theirs Photos hanging over the same lawn? Pros-in-the-making continue?

For that answer, I turned to Boldon. This is the ninth draft class he has worked with at TEST that has spawned NFL success stories including Flacco, Jerricho Cotchery, Duron Harmon and Vladimir Ducasse.

“Whatever he does, he has done his best,” says Kevin Dunn, owner and CEO of TEST Sports. “He brings a world class Olympic ‘now or never’ mentality to these players. When he enters this building, he has a certain respect. “

Before Boldon heads to Pyeongchang to cover the Winter Olympics for NBC (where he covers speed, including athletics and NASCAR after three bronze and one silver medals), he has some tips to share with me and this group with a Line from his post-class talk that stands out.

“Fast,” he says, “is not what you think.”

* * *

Step 1: the start

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It’s as iconic as the combine itself: the sprinter’s crouch with hand raised and pausing to make sure everything is set.

Boldon got me into the first three-point posture I ever tried in my life and immediately noticed that I am unbalanced – I should be putting weight on the “lower” hand and back foot, but I shouldn’t feel like it that I am going to fall over. Then he wants to see my ankles almost parallel to the floor. The “up” hand shouldn’t be too high over my head, but it should be in a position ready to swing in an uppercut if I thrust out of my start. And my head – which I can’t stop lifting to stare at the surprisingly long distance in front of me – has to stay down (this is important for Step 2).

Charles Curtis – USA TODAY Sports

Showing the group the 40th run of Patrick Peterson – a TEST alum – in 2011, Boldon notes how that swinging punch and bump fights through gravity and even decreases the distance he has to run.

“His 40 is now a ’36’,” says Boldon.

Step 2: speeding up

Standing up straight and getting to where you’re comfortable running is instinctual, but Boldon wants to give up that habit right away.

“The sooner you stand upright, the less you can muster that thrust,” he says.

To prove it, he takes a weighted sled and asks the best way to move it across the floor. The answer, of course, is to bend over to use your legs rather than stand up straight. The same goes here, and while it’s not intuitive, which may feel nice, it makes a sprint more efficient, which I notice when I get back to the start line after a few tries, less windy.

Boldon also has a video on this point: He puts on a clip of Da’Rel Scott, a running back who trained at TEST and was recorded by the New York Giants in the 7th round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Scott never stands straight during his 4.34-second sprint:

Step 3: top speed

“You’ll get to 20 meters,” explains Boldon, “and all you have to do is take care of the last 20.”

What he means is: The technique of the first two steps takes half of the course. The rest? It’s all about getting to your top speed.

His most notable tip: some people have learned to walk with only their forearms. He wants to see the fingers of a runner’s hand reach eye level and then the entire arm should let go backwards and snap before coming up again.

It looks something like this:

Boldon demonstrates by mimicking the motion you would use to hit a nail. Would you just pound with your wrist and forearm? No, you would use your whole arm including your shoulder.

Step 4: done

(AP photo / Michael Conroy)

It’s simple: walk through a wall. Once you get to your top speed, cross the last few meters and walk right through these sensors.

But the finish isn’t just about the run itself. It takes blinders and dedication to complete the entire combine process. Boldon ends his talk by talking about what players need to do to do their best in the combine. If it means putting relationships on hold or deleting apps from your phone – as Boldon said he would do it on his smartphone in the run-up to the Olympics – so be it. Distractions and weaknesses can affect performance.

That’s why TEST’s location is actually part of the process.

“It’s not a vacation destination,” says Dunn. “The people we get here are people who are interested in hard work and zero distractions. In a lot of ways, like Rocky IV when Stallone went to Russia and trained in the mountains, that’s exactly what these guys have to do now. You have to be selfish during these six weeks. In the most important six weeks of your life, people often draw your attention in different areas. “

* * *

At the end of my lesson, Dunn’s staff are kind enough to set up laser timers to give me a taste of the real combine 40 yard running experience. I try to sum up all of Boldon’s tips, forgetting that I was the slowest runner of anyone I know, and imagining that I run for a living. As the future conscripts watch, I go into this:

The result? A 6.14 that looks like it was done in slow motion. I can see problems – I didn’t explode too much, I ended up standing up too straight and, well, I was just born slow. It’s a good place to start if I was going to compete with Rich Eisen on the NFL Network.

Also, I’m not motivated by the possibility that one run could change my life forever.

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