Flaherty sees progress of Mariota, Winston through draft process

By Bill Bradley, contributing editor

The offseason preparation by highly touted quarterbacks Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Jameis Winston of Florida State didn't cease after last month's NFL Scouting Combine. It continues through pro days for the first-round NFL Draft prospects.

In preparing themselves for professional football, they have turned to Ryan Flaherty and Prolific Athletes in Carlsbad, California. Flaherty's group of coaches, doctors and athletic trainers gained notoriety last year when they took on Cleveland Browns first-round pick Johnny Manziel among other draft prospects.

Flaherty, whose specialty is speed and strength conditioning for the company he founded, has a background in kinesiology and USA Track & Field research. He trains more than 80 NFL athletes each year and helps to increase and maintain their speed. He talked with NFL Evolution this week about the training of Mariota and Winston, their strengths and weakness entering the draft and the quarterback he is eyeing for next year's draft.

Your business seems to have been growing with a lot of star clients since we talked last year. What changes have taken place with Prolific?

It's just been through word of mouth and we've been growing for sure. Since I last talked to you, Serena Williams, Kobe Bryant (and others) have worked with us. … It's just me and the same people that have been running the show. We're still the same family-run business. My little sister is still working the front desk.

You said last year you have athletic trainers involved in your company. How does player health and safety play into programs you create for football players?

A lot, actually. The basis of our training protocol for each individual (athlete) is their full assessment. An orthopedic (doctor) takes them through his assessment. A physical therapist takes them through a full assessment. On the performance side, I take them through a full assessment. Then we come together with our different reports and put together an uniquely designed training program for the athlete based on their imbalances and their needs. What we do is rooted in keeping them on the field and keeping them healthy and teaching them things about their bodies they might not have known.

We also take them through an extensive nutritional testing and blood testing. We take their blood -- a lot of it -- and send it to a lab to get them feedback on everything. We may look at their metabolic acid levels or other issues you might not see otherwise. Last year, we had one guy who was on pace for having a major issue with his liver. He was able to get to see a specialist and allowed him to get the proper care. He was on course for having a liver transplant at some point.

Last year you worked with Cleveland Browns quarterback John Manziel about his speed. This year your quarterback projects are first-round NFL draft prospects Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. How has your work with them gone?

It's going great. It's very rare to have two guys in (your performance center) that could be the top two picks. … Usually, if you're a situation like this, both don't want to go to the same camp. … But I've had a previous relationship with both of them. I spoke with both of them. I talked to their agents. I talked to their family members. They were hesitant for both of them to come to my camp. "Well I don't know if it's a good idea." "Can they work together?" or "Maybe they should be on their own." You talk to the guys and they say, "Absolutely! I'd love to work with him." They kids had no problem. It was everyone else that thought it would be an issue.

But they've been great. They both have different personalities. Yet they came into the camp with the attitude that they wanted to be the best and in order to be best they wanted to be compared to the best. They backed each other and rooted each other on when they're lifting weights. I think they have helped to improve both of their games. They've been saying, "Wow, he is way ahead of me on certain aspects of the playbook," or maybe "He's way faster than me." Now they are working together and they can see each of their shortcomings. They have embraced and it's been a great experience.

How would you evaluate their performances at the combine?

I'd give an "A-plus" for both of them. I actually got a text from one of the Florida State coaches and they said, "Man, congratulations on getting (Jameis) to run (the 40-yard dash) in (4.97). We didn't think he could do that. Jameis came in at 250 (pounds). We got him down to 230. He's not a fast kid. He's not going to blow you away with his athletic or his jumping ability. I don't want to say what he started out at, but what he ended up at during the combine was a big improvement. He worked out hard. He worked really hard to change his diet. He's learning how to be a professional athlete.

I thought Marcus did what we expected for him to do. … This year, I don't think people realize (the combine) changed to full electronic timing. There was no hand timing. All those times were slower than any year's past.

Another thing with Marcus and the other Oregon players I had, they got done with the National Championship Game on (Jan. 14). They left for the combine on (Feb. 14). They had exactly four weeks to train. That's the shortest time I've had with any group of athletes ever. Eight weeks is usually the norm. We're talking getting kids right off the longest season in NCAA history … and then they get four weeks to get ready for a combine. For those guys, especially, I couldn't have asked for a better outcome based on the amount of time I had with them.

Now that the combine is over, how do you prepare them for their pro days? Does the training change or take on a different tempo.

I do just as much as I was for the combine. The way we approach it at Prolific is different than other (performance training companies). For many rookies, once the combine is over, they go back to their schools or wherever. Here, I shuffle all of them into my NFL veterans program. So now, they're getting training to become an NFL rookie. We're now training their bodies to be ready for 16 games and 17 weeks and being able to put up with the rigors of the NFL season. They jump right into an NFL off-season program … they stay here until the end of the draft. … I say the most important tryout for them is when they actually get drafted and signed and work out for their NFL mini-camp. Let's get them ready for that and treat the combine as a step along the way.

What are the pros and cons you see for each of these two quarterbacks as they go into their pro days?

For Jameis, he's going to have to build on that NFL body. He's going to have to continue to get his body into shape to where he can improve his speed and improve his quickness, but also improve the loft on his ball.

Marcus is improving his footwork in the pocket, from coming under center and his 3-, 5- and 7-step drop back. He needs to work not only his quickness, but his the repetition dropping back and getting the ball out quickly. The other thing with Marcus is throwing to NFL routes. It's going to be an adjustment in the timing of routes, unlike Oregon where he took two steps, drops back and waits for the route to open. … For him it's much more mental; for Jameis it's much more physical.

What quarterback do you have your eye on for next year?

For next year quarterback-wise, Conner Cook from Michigan State is someone I've worked with for a couple of years. I get lot of quarterbacks still in college that want to work with me, so I have some rapport built up with him. I've worked with Conner for the past few years before he was a starter at Michigan State. He was projected to be a first-rounder this year, but he decided to stay in school. He will be a projected first-rounder if all things go as planned if he has a similar season as he did last year and stays healthy. Christian Hackenberg of Penn State is another good one. Those two are guys that I definitely have my eye and I want to work with next year. Who knows? Guys like Marcus came out of nowhere. We'll see what happens. I just have to keep doing my job and getting these guys to be the best they can be.

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