INDIANAPOLIS -- Loren Seagrave knows speed. He knows it when he sees it, he knows how to cultivate it, he knows how to maximize it.
He has worked with some of the greatest athletes on the planet, training a bevy of track stars from around the globe. But for eight weeks or so preceding the NFL combine, his focus is on a handful of college football prospects, helping them perfect their technique and improve their speed at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
He's actually been working with football players since about 1992, when his extensive track-and-field expertise began to bleed over into combine and pro-day training. Few know more about every nuance of the 40-yard dash. On this Sunday, as we chatted, results were trickling in for some of his latest pupils, including Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill, who ran the distance in 4.36 seconds, tying for the best time in his position group.
Speed is always at a premium in the NFL, and that will never change. A few tenths of a second can be the difference in draft position and translate into considerably more money on a player's first contract. Few things can elicit some oohs and ahhs from the people at the generally staid, hushed Lucas Oil Stadium setting like someone running a blazing 40 time.
"People get drunk with speed," Seagrave said. "They understand the importance of speed. But they don't know how to teach it."
Hill was considerably less polished when he arrived at the sprawling, state-of-the-art IMG campus. There, many of the kids are totally raw -- especially some of the wider bodies that play on the offensive and defensive line -- and come in as blank slates. Seagrave gets them on the field and lets them run the 40, and then compares that with an intricate computer model that projects the player's perfect sprinting form based on all of that player's measurables.
For the next few months or so, Hill and others try to replicate that model, racing themselves, trying to get every body part precisely where it needs to be, so that what feels awkward in January becomes second nature by the time teams and prospects descend on Indianapolis. It's all based on an initial session that lasts just 25 minutes, but the rewards can be phenomenal.
"Hill made as big a change in those 25 minutes as anybody," Seagrave said."In that initial 25 minutes, we can take a tenth of a second off the first three meters alone."
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Seagrave, who trained 35 prospects, 33 of whom are in the combine, perfects their stance, how they push off and land, how their trail foot comes over, seemingly every muscle twitch. Watching NFL Network's coverage of the receivers running Sunday from a nearby hotel, he can tell from the initial stance how refined each prospect is ("Some of these guys are giving away a tenth of a second just in their stance, before he moves," he says).
There is plenty of film study for each player. The day begins with wakeup calls at 6 a.m., breakfast at 7, and everything is regimented. The workday lasts 14 hours -- including nap time -- and includes recovery, rehab, work with position coaches, power and speed training, and study of acceleration and deceleration. Many afternoons, some of the greatest sprinters in the world are on the field with Seagrave. The football prospects watch and learn from Olympic gold medalists like LaShawn Merritt.
Seagrave said Hill ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds at their mock combine two weeks ago -- when all elements of the Indy gauntlet were duplicated. After all of their work in Florida, Seagrave generally has a pretty good handle on how things will go down here.
Of course, being in a silent stadium, with every decision-maker in the NFL watching, is not like taking part in a closed workout with the pressure off. "These guys are used to being on the field performing with 10 guys around there," Seagrave said. "This is a different setting for them and that's where the mental coaching and conditioning comes in," he said, with IMG's director, Trevor Moawad, overseeing that mental aspect.
Seagrave's overlap into combine training began with Marco Coleman. Coleman was a top prospect training in the Atlanta area, where Seagrave had just moved to. Coleman did not run well at the combine and his agent contracted Coleman to work with him. "He was running a 5.3, and he was down to a 4.8 by his pro day," Seagrave said. Coleman went on to be the 12th overall pick in the 1992 NFL Draft and enjoy a long career. In 1998, the Falcons employed Seagrave as a speed coach -- they ended up in the Super Bowl that season -- and after 16 weeks of offseason work with the receivers, the results were telling.
"Guys were lining up to run the 40 for their position coaches," Seagrave said. "The veterans were running faster than they were as rookies."
The increased spotlight on the combine as a national event, for fans and clubs alike, has made the competition to train these prospects more intense than ever. Everyone is looking for even the slightest edge. Seagrave finds that edge with the science of speed, and to him, it's very real.
"Speed is no longer steeped in myth," as Seagrave said. For a few days every February in Indianapolis, rarely is it more scrutinized.