By Tim Linafelt
GULF BREEZE, Fla. – Three years of early workouts at Florida State have helped Mario Edwards Jr. to cope with the pre-dawn wake-up calls.
Still, he can’t help but let out a bit of a yawn as he makes his way into the EXOS training facility locker room.
Edwards, a former star defensive end at FSU, is here as part of a six-week performance-training program designed at getting him ready for the NFL’s Scouting Combine, which begins Wednesday in Indianapolis.
His former teammate, offensive lineman Cameron Erving, is here, too. He beat Edwards to the locker room this morning and is already at his stall, lacing up his shoes.
It’s 7:45 a.m. Breakfast was at 7. The first workout begins at 8.
“(The other guys) are complaining about getting up at 6 and 7,” Edwards said. “And we’re like, ‘Man, we’re used to this.’”
Edwards and Erving are surrounded by a who’s who of draft prospects. Former Florida standouts Dante Fowler and D.J. Humphries are working out today, as are Georgia star Todd Gurley and Auburn’s Sammie Coates.
The presence of cameras and tape recorders surrounding the FSU contingent has not gone unnoticed.
“I just want to know what it’s like to be big time,” jokes Angelo Blackson, a former Auburn defensive lineman who got acquainted with Erving and Edwards at the 2014 BCS National Championship Game.
“Can I have an autograph when you’re done?” Humphries quips.
“Hey,” Erving responds with a grin on his face. “Don’t bring that negativity in here.”
Shoes laced up and tied, a group of about 35 players make their way out on the EXOS workout floor. At 8 a.m., rapper Waka Flocka Flame’s “O Let’s Do It” pipes in throughout the room and they’re off.
‘The ultimate stage’
An oversized timeline plastered on a hallway boasts EXOS’ achievements.
Forty-four percent (14 of 32) of players taken in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft trained at one of the company’s five nationwide facilities.
So, too, did No. 1 overall picks Andrew Luck, Jadeveon Clowney and Jake Long.
So it’s easy to see why Edwards and Erving chose the place. Both project as high-round picks, but impressive showings at the combine could secure a spot in the lucrative first round for each.
Which is why they’re taking their combine preparation so seriously.
“It’s been a little bit rewarding and challenging,” Erving said. “I’ve seen changes in my body. I’ve seen changes in the mindset, having to go from a collegiate athlete to a professional athlete. … It’s been big for me, and I’ve been learning a lot.”
Not only is each player put through the paces in a variety of strength and conditioning workouts, but their mental acumens are worked, too.
There are exercises for acing the NFL’s Wonderlic intelligence test, how to impress executives during one-on-one interviews and even how to pick the right suit and tie.
It’s lot to pack into a six-week course. Most players are there six days a week.
“This time for them is critical,” said Stefan Underwood, the performance specialist and movement coach at EXOS.
“Six weeks seems like an eternity, but it absolutely flies by. I can’t underemphasize how important this time is for them – a good combine can really do a lot to elevate draft status. It’s really the ultimate stage.”
‘Things that we’ve never done before’
Edwards said that, at Florida State, workouts were geared toward preparation for a long season.
While their regimen at EXOS is similar – they’re still lifting, running and jumping – the exercises here are leading up to just a few short days. And there’s an extra focus on combine-specific drills.
They’ll even break the 40-yard dash – perhaps the most famous combine drill – into different, shorter segments for maximum efficiency.
“I had to figure out the difference in the workouts,” Edwards said. “Ultimately, it’s not really a hard workout, but they do work you really good, and it’s more specific things.”
The exercises certainly don’t look any less excruciating.
Split into groups of three (Edwards and Erving with UF’s Humphries), the players begin by laying flat on the floor with their legs elevated on a bench and pull themselves up with their arms.
First they just use body weight. Then Edwards grabs a 25-pound weight and smiles as he holds it down on Erving’s chest. Finally, the weight is upped to 45 pounds. Every player takes several turns.
“There’s things that we’ve never done before,” Erving said.
They go through a variety of movements – pull-ups, squats and air-resistance bench presses, among others.
The air-resistance weight training took a little getting used to. Instead of weights on bars, players dial up air pressure that forces the bar downward. Edwards said the pressure doesn’t allow a player to “cheat” a rep by using the bar’s momentum or by bouncing it off his chest.
“Honestly, when I was looking at it at first, I was like, ‘Man, this is what I came here to do?’” Edwards said. “But it teaches you form and teaches technique. … The first time I went through it, man, the bar was going all over the place. You have to get it over your chest and keep it clean.”
As they make their way from station to station, Edwards sneaks in a little dig at Humphries and remind him of FSU’s 2-1 mark against the Gators during his three years in Tallahassee. (Erving finished his career 4-1 against UF.)
“As you can see,” he says as Humphries muscles through a pull-up, “Florida State is doing this exercise correctly, while Florida is over here BS’ing.
“And this again … is why Florida State beats Florida.”
Occasional chiding aside, Edwards insisted that the competition between players is nothing but friendly.
“We’re no longer rivals anymore,” he said. “We’re all chasing the same dream.”
At 9:30, the offensive and defensive linemen are split. Erving heads to a classroom to study film and listen to a lecture on NFL life from William Roberts, a 14-year pro with the Giants, Patriots and Jets.
Edwards, meanwhile, moves outside to EXOS’ 50-yard turf field, where 2008 All-Pro and Pensacola native Fred Robbins puts his charges through the paces.
After watching him power through several runs at the tackling dummies, Robbins says Edwards has the tools to succeed in the NFL, regardless of scheme or position.
“He moves well,” Robbins said. “Everybody moves well at this point, but I think Mario has that extra explosiveness in his moves.
“For someone to do it at his size and speed, along with athletic ability … I think he’ll do a tremendous job at the next level.”
And receiving feedback from someone like Robbins, who spent a dozen years at a level Edwards is trying to reach, proved valuable.
“Most NFL careers are only what, two or three years?” Edwards said. “And the fact that he could be in there for 12 years showed that he was definitely doing something (right).”
‘Man, it’s really here.’
Year 12, of course, is a long way off for Edwards and Erving.
Week 6 at EXOS, however, has just about come and gone.
Erving’s flight to Indianapolis is on Tuesday and offensive-line drills begin Thursday.
Five years at Florida State have taken him and Edwards all over the nation, where they’ve performed on the biggest stages that college football has to offer.
But the combine is something new. And there’s quite a bit riding on it.
“There’s definitely a level of anxiety,” Erving said. “But I feel like it’s more a positive energy than negative energy.
“…It’s kind of like that feeling you get when you’re told you’re going to play in the national championship.”
Added Edwards, “Sometimes I’m watching TV and they throw up something about the draft or combine and I’m like, ‘Man, it’s really here.’”
They can at least lean on former teammates for advice. Nine Seminoles, including offensive lineman Bryan Stork and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan went through the combine last year.
And they’ll be among plenty of familiar faces in Indianapolis, as 12 members of FSU’s 2014 team – the most of any in the nation – will participate this year.
“I haven’t really been told much,” Erving said. “Except that I need to go and perform well.”
Erving and Edwards are confident in that much. That’s due in large part to their time spent at FSU (“We come from an A-1 program,” Erving says), but also to their time spent here in Gulf Breeze.
They view it as six weeks of sacrifice with the ultimate pay-off at the end.
“I know I’m going to get drafted. I know it’s going to happen,” Erving said. “But where I go is still up in the air. … I’m just trying to keep my mind clear and have tunnel vision.
“What I do will dictate where I go.”