COLUMBIA — Lorenzo Williams is concerned.
The former Missouri defensive tackle is stretching in the south end zone inside the Dan Devine Pavilion. His back is turned. Soccer balls are flying around while the women’s soccer team scrimmages. Williams is wary of stray soccer balls hitting him.
“Watch the ball,” he tells Antwan Floyd, assistant director of strength and conditioning, who is directing the workout.
But no one truly has the players’ backs these days. Williams and several of his former teammates are on their own. They don’t have to be here this morning. No one will yell at them if they are late or miss this workout. Only their dreams of suiting up on Sunday get them out of bed and onto the field.
But before they play in the NFL, they must prove themselves. Their talents must impress the league’s admissions officers — scouts and personnel staff. Like high school seniors studying for the SAT, they are getting ready for one of the biggest tests of their lives.
* * *
The 40-yard dash.
The 225-pound bench press.
The three-cone test.
These are some of the components of the NFL’s standardized test. Master these drills with speed, strength and agility, and you could be a member of an NFL team within a few months.
This year’s elite prospects have already performed these drills at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. The six-day event ended Tuesday. More than 330 athletes were invited, including former MU tight end Martin Rucker, wide receiver Will Franklin and cornerback Darnell Terrell. The athletes were herded around like cattle. Doctors inspected them to ensure they were healthy enough for the market. Scouts sized them up to determine whether they could survive the physical rigors of the NFL.
But not all potential NFL rookies attended the combine.
Former Tigers such as Williams, tailback Tony Temple, safety Pig Brown and long snapper Steven Blair will get their chance to wow scouts. Along with other major football programs across the nation, Missouri will host scouts at two Pro Days, on Thursday and March 20. With some guidance, Williams and others have been punishing their bodies in preparation for these auditions.
* * * Floyd runs Missouri’s pro player development program. It’s the fifth and final level of the performance program run by the strength and conditioning staff led by Pat Ivey, the assistant athletic director for athletic performance.
Floyd is built like a fullback, the position he played at Wyoming. He’s an exercise geek. He majored in exercise physiology and loves to expound on high-tech workout equipment. Thick binders outlining the conditioning programs are lined above his desk along with books such as “Supertraining” and “The Purpose-Driven Life.”
Floyd brings his measured intensity and disciplined organization to the program. Williams and others have only had six weeks to prepare for Pro Day, and Floyd puts them through short but grueling workouts four days a week. He looks for an explosive start for the first 10 yards of the 40-yard dash. He stresses consistent form on the 225-pound bench press. Athletes do as many repetitions as they can on this test of strength and endurance. He emphasizes mobility and joint alignment for agility drills like the three-cone test.
“I don’t think you can do it if you’re not really serious about it,” Floyd said. “I think you’re going to wake up feeling, ‘Why am I doing this? What am I doing this for?’”
* * *
Williams has no trouble getting up every morning. Rolling out of bed at 8 is better than waking up at 5:30 for conditioning drills during the season.
After the Tigers ran over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, Williams lingered briefly on the field to soak in his last moments as a Tiger. But then he went home to Oklahoma to start pursuing his next goal.
He took only three days off before getting back to the gym. He also attended to business. He and his mom sat down and selected an agent. Then he returned to Columbia to start working with Floyd.
“We stay up here until we feel like we don’t belong no more,” Williams said.
The discipline follows Williams home to his refrigerator and pantry. He must eat well to complement his workouts. Jana Heitmeyer, director of sports nutrition, helps him compile his grocery list.
The diet is different from when he was growing up. “When it was Mom, it was grab as much junk food as you can to last you for as long as you can,” Williams said.
Now he eats salmon, grilled chicken, loads of carbs and “as much fruit as you could possibly eat.” If he eats red meat, it has to be as lean as a wide receiver. He can’t handle some of Heitmeyer’s suggestions, however. He tried spaghetti with ground turkey and wheat noodles, but it tasted like rubber.
“It sounds like you’re eating gum, squeaking in your mouth,” he said.
He gets one “cheat” item — oatmeal cookies — and one “cheat” meal every week. Williams tries to fatten himself at this weekly meal, but his tastes are changing.
“After a while of eating good, that stuff doesn’t even taste good no more,” he said. “I get a steak, and I say, ‘I’d like steamed vegetables and a tossed salad — no, no — French fries.’”
Looking at Williams, it’s clear the training and diet have paid off. He’s as laid back as he was before the Kansas game this fall, but his figure is more imposing. He’s gained 12 pounds of muscle and lost four percent of his body fat.
Although he’s stronger and faster, Williams knows his limitations. He has listened to scouts and coaches. He can commiserate with Chase Daniel about their shared drawback. Like the quarterback, Williams is considered too short for his position. Listed at 6-foot-1, he’s two or three inches shorter than the prototypical defensive lineman. To make up for his lack of size, Williams knows he must match the top prospects’ marks in all the drills at Pro Day.
* * * Williams is not distracted anymore.
The women’s soccer team has dragged the goals off the field. He crouches into a sprinter’s stance and stares at the orange cone five yards in front of him. He’s ready for a practice test in the three-cone drill.
He bursts forward, takes two strides and turns back toward the first cone. He touches the starting line and darts back to the second cone. This time he turns right and speeds toward the third cone placed five yards to the right. He makes a tight figure-eight and then sprints back past where he started.
“Smoking,” Floyd says immediately after checking his stopwatch.
The time is impressive. Williams high-fives his former teammates.
“That’s money. One more time like that,” Floyd says.