By Gary Klein Los Angeles Times
Marqise Lee toes the line with his left foot, kneels on his right knee and delicately places his hands on the ground in a sprinter’s position.
A fighter jet zooms high overhead, leaving a white contrail as Lee raises himself into a start position, slowly brings his left arm back and then bursts into a hard run.
A few minutes later, the former University of Southern California star receiver moves to another area of the football field at Laguna Hills High. He repeats his start in front of four video cameras that provide him with instant feedback on a coach’s iPad.
Afterward, Lee noted the importance of remaining calm, especially with so much riding on an NFL pre-draft test that lasts less than five seconds.
“You feel like everything is perfect, that you’ve got everything down,” Lee said, laughing and pointing toward the start line. “Once you step over there, everything changes.”
Lee, 22, was accustomed to running pass routes at USC.
But on Monday, he and about 20 other clients of the Athletes First sports agency were at the University of California-Irvine and Laguna Hills, putting the finishing touches on their preparation for this week’s NFL scouting combine, the annual Indianapolis showcase for aspiring pro prospects.
The combine, originally organized so that the players could undergo medical examinations, has grown into a weeklong series of interviews and physical and mental testing for players in each position group, while serving as a window-shopping bazaar for NFL coaches, executives and agents.
It also provides hours of winter programming for the NFL Network and football-starved fans.
But at its root, “this is a job interview,” former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt said.
The Athletes First program, based at UC-Irvine’s Santora Elite Training Center, is one of several full-service pre-combine training programs across the country.
EXOS, formerly the pioneering Athletes Performance, operates facilities in Arizona, Texas, Florida, San Diego and at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. An EXOS executive said the company was training 86 players for the combine, including former UCLA offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo.
Scott Piri, program specialist for EXOS, said the program covers “every little aspect for the combine and pro day. There is nothing that goes unturned.”
Former USC linebacker Devon Kennard opted to work with Athletic Gaines, which is operated in the Los Angeles area by Travelle Gaines. Former UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr also is training in the program.
Kennard spoke with former players and learned all he could before making his choice. “There’s only so many ways you can train for the combine,” he said. “Every facility might have tweaks in their philosophy or what their beliefs are based on, so you have to choose what makes you comfortable.”
Agent Justin Schulman, who coordinates the Athletes First program, said the agency’s concept was to provide clients with training and preparation close to the Laguna Hills home office, so that players could build relationships with agency staff while preparing for the NFL draft.
“It helps to build a nice little camaraderie and loyalty among the group,” Schulman said.
In addition to strength and speed training, position work and physical therapy and massage services, players are provided housing in a nearby apartment complex, rental cars, and food that is delivered six days a week by a prepared-meals company.
Players also are counseled and prepared for the Wonderlic test and interviews with NFL teams.
The cost, Schulman said, can range from $30,000 to $40,000 per player.
Schulman said most large sports agencies view the expenditures as an investment and do not bill players for those costs. Players sign a pre-draft agreement, however, that stipulates they will be responsible for the cost if they fire the agent.
This year, the Athletes First training program is being overseen in Orange County, Calif., by Ryan Capretta, who has worked with numerous NFL players at his Westlake Village, Calif.-based Proactive Sports Performance facility.
Capretta said he can’t wait for the combine, where players will perform the 40-yard dash, bench-press 225 pounds and go through shuttle and jumping tests. “When a guy crushes it and you see where he started, that’s what gives you satisfaction,” he said.
On Monday, the players were in a tapering mode as they prepared to depart for Indianapolis over the next few days. The combine begins Thursday.
Monday’s work began at Irvine, where players arrived in groups of four for stretching and bench-press work.
Capretta instructed players to use the warmup as a dry run for what they will encounter at the combine.
Former Alabama defensive back Ha’Sean “Ha Ha” Clinton-Dix jogged, performed push-ups, worked on an elliptical machine and completed a series of stretching exercises with a small ball and roller before he moved to the bench press. Former USC safety Dion Bailey and others gathered around to watch and motivate him.
“Here you go,” Capretta said, as Clinton-Dix began a series of reps with another trainer spotting him.
“There you go, there you go!” Capretta barked excitedly as Clinton-Dix moved into double digits.
“One more!” Bailey yelled with each rep. “One more!”
The players rotated through, first defensive backs and then linemen and tight ends, each doing an individualized workout.
It’s a departure from the team-training mentality most players experience in college.
“None of us knows what team we’re going to be on,” said Brock Vereen, a defensive back who played at Minnesota, “so right now you can only work for yourself and focus on yourself.”
That requires an adjustment, said Clinton-Dix, a member of national championship teams at Alabama.
“Coming from ‘Bama, it’s kind of hard to transfer over to now you have to worry about you, at what you can get better at,” he said. “But it’s working out pretty well.”
Bailey said the physical training was a departure from college, where “they just try to get you to work through everything to prove you’re mentally tough.
“It’s exciting to be treated like a grown man,” he said, “not like a kid anymore.”
Along with mock interviews, Schulman said players are provided with a binder that includes biographical information about the NFL executives they will meet.
“The biggest thing they want is just to prepare you for the odd questions you weren’t expecting,” said Ryan Groy, an offensive lineman from Wisconsin. “They’re going to throw you off, ask you what your favorite play is and then random stuff.”
Lee, projected as a first-round draft pick, is scheduled to depart for Indianapolis today.
After nearly two months of training, he is confident he is prepared for the medical exams, the interviews and all of the tests.
“All I’ve got to really do is be myself,” he said. “Nothing crazy.
“I’m going to get it done like I’m supposed to.”