In recent years specialized camps and training facilities have sprouted up all over the country, with agents hand-picking the ones they want their clients to attend, and the TEST Academy is one of them. Founded by Brian Martin up in New Jersey in 1994, TEST is now in its third year in South Florida, with Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton serving as its home base.
Thanks to the close proximity to the Miami Dolphins’ practice facility in Davie, Martin has been able to recruit as coaches the likes of former Dolphins Pro Bowl cornerback Sam Madison, former Dolphins Pro Bowl wide receiver Mark Duper, former Dolphins running back Keith Byars and former Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington. Other former NFL players like Cornelius Bennett, Errict Rhett, Scott Brunner, Eric Dorsey, Will Shields and Curtis McGriff have joined them.
“The one thing that I tell these kids is that I didn’t have the opportunity to do this and work with professional guys,” said Madison, who won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants in 2007 and went to four Pro Bowls with Miami. “This is something I love doing and I always had guys try to help me transition into becoming a pro from the first day I became a Miami Dolphin. All of the veteran guys helped me out and passed on their wisdom and that’s what I want to do here with these young men at TEST.”
Between all of the ex-NFL players and his highly touted stable of strength coaches, sports psychologists, position coaches and a sprint coach who happens to be a former Olympian in Ato Boldon, Martin and co-owner Kevin Dunn have what many consider the prototypical training operation. Not only do the players that leave TEST turn in some of the top performances at the Combine on the field and in the interviews, but they also feel better prepared for life in the NFL.
This year’s group of players training at FAU is a broad mix of serious prospects with eyes on turning heads in Indianapolis and borderline prospects not going to the Combine but holding out hope for individual tryouts. Ole Miss running back Brandon Bolden leads the four players from TEST invited to the Combine. He played nine games on a broken leg as a senior and expects to be one of the fastest running backs at the Combine. Martin claims that Bolden is way faster than former Maryland Da’Rel, who ran a 4.35 at the Combine and Bolden feels he will only benefit from his experience learning from Byars, Rhett and mostly Ato Boldon.
“He’s helped a lot,” Bolden said. “When I first got here I didn’t even know how to do the proper stance, so he’s helped me to learn how to come out of my stance and transition from the drive phase into the turnover stage, which is the last part of the 40. He tells us to not even think of it as a 40-yard dash but as a 60-yard dash and really kick it into gear from the 20-yard mark to the 40. And Coach Byars has helped a lot in terms of catching passes as a running back and learning how to break off your routes.
“Working with the NFL guys has been a lot of help and I kind of had an idea what to expect because Stevan Ridley, who went to LSU, trained here last year and gave me a heads up of what to expect. I can’t wait to show off everything I’ve learned up in Indy. I really plan when I leave Indy for everyone to know I left my heart out there.”
Pennington, who is leaning closer to retirement after sitting out all of 2011 rehabbing his shoulder and knee, seemed to be having as much fun out on the field as the players. He and Madison were very vocal on the practice field as the players were broken up into position groups and put through Combine-specific drills as well as typical training camp drills.
“It’s fun because they’re hungry and they’re like an open book,” Pennington said. “I just try to share my experiences with them both on and off the field and give them some insight on what it means to be a professional and some of the obstacles and challenges they’re going to face. There’s no manual to being a pro football player and we all have our different backgrounds and stories and paths to how we moved through here and these kids need help. They really do and it’s really important that they get that help.”
Among the group of quarterbacks working with Pennington was Richmond’s Aaron Corp, who began his career at USC playing behind Mark Sanchez. Corp transferred to Richmond in January of 2010. He had won the starting job in the spring of 2009 but was replaced by Matt Barkley after suffering an injury before the season and chose Richmond in the FCS because he didn’t have to sit out a year. He will be in Indianapolis hoping to use what he learned from Pennington and Brunner to catch the eye of that one scout, general manager or coach willing to take a chance on him in the draft.
“I’ve worked with Scott since the beginning of January and to come down here and get a chance to work with Chad has been really helpful and it’s another set of eyes and mind to pick at,” said Corp, who completed 247-of-388 passes for 2,682 yards, 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last year for the Spiders. “I’ve gotten a lot of bits and pieces of what to expect at the Combine but I think the biggest thing is just preparation throughout your career. Whether that’s preparing physically or mentally, that’s what’s going to elongate your career as opposed to just getting there. A lot of it is also mechanics and footwork and throwing motion that has been helpful, as well as watching NFL film and going over defenses. Hopefully my hard work will pay off (in Indy) and some team will give me a shot.”
Martin’s track record in that regard with TEST is one of the other reasons why so many more top prospects are choosing to train with him and these coaches. TEST clients have consistently turned in some of the best performances at the Combine in all fronts – 40-yard dash, vertical jump, bench press, the weigh-in and Bod-Pod sessions and of course the individual interviews.
Fort Lauderdale’s own Christian Thompson scored an invitation to Indianapolis out of South Carolina State after beginning his career as a freshman at Auburn. He hopes to jump out to scouts at the Combine with his sprinter’s speed and physical size at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds. Martin knew he’d benefit from learning from Madison and that’s a philosophy that continues to work well for him.
“We feel that it’s best to bring in the best guys at every position to help these guys learn to be the best they can be at the next level and to learn from people that have been there and done that,” Martin said. “They’re passionate guys that give their whole heart to these guys to teach them the ins and outs of going from college to pro. We feel that’s what separates ourselves from the competition.”