“This is Combine and Pro Day prep and they eat and sleep everything Combine and Pro Day and everything we do is built around that,” said Chambers, who was taken in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft by Miami out of Wisconsin. “These young men come in for intense training with a great attitude six days a week, two-a-days, just to focus on giving them that one opportunity to make it to the NFL.” Travel about 40 minutes south to the main campus at Florida International University and you’ll find former Dolphins cornerback Sam Madison, former Dolphins wide receiver James McKnight and former Dolphins offensive lineman Jeff Dellenbach passing on their knowledge at FIU Stadium. They are working with the renowned experts at TEST Football Academy, which has been around since 1992 and was started by partners Kevin Dunn and Brian Martin.
Madison has been coaching for the past three years, while Dellenbach and McKnight are first-timers this year. They are helping shape players at their specific positions and though the group training at FIU does not have a Combine invitee among them, talented specimens like Texas A&M wide receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu are hoping to open some eyes at the Pro Day after the Combine. McKnight’s NFL experience (nine seasons with the last three in Miami) has rubbed off on Nwachukwu.
“It’s amazing having that wealth of knowledge right where I’m training at,” he said. “He’s been through everything I’m trying to go through and he can teach me little things like running proper routes and releases. He’s been there and he played in the league for a while so it’s great having him here.”
Projecting what type of a player any of these prospects will be at the next level or even where they should be selected in the draft is far from an exact science. One of the more reliable scouting websites, NFLDraftScout.com, actually has Nwachukwu rated higher than both of Chambers’ wide receivers headed to Indy – Rutgers’ Mark Harrison and Lehigh’s Ryan Spadola. Nwachukwu is rated 31st out of 399 wide receivers, Harrison is rated 33rd and Spadola is rated 47th.
Training centers like TEST have been popping up all over the country because so many more college players have realized that preparation is critical when it comes to heightening their chances of making it to an NFL training camp and latching on. Dunn sees the impact players like Madison, Dellenbach and McKnight can have on helping these young men achieve their goals.
“They love it and they’re here because they’re passionate about it more than anything and they’re trying to give back to the program that gave them so much throughout life,” said Dunn, who claims more than 200 draft picks over the last decade out of TEST. “These kids have a shot. They all have a shot to get in. It’s just a matter of putting their mind into it and making it happen.”
Watching from the sideline at FIU or The Chamber, you can see lots of drills that are identical to the ones that take place at the Combine. There’s the gauntlet for receivers, where the player catches passes from both sides as he runs down the middle of two rows of passers trying not to drop one while utilizing his speed. Chambers also puts his charges through the 3-cone drill, the 40-yard dash and the 60-yard shuttle.
Since these players also need to be prepared for what awaits them at NFL minicamps, OTAs and training camps, Madison, McKnight and Dellenbach incorporated some of their own drills in hopes that they can provide a bit of an advantage moving forward. Former Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington, who still helps out when he can, referred McKnight to Dunn and Martin and McKnight was happy to be reunited with Madison on the field.
“Sam and I went at it every day in practice so we’re able to talk to these guys about what we did to each other as far as what were some of the crafty ways I was trying to beat him and how he was gauging me and my speed,” McKnight said. “You also had a Pro Bowl and Super Bowl cornerback so these guys can learn what kept him at a high level. I just want these guys, especially “EZ” (Nwachukwu), to learn about the attention to detail. He’s a student and anything I’ve asked him to do he’s applied it and he’s teachable and gotten better and better.”
Meanwhile, Spadola and Harrison are focused on leaving the strongest impression possible on the scouts, coaches and general managers that will be in the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium this week. They have been working with Chambers for almost two months both on the field and inside with the weights and other equipment.
Harrison excelled at a Rutgers program that has grown in stature in recent years, but Spadola is trying to break out from the crowd after putting up big numbers for a lower profile school. He knew there was going to be a big jump in terms of the complexity of routes and other areas of the passing game scouts are going to want to see, which is why he sought out Chambers and his facility.
“It’s a slow process and they’ve got great trainers here that really break it down for you and really make sure that you peak when you’re supposed to,” said Spadola said, who caught 24 touchdown passes in his last three years with the Mountain Hawks and is just the second Lehigh player to attend the Combine in the last three years. “We’re continuing that process and we’re seeing great numbers, decreases in our 40 times and our strength has gone up in the weight room. Everything’s starting to come together and I’m learning a lot from Chris on little things with your route running and stretching the field.”
Back when Chambers was preparing for the Combine, which was just a little more than a decade ago, things were different and even more so for Madison, Dellenbach and McKnight. They did most of their preparation on their college campuses and kept it pretty basic compared to what all of these training facilities and preparatory academies are doing now.
“I didn’t even study for any of that. I thought I could just go out there and catch balls or whatever and I didn’t have an outstanding performance at the Combine,” Chambers said. “Things are different now and everybody participates, so I want to make sure that my guys are prepared.”
Dellenbach protected Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Marino from 1985-94, so he’s the veteran of the group and has made the mental side of the game his priority. He just turned 50, so he’s got three decades on some of his students.
“You obviously want to get them in the door but I want to keep them there once they get there,” Dellenbach said. “We’re trying to cover everything as we go and they’ve got to get noticed somehow so that part of it is the speed and the strength and the jumping. But when it comes time for them to sit down and talk to coaches and try to stay there they need to know football, so we’re covering everything.”
For Madison, he is well versed on the principles and strategies employed by the people at TEST so he has been able to mold his teachings to their philosophies. Proper technique, especially for a cornerback, is very important so that is why he emphasized to his players using their hips properly and taking the best angle to the ball.
“A lot of these guys don’t have the best coaching coming out of college,” Madison said. “They don’t get it when they get into the National Football League because the other guys don’t want to help them, so it’s always fun for me to come out here and work with these guys and give them the knowledge that I have.”
All four of these former Dolphins seem to share Madison’s approach, which is why players like Spadola, Harrison and Nwachukwu can feel confident headed to the Combine and Pro Days – no matter what field they were on.