2 days, 7 prospects and a lifetime of work

Shirtless Fridays, distilled water and 135-pound planks. Welcome to NFL Combine preparation at Sports Academy for Aidan Hutchinson, Ickey Ekwonu and five other prospects chasing a dream.

by Matt Verderame

It’s 7:38 a.m. on the Friday before the Super Bowl.

Aidan Hutchinson is planking with 135 pounds on his back. To his left, Boye Mafe is doing the same. Minutes later, Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu takes his turn.

In this gleaming 100,000 square-foot facility known as Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif., rap music is blaring through overhead speakers. Under one roof are five basketball courts, a 30-yard football field, areas for recovery, weight lifting, speed training and nutrition among other amenities.

But right now, sweat is dripping to the floor.

Hutchinson and Ekwonu are two of the presumed top-five picks in the 2022 NFL Draft. Mafe is gaining traction as a potential first-round edge rusher.

Alongside the trio are four other prospects, including two of Ekwonu’s North Carolina State teammates, running back Zonovan Knight and receiver Emeka Emezie, Alabama linebacker Chris Allen and UCLA defensive tackle Otito Ogbonnia.

All seven men in this gym are preparing for the biggest test of their lives; the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

Throughout the process, Sports Academy’s Sport Performance Coach Taylor Ramsey is watching alongside a dozen staffers, all while using enough technology to make Silicon Valley blush. Across two months, seconds will be shaved, reps will be added and fortitude tested.

Together, these seven individuals have formed a band of brothers at a place once known to many as Kobe Bryant’s gym, working toward a goal most don’t fully comprehend the difficulty of achieving.

It’s here where the dream of becoming an NFL star will either continue taking root or wither.

And over the next two days, FanSided has an inside look at it all.

Credit: Max Gilberg

Aidan Hutchinson is embracing the work. Lifting weights, working on explosiveness and lateral movement, every drill has its purpose. He’s relentlessly attacking each rep, even if only a few are watching.

One of those few is his father, Chris. In California for a few days during Super Bowl week, the elder Hutchinson looks fit enough to play 20 snaps. A Michigan man himself, he was twice First-Team All-Big Ten in 1991 and ’92 before signing with the Cleveland Browns and Bill Belichick in the summer of ’93. Unfortunately, a bad reaction to a tetanus shot ended his playing days.

Now he’s reliving them, watching his son garner fame by the minute. Later on this Friday, he’ll head to downtown Los Angeles for various business meetings.

Watching practice, Chris Hutchinson is chatting about days which seem like history, but in reality shaped his son. He’s talking about Aidan only starting tackle football in seventh grade, and growing from a 6-foot-1, 155-pound high school freshman to 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds by graduation. Chris remembers the recruitment process, where Aidan’s second choice was Wisconsin, but the interest from Michigan combined with the worry about the Badgers’ defensive scheme fit made the Wolverines his choice.

Chris also remembers the dancing.

Before Aidan was a star prospect destined for the NFL, he was a little boy in Dearborn, Mich., working on his moves alongside his mother (Melissa) and two sisters (Mia, Aria).

“I did a lot of hip-hop dancing when I was younger, like third grade to fifth grade,” Aidan says, after finishing his workout. “Had a lot of fun, my sisters were in it too. It definitely helped me. I don’t know how much now. I mean I’ve got the moves now so it helps me in that area, but it definitely helped me when I was younger transitioning from that to football, having that center of balance and all that good stuff.”

Flash forward a dozen years, and it’s another Shirtless Friday at Sports Academy.

Hutchinson mustn’t mind. He’s ripped at 265 pounds, hustling from one weight lift to the next. Now, it’s 135 pounds heaped on his back for planks, followed by curls and benching the standard Combine test-weight of 225 pounds.

Ramsey is directly over him, holding down a wooden-plank apparatus on his chest with four levels. As Hutchinson churns out reps, Ramsey removes a plank. The idea is to build capacity for the triceps and chest, using a close grip technique. It becomes more difficult with the decreased range of motion, allowing for more effort and ultimately fatigue. A great build-up for the bench press.

All the while, a staffer is behind the bar, spotting Hutchinson. No need, the reps are flying.

After each drill, he goes for his version of a security blanket: a water jug.

Hutchinson is obsessive about this. Looking for him? Find the gallon of distilled water.

And it must be distilled.

“Hard to explain, hard to explain.” Hutchinson chuckled when asked why. “I don’t like drinking the minerals. I get my minerals other ways through electrolytes and stuff like that, so I just like pure H2O.”

The goal is to drink half his body weight in ounces on daily basis. This means 130 ounces, or two short a gallon. If that’s accomplished, it’s one more step towards being his best version.

Essentially the entire NFL Draft world is mocking Hutchinson as a potential No. 1 overall pick. Indianapolis could seal that projection. Having declined the Senior Bowl, this is the first time scouts and general managers have seen him since Michigan lost the Orange Bowl to Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

“I’m so freaking locked in,” Hutchinson said. “Once we get to work in Sports Academy, on the field, I’m 100 percent there and locked in. I have a one-track mindset right now, that’s to run as fast as I can, be as strong as I can. But yeah, I’m just so freaking focused right now and I can’t wait for that Combine.”

Credit: Max Gilberg

Taylor Ramsey is in charge.

Ramsey, 30, has been at the company for four of its six years, seeing the facility change from its current name to Mamba Sports Academy during its partnership with Kobe and then back again after his tragic death. A former Southeast Missouri State defensive end, Ramsey earned an undergrad in exercise physiology and a masters in biomechanics.

At Sports Academy, Ramsey works on an NFL Scouting Combine program which has become increasingly targeted and refined. In 2018, the Thousand Oaks location had 27 players preparing for the draft. Last year, it was 13. This winter, it’s seven.

Due in part to an exclusive partnership with Priority Sports — a Chicago-based agency led by agent Mike McCartney, and partners Jayme Moten, Kenny Zuckerman and Kyle Dolan — Sports Academy is working with fewer new clients but retaining previous ones for the first time. This offseason has seen the returns of such second-year players as Alim McNeill of the Detroit Lions and the Washington Commanders’ Benjamin St-Juste.

Fewer trainees means more individual attention, increasing capacity to improve each player’s performance.

“Working in a small group with a good group of guys, honestly,” said Mafe of what he most enjoys about the training. “It makes everything easier for me. Working where you get specific coaching, one-on-one coaching specific for you. You’re not in a big group of 30 or 40-plus guys.”

The prospects will have been here for two months before going to Indianapolis, hoping to impress front offices.

To do so, they’ll go through a strict eight-week program run by Ramsey. The regimen involves field work five days per week, two days of film, and a day of yoga, taking up five hours throughout each morning and early afternoon.

“Eight weeks is a very short amount of time to get anyone ready for anything,” Ramsey explained. “Especially to increase someone’s speed, increase someone’s strength, or increase their draft stock at all, two months is not a very long time. So we have very specific benchmarks that we look for as we’re going through.”

The weeks all serve a specific purpose.

The first is working with position coaches, watching film and learning the schedule. The following week involves high-stress movements, finishing intake tests and loading up physically. The key is overloading the system early and then tapering toward power and speed, in that order.

Over the first two weeks, guys get slower before their numbers rebound. For example, speed coach Les Spellman’s goal is to shave off .005 seconds on ground contact time with each step, all while working on getting out of stances and into flight phases. While .005 seconds per step seems minimal, it equals two-tenths of a second over a 40-yard dash, something worth millions of dollars at some positions in the NFL.

The third week is critical, ramping up in all phases. In the fourth, a performance valley.

As Ramsey explains it, prospects will go through multiple physical valleys during their build-up for the main event. The goal is to break through a valley and reach peak performance for the Combine, a process that has been honed for years.

The fifth and sixth weeks consist of some players going to the Shrine and Senior Bowls, before returning to work on explosiveness and reactivity. From there, two weeks to make final preparations for the ultimate test.

Throughout the two months, each workout rep is filmed by interns, while velocity trackers are on weights to better understand progress. When the day is done, Ramsey and his team retreat and break down the tape, looking for shin angles, contact points, and certain acceleration and deceleration points for each athlete.

“It’s more of a dance than it is effort,” Ramsey said. “Once we get the dance steps down, once we get the rhythm and coordination, then we can add speed to it. But with these tests, you really want to see the form and the function first, and then start to add the athleticism to it. I’m not just trusting my raw athletic talent to get through these tests, it’s something that needs to come together with the proper steps, the proper technique, the proper timing and the proper progression.”

This week, the NFL Scouting Combine takes place at Lucas Oil Stadium. The NFL world will be watching. Ramsey and his cohorts at Sports Academy will be as well, hoping their hard work results in good times and future clients.

Credit: Max Gilberg

Harvard. Yale. North Carolina State.

Three choices, one unlike the others. For Ickey Ekwonu, two Ivy League offers were tempting. But Power 5 football was calling.

“Funny story is after I got the offer from Yale, my mom basically told me ‘you’re going to go there,'” Ekwonu said. “I was like ‘hold on, mom, let’s wait a little bit, see my options a little bit more.’ One of the main things was the financial aid aspect of it. Obviously, if I have an opportunity to go to a great school and my parents not have to pay, I’m going to take that opportunity.

“I felt like N.C. State had a great business program and that was one of the biggest things I could check off. Just a great school overall and Power 5 football. I wanted that title as well. So all those things factored into my decision.”

For Ekwonu, his first business decision paid off handsomely. After starring in both football and track and field at Providence Day High School — the 320-pounder ran in the 4×1 relay —  the Charlotte native and three-star prospect stayed near home.

Collegiately, Ekwonu dominated the ACC at left tackle, earning unanimous All-American and First-Team All-Conference honors in 2021. In ’20, Ekwonu was named Second-Team All-ACC at both guard and tackle, showcasing the rare ability to excel at two positions.

In three seasons with the Wolfpack, Ekwonu was credited with 154 pancake blocks by his coaching staff, awarded with a bottle of syrup for each week he led N.C. State in them.

Now, the NFL awaits. Seen universally as a likely top-five overall selection, Ekwonu is putting in the work at Thousand Oaks.

Ekonwu’s day starts at 6 a.m. before getting to Sports Academy a half-hour later. After breakfast, it’s speed work before board work and film, followed by positional drilling. On most days, lifting lasts an hour starting at 12:30 before recovery and then, finally, relaxation. Come Sundays, the group goes through cognition and mental work, keeping reflexes on point.

While the two months of training have been a grind, it’s one Ekwonu has embraced. He’s taken a leadership role, helping along fellow N.C. State teammates Knight and Emezie — the former being his longtime roommate in Raleigh — while competing with Hutchinson and Boye to help push the group. For Ekwonu, the process has been rewarding, with an extra benefit through the sweat and exhaustion.

“Just how fun it’s been,” Ekwonu said. “We have a fairly small group of guys here, seven guys, and I feel we’ve grown so much closer over the last couple weeks. Taylor and Sports Academy do such a good job. Obviously it’s hard work and I love that but we are making it fun, making it competitive, making it interesting. Honestly, I’m surprised how much fun I’m having doing these workouts.”

Being at the facility since Jan. 2, Ekwonu has discovered Los Angeles in his downtime. His favorite spot? Melrose Avenue, mostly for shoes. A sneakerhead, he’s always looking, keeping an eye on Air Force Ones, along with the Jordan 4s and 6s. When he’s drafted, a fresh pair of Air Force Ones in his new team’s colors are a priority purchase.

With the Scouting Combine finally here, Ekwonu is ready. The work isn’t done, but his preparation for this moment is.

“I just want to show out,” Ekwonu said. “Do everything I can to leave no doubt on the field. I want to show my athleticism, show guys I can move well for my size. Any doubt in any scouts or any GM’s mind, I just want to erase it all.”

Credit: Max Gilberg

It’s now Saturday. The prospects head to a secret location in West L.A. for a mock Combine. It’s designed to mimic the pace and flow of the real test in Indianapolis.

The main difference? It’s 86 degrees and sunny, not a cloud in the sky.

Riding to the field, it’s a sea of BMWs, Range Rovers and Porsches. Down I-10, there are vines climbing over retaining walls as if they want a better view of the latest freeway traffic jam. Once into a residential area, it becomes the land of selfies at stoplights.

Having arrived, the glitz gives way to grit. Hutchinson wears a shirt reading “Get over your fear of heights.” He also has a black bracelet with white letters stating “Positivity is a mindset.”

The schedule for each of the seven prospects is the same: 40-yard dash, broad jump, 3-cone and 5-10-5. It’ll take roughly an hour and a half to go through the slate.

The athletes couldn’t be more different. Mafe is the height of exuberance and swagger. He’s bopping around, constantly emitting energy. Emezie is quiet and focused. Knight wears his trademark smile, while Ekwonu broods.

Then there’s Hutchinson. After getting dressed and laughing with the guys, he focuses before his first 40-yard dash. In a quiet moment, he’s meditating in the shade, hunched over with his eyes closed, hands clasped and breathing deep.

“It’s something I do a lot,” Hutchinson says after the workout. “Playing football, there’s a lot of expectation, there’s a lot of noise out there and right before I’m about to do something pretty big I just like to calm my mind, recenter myself, refocus myself. Just think about one thing, and that’s the task at hand.”

After everyone runs the 40 and does the broad jump, it’s the 3-cone drill followed by the 5-10-5 to finish. It’s a sweltering 90 minutes, with the only thing in the sky above being the Goodyear blimp.

Once the work is complete, Hutchinson has a final task. He asks a staffer to assist him for another broad jump before working with Ramsey on his 3-cone drill. On a day surrounded by walls and tarps instead of NFL personnel, Hutchinson is making sure everything is just right.

Throughout the afternoon, Mafe put on a show. At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, he’s smooth in his 40. He’s clean through breaks in the 3-cone and the 5-10-5. It appears easy, except of course it isn’t.

“My biggest thing is my technique and shuttles, cuts, focusing on my drills,” Mafe said. “To make it look right. It’s one thing to go out and do it, but to make it look well, and sharp and fine-tuned, that’s my main goal.”

It shows.

As for Knight, it’s a strong day. The running back and return man has goals, ones he sees daily on his mirror and phone. He’s aiming to run in the 4.4 range for his 40-time, after hearing scouts have doubted his speed. On the 5-10-5, he’s aiming for around 3.9 seconds.

“It’s just motivation,” Knight said of his visual reminders. “You put it as your background (on your phone) and see it every day you wake up. It kind of reminds me, doesn’t allow it to fade away in the back of your head. It’s reassurance that you have something to work for.”

This day, it seems possible. Fully healthy, Knight is running well. His cuts are explosive, with rubber pellets flying up from beneath his feet.

During his time with the Wolfpack, Knight had three return scores and finished as the school’s all-time leader in yards per carry (5.5). Yet he’s been mocked as a late-round pick. A lover of binging shows such as Power, Archive 81 and Ozarks, Knight is attempting to re-write his script, looking to prove he’s a top back in this class.

Once everyone is finished for the day, they sit together on a bench in the shade.

“There are no egos here,” Mafe said. “Nobody feels they’re better than anybody, and I feel as if we all have the same common goal and we all want the same things. At the end of the day, we just push each other as hard as we can to get better, and everyday we try to do that with everything we do. If one of us feels that another person isn’t giving their best, or not up to standard, we push each other.”

“I think we all really build each other up,” Hutchinson said after the combine practice. “We have a good group of guys with very good chemistry too. We’re all getting along … it’s a fun group. There are no Michigan guys but I get along with these dudes real well.”

After recovery, it’s time for the trip back to Thousand Oaks.

In the L.A. traffic, it’ll take a while. Plenty of time to have a blast.

Credit: Max Gilberg

Preparations are finished at Sports Academy.

For Hutchinson, Ekwonu, Mafe, Knight, Emezie, Allen and Ogbonnia, the NFL Scouting Combine. After that, their respective Pro Days and finally, on April 28, the Draft in Las Vegas.

In Indianapolis, they’ll go through the paces, shutting between medical evaluations and interviews, two things as important as their on-field performances this week. Unlike the past two months, every movement will be shown on NFL Network, scrutinized and replayed for millions on TV.

Yet it’s the two months so few saw which will define what is about to be seen.

Matt Verderame NFL Editor

Matt Verderame, 33, is a Senior Editor and FanSided's national NFL reporter. Verderame serves as an analyst on the Stacking The Box and Arrowhead Addict Podcasts. He worked previously at SB Nation, covering the NFL and Kansas City Chiefs. Verderame appears regularly on a number of radio outlets, including CBS Sports, FOX Sports Radio, Sirius XM and others. Rudy is the only movie that makes him cry.