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Tony Villani and XPE Sports: Behind the NFL Combine

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Part 1 of 2

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

First and foremost, I want to again thank Tony Villani for graciously taking the time to talk to us. Tony is a Clemson graduate, but he is the absolute best in the business. Last year Tony shared with us how he helped Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony train for the draft and eventually land in the first round. This year I asked Mr. Villani to explain more about his process and the work he has done on current pro prospects like Charone Peake as well as past Clemson players who return to train with him.

A bit of background before launching in and letting Mr. Villani speak for himself. Tony Villani is a Clemson grad with an MA in Exercise Physiology from George Washington University. He worked for various professional sports organizations like the Wizards and the Orlando Magic before creating XPE, Inc., which is now based in South Florida. He has a seriously impressive list of clients such as Jamal Lewis, Anquan Boldin, Usi Umenyoria, Hines Ward, Cris Carter, etc, etc.

First I asked Tony to give us an overview of strength and conditioning as well as his methods at XPE Sports. He explained how combine training is a bit different from other forms of training and what sets XPE apart from the rest:

"Strength and Conditioning" is exactly that. It is normally building strength in an athlete with weight training and conditioning an athlete by running and drills specific to their sport.  What we have to do when we train an athlete for the NFL Combine to prepare for the NFL Draft is much different.  "Strength and Conditioning" main focuses are team building, athletic performance, and injury prevention (in my estimation and I know it goes much deeper).  "NFL Combine Training" focuses more on speed (and can we say SPEED again), power, and agility for the specific tests at the NFL Combine.  On top of the testing day at the NFL Combine, which is the last of 4 days, we must also prepare athletes for the interviews with teams, medical evaluations, psychological tests, etc.

I really found the last line interesting--training for the combine includes training for the barrage of tests and interviews that try to overwhelm athletes at the combine. Some coaches and scouts really want to see how players hold up under the psychological strain. Then, after all the poking and prodding mentally and physically, you have to go and perform at your absolute best.

Next I asked Tony about the Clemson players he is currently training and the kinds of gains those players make with XPE. He also gave us some insight into the problems with becoming a 'veteran' in the modern NFL:

Right now training for the NFL Off-Season, we have DBs Byron Maxwell, Marcus Gilchrist, and Coty Sensabaugh here training.  All trained with us for the NFL Combine and have come back every off-season.  I am really proud of all three of these guys, because it is extremely rare to make it to years 5-7 in the NFL these days.  What the public doesn't realize is you make more in year 5 of the NFL that you make your entire years 1-4 (a very long in depth topic). Because of this, NFL teams would rather draft a new player and pay him less than pay a NFL "veteran" (yes a "veteran" in the NFL is year 5).  So for Byron and Marcus to trust me from NFL Combine to years 5 and beyond and become and remain starters in the NFL is special.  They were not the "high" ranked guys in their draft class from Clemson in 2011, but they have definitely been the most successful in the NFL.  Coty is one year behind them and hopefully up next as his free agency year is now coming up...his year 5.

We did this interview last week and today it was announced that Coty signed a 3-year deal with the Rams for 15 million (with incentives to potentially push it to 19 million). Certainly these three players remaining with Tony is a testament to his training methods not only for the Combine but for regular NFL training.

I asked Tony to tell us specifically about his training of Charone Peake who just ran a blistering 4.3 range 40 at his Clemson Pro Day.

We trained Charone Peake for the NFL Combine this year.  Because of the National Championship Game, and him understandably taking a week off after the game, he got started at least 2 weeks later than the majority of the other NFL Combine Athletes.  When he came in and tested, he pre-tested very well, but then got a SR Bowl invite and missed another week.  We then had 3 weeks to prepare him for the NFL Combine.  I don't want to sound like going to the SR Bowl was a bad thing.  Myself, him, and is agent Jay Courie discussed it.  We knew he would miss another valuable week of training, along with coming back tired from a week of practices and a game.  But we concluded to go and make it worth it.  And he did.  He came out of the SR Bowl with a much better draft projection.  He was able to work with Hall of Fame WR Cris Carter and current NFL All-Pro Anquan Boldin on refining his WR skills, but the credit for him doing so well at the SR Bowl goes directly to Charone.

Because of the limited time for his NFL Combine training, our goals were 4.3s at Indy.  Now it is up to debate what he ran at the NFL Combine as all teams had him in the high 4.3s but the "official" time by an outside timing source televised by NFL Network (what the general public does not know) had him at 4.45 (tied for 5th overall).  Still a solid time.  But because we know Charone can run 4.3s very easily and confidently, we decided he should run again at the Clemson Pro Day.  It paid off as he ran all times in the 4.3s and showed the scouts again that he possesses great size and speed.

This is some serious insight into the overall combine process. You really have these different stages with the pre-combine (including things like the SR Bowl with training), combine, and post-combine (Pro days) training (I read recently that the word 'combine' actually comes from all the teams being combined in one place, so they just used the shortened combine from combination/combined--strange).

There was definitely controversy at the combine with the WR numbers being slower than normal (also shows the NFL Networks power to shape perceptions). It is disappointing to hear that Peake should have been one of the fastest players in the entire draft if the numbers had been correct (also makes Mack shutting down Will Fuller even more impressive than it already is), but he was again impressive at the Pro Day.

We end Part 1 with another question about specifically training Clemson athletes. I asked him given the limited amount of time to train a player specifically for the combine--how did you take the work done at Clemson and augment the training?

After being in this "NFL Combine Business" for over 15 years now, I can truly say (not being a "Clemson Grad Homer") that I love getting the "new athlete" Clemson has been developing.  You can tell their recruiting AND development of their athletes has improved tremendously the past 3-5 years.  I am speaking specifically in the athletic ability and how they are prepared MENTALLY post-college.  Their strength program is great, and for NFL Combine, we don't have that much time to build strength.  We hope the strength base is already there and then we are able to unleash it and create speed and power gains in a very limited time.  If the athlete is not prepared physically or mentally when they get to us, it is an uphill battle.  Charone, like many of the other Clemson athletes that have come here, was very mentally and physically prepared before our training started.

I think this is another great recruiting point. We have seen better recruiting the past 3-5 years, but it has been coupled with improved gains in S&C. I think Chad Morris definitely deserves more credit than he gets because with the move to an uptempo HUNH offense (and here I give credit to Coach Swinney for having the vision to move the program in this direction) we saw a change in mentality. Practices moved faster and conditioning in the program improved. Then you add in the additional staff hires for S&C and Coach Batson being open to adding the latest in training techniques. Tony saying that the strength program at Clemson right now is great is a big deal and isn't hyperbole. Recruiting and S&C have improved over the past 3-5 years. I can't argue with that.

I said this last year and I will say it again--I hope this shows you just how impressive XPE Sports truly is and how important it is for Clemson athletes(apologies if I sound like an infomercial but I'm blown away). Better performances in the combine mean better draft position and standing for Clemson, especially in recruiting. You can follow Tony Villani on Twitter and Instagram @TonyVillani_XPE or check out the website at www.xpesportsacademy.com.

Thanks again to Tony Villani and XPE Sports for taking the time (Part  2 comes tomorrow).