LOS ANGELES — The Oregon Ducks came as close as they could to the number-one BCS ranking, and two of the primary reasons for the team’s success in 2012 were running back Kenjon Barner and defensive end/linebacker Dion Jordan. Barner ran for 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns on 278 carries for the Ducks in the 2012 season, adding 256 yards and two scores in 20 receptions for good measure. Jordan amassed 44 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 5.0 sacks for an Oregon defense that’s better than most people realize. Impressive players at the collegiate level, to be sure, but each prospect enters the NFL draft process with serious questions about their size, and how well they’ll be able to adapt to potential every-down roles in the pros.
Barner played at 5-foot-11 and 192 pounds (officially if not actually) in 2012, and some scouts wonder if he’ll be able to pass block when he wasn’t asked to do so in Chip Kelly’s high-octane offense. There are also concerns about his ability to break contact consistently, and whether the majority of his longer runs came as a result of the fact that opposing defenses were forced to spread out against Kelly’s wide formations, and exhausted by the tempo he set.
Jordan was recruited as a tight end, but made the switch to defense before the 2010 season. He has all the explosiveness and pure speed you could ask of a pure-pass-rusher, but at 6-foot-6, and an official playing weight of 243 pounds (which was closer to 230 on the field), Jordan could fall short against NFL blockers if he doesn’t spend the pre-draft process getting bigger the right way.
Both Barner and Jordan have come to Travelle Gaines’ Athletic Gaines gym in West Hollywood to fill in the blanks. They’re both preparing for next week’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and working on specific aspects of their physique to accentuate the positive characteristics that showed up so frequently on their college tape — especially in that specific All-Star environment.
Gaines has Jordan on an multi-meal-per-day plan, though the regimen is tightly controlled from a nutritional perspective. “As soon as we’re done working out, he’ll have a post-recovery shake, and a banana, and peanut butter,” Gaines said on Tuesday morning from the field at Fairfax High School. “After his rehab session, he’ll have snack number 2, which is a peanut butter protein shake. Then, Lunch A at noon, a workout at 1:30, and then he’ll have Lunch B at 3:00. Post-workout recovery again, snack at 5:00 p.m., an ‘A’ at 6:00, and a ‘B’ at 8:00, and a peanut-butter protein shake at 10:00 p.m.”
That may sound appealing to most foodies — sportswriters in particular can get behind the whole “Lunch A and Lunch B” idea — but as Gaines said, the plan here is to get Jordan up to 250 pounds by the scouting combine in late February without robbing him of any of the things — specifically speed and explosiveness — that make him special. Gaines said that Jordan has put on seven pounds since he arrived at the training facility, which puts him at 234, and the idea is to gain four pounds per week.
“I don’t know how he played football at 226 pounds,” Gaines told me. “But [increasing weight while retaining speed] is easy, because the stronger he gets, the faster he’ll get. Right now, he’s really lean, and we’ll keep his lean muscle mass. He’s not going to be bulky — he’ll still be fluid and he’ll be faster than before, because he’ll have more lean muscle, and he’ll really be able to move.”
Jordan has also added a specific MMA-related program with Jay Glazer and Chuck Liddell of MMA Athletics. Glazer, who has trained football players for years in MMA tactics when he’s not breaking news for FOX Sports, started working with Gaines to help round out the skill sets of players at the NFL level. Helping draft prospects out — especially players such as Jordan and Barner, who need help with on-field leverage — is very much the same thing.
“With Dion, leverage works against him, because of the way he’s built, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t correct it and teach him leverage,” Glazer told me. “I mean, Jared Allen’s taller than him, but that guy gets low. When we first got him, he didn’t — he would stand straight up. We’ve done a ton of Greco-Roman pummeling, just so he can understand how the human body works. I’ll lock up with these guys, and go over and under, and these guys should be able to toss me all over. We’ve worked to get him to drop his base, lover his levels, and get his hips under me. So, even though he’s about 6-foot-7, he was able to get his hips as low as mine after a couple of days.”
As he does with many pass-rushers, Glazer is also teaching Jordan how to attack blockers with hammer-fist techniques, as opposed to simply engaging.
“He’s always been taught to slap a lineman’s hands away. My thing is, is you can slap, you can also strike. Why would you not want to make it a bad day on that guy’s forearms?”
Barner is also learning leverage — starting with pass-blocking, which the NFL will require him to do as Oregon didn’t. While Gaines is trying to get Barner to 200 pounds by the scouting combine from his most recent actual weight of 182 pounds, there are other principles that must be employed if Barner is to show the NFL a new level of functional strength, starting at the Senior Bowl next week.
To that end, Barner has been working with former Dallas Cowboys offensive line coach Tony Wise, who is showing some of Gaines’ players the fine points of blocking as he specifically tutors former Oregon offensive lineman Kyle Long — son of Howie, and brother of Chris. Wise was chosen to do so on the recommendation of Jimmy Johnson, who works with Long and Glazer at FOX Sports.
“Now, he’s going to get into possibly a more conventional offense,” Wise said of Barner. Barner has been learning protections from Wise, and leverage — that word again — from Glazer. Barner was doing resistance-band work, opening his hips, and repeating kicks against a large “wrecking ball” hanging from the ceiling. The idea here is to increase Barner’s ability to generate power and explosiveness after first contact — always a point of concern for smaller backs.
“We have him doing strikes, and I’m pulling at him like a linebacker would pull at his waist,” Glazer said. “He has to step through and strike that wrecking ball with me pulling at him at different angles. So, we’re teaching his explosion through the hole, and then, we’re teaching him how to keep exploding through when somebody’s on him. He’s doing that for 7-10 seconds at a time on the field, and we have him doing three straight minutes of that at a time.”
The ultimate goal with all these different drills, as Glazer put it, is to make football easy in comparison to this training.
Just a few days in, both players are seeing the benefits.
“I feel that they do a good job here, just understanding leverage and how to control your body weight,” Jordan said. “It’s a lot of little things, just to make sure that we keep the technique — as far as being explosive and doing what we used to do at school.”
Jordan said that he wants the NFL to see him as an every-down defender, no matter who drafts him or where they line him up. That’s a good mindset for a player who did everything at the NCAA level from putting his hand down off the edge, to trailing slot receivers in coverage.
Similarly, Barner is very aware that some teams may aspire to put him in a “situational” box, and he’s doing everything he can to bust out of it.
“it’s a mindset,” he said. “If you have the mindset of, ‘I’m touched, I’m hit, and that’s the end of it…’ In my mind, breaking tackles and yards after contact is kind of like going through life. You’re going to get hit with situations, but it’s how you respond after you get hit.”
So far, Barner and Jordan have responded with genuine intent to improve in response to any perception that they may not be ready for prime time. The Senior Bowl will tell the next tale.