This is what we’ve always been striving for. To get back to a position where we feel we belong.” Del Conte, Texas Christian athletic director
NEW ORLEANS — Even as the south Louisiana heat pushes 100 degrees, some high school and college athletes are pushing themselves beyond the norm to prepare themselves for their upcoming seasons.
Dozens of athletes, including several from LSU and Southern, are working with personal trainers in the New Orleans area on top of the work they’re doing on campus.
A trio of Tigers — wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and James Wright and tackle Chris Davenport — and Jaguars receiver Charles Hawkins were working inside and outside Friday afternoon with trainer Wyatt Harris at Sonic Boom in Jefferson. A day earlier, Southern defensive end Kadeem Lewis was working with Duke Rousse at The Duke Academy in Kenner.
These workouts and others have become a ritual in the time between organized team workouts in the spring and the start of fall practice.
Beckham, Wright and Davenport work out at LSU from Monday through Friday, finishing the week with an early morning weight-lifting session in Baton Rouge before heading to New Orleans to work with Harris on Friday afternoon, Saturday and Sunday. Davenport, who’s from Mansfield, has a place to stay on the weekends because Beckham is from New Orleans and Wright is from Belle Chasse.
“I’m just taking more measures to make myself better as a player,” Davenport said during a brief break Friday. “I had surgery four months ago, because I tore the meniscus in my right knee. It’s an extra benefit toward therapy to get my knee back in shape, because I didn’t do much during the spring, so it’s giving me a chance to get better as a player.”
Both trainers focus on improving quickness and explosiveness and tailor workouts that are position specific.
“The quickness is what we focus on with me as an offensive lineman, how fast can I beat the guy across from me, because I know the cadence and the guy across from me doesn’t,” Davenport said. “If I can beat him off the snap of the ball, that puts me in a better position to open holes for running backs or pass protection for the quarterback. It’s all about quickness and footwork for me.”
Harris put Davenport through lateral footwork drills to sharpen the coordination between his hands and feet in a blocking position.
He said Beckham, who was the Tigers’ second-leading receiver as a freshman last season, has the potential to be a prized pupil. That’s a strong statement from a guy who has worked with Marques Colston of the New Orleans Saints and former Saints receiver Robert Meachem, among countless others.
Beckham obviously got Harris’ attention when Beckham called him a few hours after the Tigers’ 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship game in January.
“He called me at 4:11 a.m. and said, “I’m ready to start working. I can’t sleep,” Harris recalled. “I’ve never had a guy who’s so indomitable. I love it. He’s making me a much better trainer.”
Harris, a Southern alum, said he considers it an insult when he’s pigeon-holed as a strength and conditioning coach. He focuses on improving speed, strength and quickness in a way that’s functional during a football game.
“You hear that some people are strong in the weight room,” he said. “I don’t really care about that. I just want a guy to have functional strength. Some guys run fast, but don’t have functional speed. I’d rather have functional speed.”
Beckham and Wright, who will be a junior, are pushing each other at a position that will be a key to LSU’s success in the fall. With the early departure of leading receiver Rueben Randle to the NFL and a greater emphasis on the passing game with skillful Zach Mettenberger taking over at quarterback, there are opportunities for a bunch of receivers to grab an expanded role.
“It helps to have another receiver here, because he’s pushing me and I’m pushing him and we both want to be the best,” Beckham said. “But that being said, we both just push each other.”
This could be a pivotal season for Wright, who will be a junior competing against a host of younger, talented receivers.
“We’re getting better together. We’re getting closer,” Wright said of he and Beckham. “We know each other, and it helps in the flow of the offense.
“I’m stronger, I run faster, I’m more explosive. Me and Odell want to separate ourselves from everybody else. There’s a lot of good people out there. We have a close group of receivers, and it’s a family atmosphere. We’re all competitive, and we’re driving each other.”
Hawkins, a junior from St. Augustine, has been a student of Harris’ since 2007 and has developed functional speed, but it was his actual speed of 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash that caught scout’s attention at Southern’s junior day in the spring.
“Wyatt teaches us not to be fast all the time on the field, because he always said you can’t run 4.2 on the field,” Hawkins said. “He said you have to look sudden and look quick. He just worked on me getting quicker with my feet and my hands, getting my shoulders around and getting my eyes on the ball.”
Hawkins missed five games last season because of a concussion and a high ankle sprain, and Lewis was hampered by high sprains to both ankles though he played in every game. Lewis, who played at Grace King, is working with Rousse for the second consecutive summer.
“He helped me a lot last summer,” Lewis said. “My speed and everything got a lot better. I got tougher. I know that, and I’m here this summer to do it again. I like working out with him, because he’s going to push you regardless.
“If you’re tired, he’s going to make you go even more. I like that.”
Rousse said “it’s awesome” that his NFL clients such as Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, former Saints safety Darren Sharper, and former LSU safety Craig Steltz (Chicago Bears) embrace working with younger players.
“When it comes time to go to (preseason) camp, you’re ready,” Lewis said.
“I want to go to the pros, and in order to go to the pros, you’ve got to work.”
Rousse is also working with LSU running backs Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard and has worked with Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant and Detroit Pistons forward Greg Monroe, who’s from Marrero. One of his newer clients is current St. Aug star Craig Victor, who’s one of the most sought-after high school basketball players in the country as he prepares to begin his junior season.
“Regardless of what sport they play, everybody has the same goal — to jump higher and run faster,” Rousse said. “If you can run and jump, you can play anywhere in America. But the training is also very sport-specific and position-specific.”
Victor, who got his first recruiting letter from Baylor when he was in eighth grade, is on virtually every major basketball program’s program radar. He was at an AAU game in Arkansas recently when newly hired LSU assistant Robert Kirby, who had been recruiting him for Georgetown, walked into the gym wearing LSU garb, accompanied by new Tigers head coach Johnny Jones.
“I liked coach Jones and his staff,” Victor said. “I’m going to be looking to see what they do as a program this year. I’m going to be watching a lot of college basketball next season.”
A lot of recruiters and scouts will be watching the players who are going the extra mile this summer.
“I’m just trying to be great every day that I come here,” Beckham said.
“The work at LSU is for the whole team. This is where you get you extra work in, your individual time that you put in to get better results. I’m really just coming here to get better results and be seen up here instead of right there.”
He raised his hand from his chest to the top of his head.