It wasn’t the rigorous workouts inside the 31,000-square-foot sports facility with music reverberating off the warehouse-like walls that shook their senses.
It was a trek down the aisles of the nearby Vons in north San Diego County that grabbed the attention of Arik Armstead and Shaq Thompson.
The longtime pals from Sacramento who are here chasing their NFL draft dreams, took separate trips to the supermarket with the fiercest instructor at EXOS, a nationally renowned company that works with athletes from around the globe who want to better condition their minds and bodies. Recently, 31 NFL prospects spent six weeks at EXOS to prepare for this week’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Armstead and Thompson, defensive stalwarts at Oregon and Washington, respectively, left the supermarket with great appreciation for the instructor nicknamed “Jill Mama.”
Both say they’ll remember her stern, nurturing voice when they push a cart hastily past the processed food aisles from here on out.
Jill Olson is a performance dietitian who attended Marysville High School and UC Davis, a jovial sort to a point. Athletes love to eat, acknowledged Olson, who she swam in college and indulged in guilty eating pleasures. But for those who will soon use their body to earn a livelihood – such as blocking and tackling – Olson said she can’t emphasize enough the adage: “You are what you eat.”
“Avoid the bad stuff because it’s everywhere, and I know it tastes good, but you can’t have it,” Olson said to a crew of linemen, including Armstead, an attentive pupil standing 6-foot-8 and 295 pounds. The defensive lineman from Pleasant Grove High School admitted to blindly gulping down his share of junk food – who doesn’t like a trip to the drive-thru? – but now sees what he’s been doing to his body after the shopping trip with Olson.
Olson said applesauce is good and high-sodium products are bad. Tofu is fine, but too much Gatorade is not (too sugary, she said, so water it down). She chuckles knowing that adults often take better care of their cars, mindful of what they put in the gas tank and engine, than they do their own bodies.
“It’s all on you, guys,” she said, pointing, scolding, correcting and even pulling a box of crackers out of one of the linemen’s mitts. “Read the labels. Take care of yourselves. Avoid processed foods. Go whole foods. And no sweets.”
A lineman asked: “How about Pop-Tarts every now and then?”
“No,” she said.
“How about one Pop-Tart?”
While watching Thompson lift weights afterward, Olson said: “We want these guys to think of themselves as a high-performance car. Don’t put junk into it because you need the best performance. We can’t sugarcoat it with these guys.”
The message appears to have reached Armstead and Thompson, who both said they learned more about their bodies and what to put into them than they could have imagined. During his Carlsbad stay, Armstead joined his older brother, Armond, who played at USC and in the Canadian Football League, for a Del Taco run. Armond chowed down. Kid brother passed.
“I was strong,” Armstead joked. “I know it’s on me, how I eat, what I eat. No one is telling me what to do, how to eat. No one is holding my hand. I’m a man now. I need this body. It’s my future.”
Said Thompson, “Your body is everything. In college, it’s different. You eat what you want. No one listens to a nutritionist, but now you have to. My mom won’t believe it, but I’m eating vegetables now.”
Pillars of success
Within the walls of EXOS, everyone is in shorts and T-shirts, but this isn’t recess – it’s work.
Clients come to have their workouts streamlined, to have their injury history examined and to learn training skills to avoid breakdowns. The athletes are challenged like never before, including whiteboard meetings on everything from playing technique to dealing with the media.
The workouts start shortly after 8 each morning and conclude in the evening. Athletes gulp down prepared nutritional drinks, with the smiling, approving Olson nearby. EXOS is rooted in a four-pillar foundation: mindset, movement, nutrition, and rest and recovery. The goal is to emerge better, stronger and wiser for the experience.
For draft prospects like Armstead and Thompson, EXOS prepares its clients for the NFL combine and the impending 40-yard dash, shuttle runs, three-cone drills, broad and high jumps, and the 225-pound bench press. Since opening in 1999, EXOS has trained 105 eventual first-round picks and 523 total draftees.
Armstead and Thompson are projected first-rounders. A good showing at the combine and they can soar on draft boards. A poor effort can sink them.
“We work them hard here and then they take it from there,” said EXOS strength coach Brent Callaway.
Said Armstead: “I’ve learned a lot, and it’s a strenuous process. A lot of attention to detail. I want to get as strong as I can, as ready as I can, for the combine. More strength translates into more explosive movement, which helps me in drills and testing at the combine. I’ve enjoyed it.”
Said Thompson: “Knowing the beating and pounding we’ll take in the NFL, this is a good start to getting your body ready. I’m just getting better in everything I do to reach my peak. You want to have that good day at the combine.”
The combine includes a burst of speed in the 40-yard dash. A prospect can solidify his status or lose it by a fraction of a second.
Armstead’s best time in the 40 is 4.8 seconds, remarkable considering his size. It’s the first 10 yards of the dash that especially intrigues scouts as Armstead won’t have to travel 40 yards to get to a ball carrier. It might just be 5 yards.
“I’m trying to shoot in that (4.8) range again in the 40,” Armstead said. “If I can do that, then I’m good. Really good.”
Thompson’s best 40 is 4.52. He wants to go faster.
“I want a 4.4,” Thompson said. “There’s a big difference between a 4.5 and a 4.4.”
Versatility will serve both athletes well. Armstead can play defensive end or defensive tackle. He is light on his feet and strong.
One NFL general manager told NFL.com: “Armstead is extremely gifted. He has first-round talent, no doubt. He’s a 6-foot-8, 290-pound freak.”
Thompson won the Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player. He played safety, linebacker, running back and on special teams at Washington. He led the country with four defensive touchdowns and he rushed for 456 yards in limited duty with an average of 7.5 yards per carry.
One NFL scout told The Bee that Thompson is “a freak athlete, very gifted.”
Said another: “Amazing versatility, spectacular athlete, a great nose for the ball and big plays. But where to put him? He’s a gifted runner, too.”
Neither scout wanted to be identified since they did not have permission from their teams to speak on their behalf.
Wonders of Wonderlic
Armstead and Thompson have taken several practice Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Tests, IQ exams that are staples of the combine. The tests measure a player’s ability to think, solve problems in a hurry and follow instructions. There are 50 questions and a player gets 12 minutes to answer them. How does it tie into football? NFL executives deem the Wonderlic a gauge to see if a player can understand a playbook, his assignments on the field and make quick decisions.
The Wonderlic is a common test for those seeking any number of jobs in this country, only the NFL combine lets it play out much more publicly.
One previous Wonderlic question: The hours of daylight and darkness in September are nearest equal to the hours of daylight and darkness in:
“Some of the questions can be weird,” Thompson said, laughing. “No one coaches you up. It’s all you.”
Said Armstead, “I think it’s designed to confuse your mind. It’s a different kind of test. If you slow down and take your time, you’ll be fine. I’m good with it. I’m ready. I can’t wait for the next challenge.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.
This is the second story in a continuing series chronicling Sacramento’s Shaq Thompson and Arik Armstead as they prepare for the NFL draft.