The game of football is faster than ever. As offenses have powered up and more emphasis has been placed on spreading defenses, the difference between making or missing a play often comes down to a footrace. And you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who can keep up with J.J. Nelson.
Nelson is the wide receiver and kick returner out of UAB who ran a blistering 4.28 40-Yard Dash at the NFL Combine. No other player at this year's Combine cracked the 4.30 mark. Heading into the Draft, Nelson was projected as a possible UDFA. But the Arizona Cardinals snatched him up in the 5th round, realizing a player with his skillset can be a difference maker.
Nelson's shoe-smoking speed was developed in part by R.J. Barrett, a performance instructor at the Madison Healthplex Performance Center. Prior to the NFL Combine, Barrett worked with Nelson and a small group of prospects (including Ole Miss DB Senquez Golson, who was selected in the second round) to refine their skills. STACK caught up with Nelson and Barrett to get some tips on building supersonic speed.
1. Stay on your Feet
Barrett believes that to become a faster and more athletic player, your training has to reflect what you do on the field. Many machine-based exercises put your body in odd situations, such as sitting or lying down, which you (hopefully) won't find yourself in come game time. Barrett believes in ground-based training and exercises that require you to stay on your feet.
"We play on our feet and we train on our feet," Barrett says. "I'm not a big machine guy. You've got to be able to move on your feet, stay on your feet, balance on your feet . . . Being on your feet allows you to work on triple extension."
Triple extension refers to simultaneously extending your hips, knees and ankles. The more explosively you can get into triple extension, the better athlete you'll be. "Triple extension is vital to every stage of running. It's the core of being able to run. If you can't apply your hips, knees and ankles to say, a Power Clean, you can't run faster," Barrett says.
Barrett believes Box Jumps are a great exercise for increasing speed. "Box Jumps teach you triple extension, deceleration and explosiveness—which are all the things you need to have in running. You can tell a lot about how an athlete runs by watching him jump," Barrett says. It should come as no surprise, then, that Nelson excelled in both the Vertical Jump and the Broad Jump at the Combine, jumping distances of 36 and 127 inches, respectively.
2. Get Faster by Getting Flexible
Increasing your flexibility is a surefire way to increase your speed. The more flexible you are, the more natural your running motion will become. Barrett finds many fast players who come into his facility aren't initially all that flexible.
"I find a lot of fast guys are really tight when they come in," Barrett says. "Their hamstrings are tight and things like that. But then when you take those guys and help them get more flexible, they get even faster."
Whether you're naturally fast or someone who has to work hard to increase his speed, becoming more flexible is a fast track for progress.
3. Start Strong
For the 40-Yard Dash, the stance, start and initial 10 yards are of the utmost importance. Nail them and you'll give yourself a great shot at an excellent time. In the weeks leading up to the Combine, Nelson worked on the first 10 yards of his 40 more than anything else. He says, "First, you've got to find the right stance. Then, you've got to really understand the fundamentals of those first 10 yards. Knowing how to come out of your stance and explode into that start is huge."
If you're prepping for a 40-Yard Dash, heed Nelson's advice. Spend a lot of time focusing on those first 10 yards, since that's where technique plays the biggest role. Use a band to practice coming out of your stance against resistance to help you build explosiveness.
4. Strength is Speed
A lot of people believe speed is built by running sprints. And though they do play a role, the quickest path to fleet feet runs through in the weight room. By getting stronger, you'll be able to exert more force into the ground when you run—which makes you faster.
"Squats, Lunges, Power Cleans—all of that stuff helps a lot. That's where you get your strength. That's how you build explosiveness," Nelson says.
When Nelson first came to Barrett, his strength was somewhat lacking. "He needed more hip strength. So we did lateral movement stuff to get him stronger there. Crossover Lunges and Lateral Lunges," Barrett says. His improved hip strength helped Nelson increase his lower-body power and cut down his time. "He was moving more efficiently and getting to his top speed quicker."
In particular, Barrett says athletes looking to get faster should focus on bar speed. "Jump shrugging, squatting, snatching, cleaning—those are all about bar speed. Move the weight fast," Barrett says. "I'm a big believer in full-range-of-motion Squats with light weight and high reps. That helps you develop fast twitch muscle fiber."
5. The More Sports the Better
Nelson credits his amazing wheels in part to his multi-sport career in high school. He believes playing different sports helped his body develop a wide-range of skills, which helped him not only become faster, but develop into a better all-around player.
"Basketball really helped me with my lateral quickness and moving side to side," Nelson says. "Track helped me with straight line speed and running straight ahead. Football speed combines both of those."
Playing multiple sports can also make you a much more attractive recruit to college coaches.
6. Pure Speed is Nothing Without Skill
It's important to remember that pure speed can only take you so far. Nelson's remarkable speed has certainly helped him become a more effective football player, but he wouldn't be where he is today without having developed his other skills. In high school, Nelson was pretty much a track star playing football. But in college, he learned that he was going to need more than just raw speed to be an impact player.
"I'm not just a track guy who plays football. I really focused on catching, route-running, creating separation—the little things. My coaches helped me a lot with it, and I made an effort to go out on my own and put in extra work on that stuff," Nelson says. The combination of speed and skill is what turns someone fast into a star player.
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