About this series: Over the next two months, I'll be chatting weekly with Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly and chronicling his preparation for April's NFL draft. This is the second installment. Click here for the first part.
Luke Kuechly's alarm goes off at 6 a.m.
That's about 90 minutes earlier than he was used to in the fall as a junior at Boston College.
Depending on the day, there may be a snooze, or even two, but then it's time to go to work.
As has been the case since Jan. 9, that means a detailed regimen at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which aims to get Kuechly prepared for every single aspect of the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis (Feb. 22-28).re
The combine is frequently referred to as a job fair for NFL prospects. They're asked to strip down to their underwear in front of a roomful of strangers, who jot down their measurements and scrutinize their physiques. They're poked and prodded by doctors, who examine each and every health concern and body part. And they're asked a variety of questions, some of which test their football knowledge, while others tend to get more personal.
"With the importance placed on the combine, you better have the right training," said former quarterback and 2001 fourth-round pick Chris Weinke, who directs IMG's football-related activities. "Success comes from the preparation. It's important that we prepare them by giving them the answers to the test before they take the test."
No detail is left to chance during the training period. The campus is set up so prospects never have to leave. After Kuechly gets out of bed in what he describes as condo-style living quarters, it's time for breakfast.
When he first got to Florida, Kuechly headed to Publix, a nearby grocery store, with his agent, Ryan Fodor, and IMG's nutritionist, Stephanie Wilson. The goal was to come up with an eating plan for Kuechly and educate him on which foods to buy - the right peanut butter, the right bread, nuts, snacks and so on.
"The way I explain it to them is if you eat like this for 12 weeks, it could make or break whether you get a $12 million contract, a $1 million contract or no contract at all," Wilson said. "I was pleasantly surprised with Luke’s eating habits. It sounds like his mom did a good job shopping for him in the past and knowing which foods to buy. You probably get three or four [prospects] who already eat well, but for the rest, it can be really, really bad."
The breakfast is buffet-style, but each prospect has a specific menu planned out, specific to his goals. Kuechly’s first meal consists of eggs, potatoes, fruit and toast. According to Wilson, Kuechly aimed to put on eight to 10 pounds from the time he got to Florida to when he left for the combine. Kuechly said he’s currently very close to his goal weight of 240 pounds.
Following breakfast and a warm-up session, the first part of training focuses on the 40-yard dash.
"The last time I ran a 40 was my junior year in high school," Kuechly said. "I don’t even remember what my time was."
The training session focuses on proper form and technique with speed and movement coach Loren Seagrave, who has worked with football players and Olympians over the years.
Kuechly is not ready to disclose his target time just yet. Last year, Illinois' Martez Wilson, a third-round pick by the Saints, ran the fastest time among linebackers, clocking in at 4.49 seconds.
"We’re going to go through the second round of testing, so we'll see where it puts me," Kuechly said. "I'll get a baseline, see where I'm at and just try to improve."
The rest of the morning is spent on plyometrics, footwork drills and football-specific drills. Other tests in Indianapolis include the three-cone drill and the shuttle run.
"You've got to make sure that every step you take is the right step, that the steps are perfect," Kuechly said. "Put your body in position to be explosive. You can't be slow getting the steps down."
Essentially, Kuechly runs through a mini-combine on a daily basis. And he’s not alone. While there are currently 30 prospects training at IMG Academy, there are 300-plus training around the country. The combine presents a series of predictable tests. It's the job of agents, trainers, coaches and advisers to make sure there are no surprises, that the prospects know exactly what they’re being asked to do when the spotlight's on them.
There's football-related work too - both on the field and in the film room. The focus is first on getting ready for the combine, with the long-term goal of having a successful NFL career.
After lunch, which on this particular day consisted of flank steak, rice, salad and yogurt, Kuechly heads to the weight room for a 90-minute lifting session.
The first goal is to get stronger overall (Kuechly said he's not focused on a specific area and alternates between upper and lower body workouts). The other is again focused on the combine, where prospects are asked to bench 225 pounds as many times as they can. Ohio State's Ross Homan, a sixth-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings, led all linebackers with 32 reps in 2011.
After a period of recovery in the cold tub, it's back to the room to shower and get ready for dinner. Each night, Kuechly fills out a checklist with what he wants for lunch and dinner the following day. The meals, with specific portion sizes and caloric details listed, are waiting for him when he arrives to eat.
Kuechly gets back to his room around 7:30 and turns on the TV to unwind, even if there's nothing on.
"I'm a big Dexter guy," he said. "I've got to find it on the Internet or get someone’s NetFlix password. I think I'm two seasons in. I watched a lot in the summer before the season and need to get back into it."
The lights turn off around 9:30.
Eight and a half hours later, it's time to hit snooze, and then do it all over again.