Speed Trainer Brent Callaway on What Makes Brandin Cooks Such a Game-Breaking Talent

New Orleans rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks is so good he not only has some Saints fans believing the team is bound for the Super Bowl but also has apparently convinced Drew Brees to hang on into his 40s. Sammy Watkins is still getting most of the headlines this preseason but Cooks is coming off a monster year at Oregon State where he put up 128 receptions, 1,730 yards, and 16 touchdowns. He has as good a chance as any rookie of making an impact this year.

Before the NFL Combine – where he broke records, set marks, and even ran a 4.31 40-yard dash – Cooks trained with EXOS and performance coach Brent Callaway. Callaway helped teach him the finer points about speed.

We recently caught up with Callaway to talk about how he helped develop speed for Cooks, as well as fellow first-rounders Jason Verrett and Blake Bortles.

*** *** ***

How does your training differ on the calendar?
Brent Callaway: Athletes coming out and getting ready for the Combine, they have a very specific regimen in order to improve. Those guys are preparing to run a 40-yard dash, which is really the only time it’s ever going to happen for them in their careers, at the Combine. We have to teach them basically how to run a 40-yard dash. A starting position, how to apply a track and field start with football cleats on an artificial turf. It’s a little bit different ballgame there for those guys than it would be for an NFL vet.

Once they get through the Combine and you have guys going through the vet program, it’s in a different capacity. You have athletes who are already fast and already at the professional level. You’re looking at movement patterns and the biomechanics of how they are actually functioning so you can keep them healthy as long as possible. You’re watching them run. You’re watching angles of joints, angles at the ankle, angles at the knees and hips and the position of their body so they are transferring power into the ground very well. There’s a little bit of a sports science and biomechanics aspect to it.

Once you have all of that lined up with the proper firing pattern and position, then that’s when we add some power behind it. We go through push or pull sled work, resistant running. You add sport-specific movements into sprint. We try to tie it together better for them so that it’s not just linear speed because the game of football is not just linear speed. There’s a lot of lateral movement, a lot of moving around opponents and moving in space. We have to work on multi-directional movement as well. Then taking that and not only applying to football but also to the position to the athlete and a little deeper to the position that athlete is used in. The Eagles run a higher tempo offense so if we have an athlete that plays for Philadelphia, we have to adapt to that for those systems.

Whenever we’re out on the field, all of those things are brought together to get those guys ready for camp to be healthy as possible and be prepared for the rigors of training camp.

Then during the season, your really just trying to maintain what they have and keep them healthy. The NFL season is a rigorously long season. You’re looking at 16 weeks, plus your preseason and postseason so you end up with a big chunk of time. At the NFL level, when they’re not playing most of the time is going to be spent inside at meetings, seated positions. Because you’re in those positions for a long period of time, things start to tighten up like low backs and hip flexors. We’re always encouraging athletes to stay as mobile as possible and as fresh as possible.

There’s a lot more recovery time dedicated in there for those athletes to try to keep athletes as healthy as they can be so they can focus on football rather than focusing too much on adding speed during that point in their season.

Once the postseason happens, they usually take a little bit of a break to clear their minds and then they come back to start the process over again.

How much coordination is there between you and the teams when you’re dealing with a particularly athlete?
BC: It’s based completely on the relationship and the openness of the team and stuff that’s there. Some staffs are extremely open and very helpful so that we can talk about what they want to see when an athlete comes back to them. And then there are some that a little bit more protective. We’re not getting that info first-hand, so then we have to go back and study the athlete, study how that team functions. We ask questions to the athlete because we are getting a lot more information from them directly and then apply that into a training process.

If there’s a team that shares information very well, it’s easy to call them and ask what are some of the things they noticed during the season that you want him to improve on when he returns back to you. From a conditioning standpoint, what type of preseason testing will you be going through so I can prepare the athlete for those? How will this athlete be used tactically that’s maybe different from another system that’s standard protocol for a wideout or tackle. What do your strategies look like so we can add in some specificity in that category? You get a little bit of info there that you can play with and some reporting back to the team so they know they’re getting an athlete back in a healthy good state of awareness.

You’ll have a lot more correspondence if you have an injured athlete. If you have someone coming off a pulled hamstring, knee injury or back injury, usually you have quite a bit more correspondence rather than with someone who is healthy.

Who are the best athletes that you’ve trained?
BC: There’s quite a few of them. From a longevity standpoint, not only from a physical standpoint but culturally, one of the best guys I’ve been around is Terence Newman. I think he’s going into year 12 and he’s played at a high level for a long time, for Cincinnati now. To go with that, he’s just a great person. He’s in his mid-30s and can still fly and stay with any receiver in the game. He’s a great athlete.

I’ve had Jordan Cameron, who made his first Pro Bowl last year. He has a great combination of size and speed and had the benefit of playing a little basketball in college too, so he moves really well and again a great person that you get to work with over time.

Coming out this year, we had three first-round picks that I worked with getting ready for this season. Brandin Cooks, who scored his first touchdown of his career recently for the New Orleans Saints. There was Blake Bortles, who is playing well this offseason. And then Jason Verrett, who’s a first-round pick of the Chargers coming off shoulder surgery that he had after his Pro Day and Combine. He’s just working on getting healthy. Brandin and Jason both run sub-4.4 40s and absolutely crushed the NFL Combine from a position standpoint. I think Brandin was the best of the entire combine in two or three of the tests. In some of the agility drills, he was absolutely flying. He is a fantastic athlete that can play the position really well. Those are just yes sir, no sir-type guys, intelligent people who just understand the game and where they need to be all the time and that’s why they’re going to be successful at the next level.

Brent Callaway

There are a lot of good athletes out there but good people, as well, and that’s what you need to make it to the next level. There are thousands of fantastic athletes in the world. But being a fantastic athlete and then being able to dedicate your time and your career to your craft, and then be a great person and a great teammate and a great working professional is what gets those guys to be able to excel and play for a long time and take it off the charts at the next level. It’s not just about athleticism. There are a lot of other things that go into that.

What stands out about Brandin and other super-fast athletes?
BC: The first thing you notice about very fast athletes is that, number one, they are very reactive. When they decide to hit the “go” button, it works. They can push the “go” button and get out of the hole quickly, get downfield quickly.

With someone like Brandin, you have an athlete who is very strong and has great range of motion. He has very good stride length, which helps out as well. We have guys that we call fast-twitch guys. They can function with very high-stride frequency and at the same time they are putting a lot of power into the ground, which is why they can cover so much ground and do it quickly. He’s a very strong athlete.

Jason Verrett is of the same build. You have guys that are just under 200 pounds and very, very strong. When you’re talking about squatting weight, front-squatting weight, trap bar deadlifting weight, you’re talking about guys who are very strong in picking up 400 or 500 pounds. Just very strong guys.

There’s another guy I work with name Jeff Janis, who flies more underneath the radar because he played at a small school called Saginaw Valley State. You’re looking at a guy there who’s 6-2, 6-3 who’s right around 225 and he unofficially ran a sub-4.4. Officially I think they got him at a low 4.4. You have a big athlete who’s fast there. He’s a strong guy, one of the strongest squatters that we had in our whole camp and that includes offensive and defense linemen. Strength goes along with speed very, very well and so does mobility and flexibility. Those two things play hand-in-hand very well. There are quite a number of components that someone needs to be fast. Mobility is one of them. Strength is another one. Plyometric ability, with reactivity – when you decide to jump, you need a lot of reactivity to jump with. You get that through jump training and plyometrics. Mental capacity so your body actually sends signals through your nervous system very, very well, and then also stability so your body functions as a tightly-knit unit when it needs to.

You conduct and transfer power very well. It’s the difference between a wooden bat in baseball and an aluminum one. You can hit the ball a lot further with an aluminum bat and it’s the same thing with the human body. When your torso and your shoulders and your hips are all very strong and working well together, you transfer energy through your body more appropriately and thus you get better return on your strength levels, so whenever you put down in the ground you actually run faster because you’re stronger. All fast athletes have those components.

What’s something that you worked with Brandin on that most people would be surprised at?
BC: The amount of time that those guys spend learning how to eat proper foods, learning the nutritional component of the game and spending time doing soft tissue work. Foam rolling is a major component of what we have to do to prepare their body for the training. There are multiple levels here. You have the training itself where you’re breaking down tissue in order to get better, and then you also have the preparation periods for that. The flexibility, mobility, self-massage work that has to be done is a daily process and quite intense there as well, and then the nutrition part trumps all. If you’re not eating well, your training results are much less. You can’t train as hard and you get less results from your training. You lose on two fronts there. Those guys spend a lot of time with nutritional education, as well as taking in the right foods and planning their meals accordingly.

How much of speed is truly genetics and how much is hard work?
BC: Both absolutely play into effect. The foundational level of speed that someone has comes from genetics, and then what you do with your body over time gives you the ability to realize that potential and exceed certain levels of genetic possibilities that you have. We’re a training facility so the athletes come to us for short stints, even though our longest training period is three months. It would be foolish of us when we’re getting ready for the NFL Combine to take 100 percent credit for how fast an athlete runs, especially when they’re coming out of a collegiate strength and conditioning program and before that a high school strength and conditioning program and people who have built very strong levels of foundational strength with those athletes and laid some speed mechanics with them as well.

Brandin came out of a great program at Oregon State so over the years that he was at Oregon State. He became faster there because of the great programs that their strength and conditioning program laid down for him. All we were doing was putting the finishing touches on things, polishing things up, making him pay attention to the drills that he was going to go through at the NFL Combine.

To answer your question, genetics lays down the foundation and then your long-term training process paints the big picture. Then whenever you’re going to get ready for testing or a season with some specific speed applications, then that’s where you’re seeking out a specialist that can really just dedicate time for that. That’s where we can come in and put the finishing touches on the icing of the cake.

When we get athletes, it’s like a NASCAR pit crew. You already got a great body that the car is running with. You already have strong horsepower there, and you’re just trying to make small tweaks there so you can make five, six or seven percent gain on these things that the athletes are going to be tested on by the NFL. Cleaning that portion up is really what we do here.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney