Gerhart readies for coming draft

April 5, 2010, 12:40 a.m.
Running back and Heisman finalist Toby Gerhart took a leave of absence for winter quarter to undergo rigorous training in preparation for the NFL combine, working to improve his straight-line speed and receiving skills. (Courtesy of Mike Lee/Daily Trojan)

Toby Gerhart declared for the NFL Draft in early January. Since then, his life has been a whirlwind of workouts, medical testing, interviews and drills. From training six days a week in Irvine, Calif., to performing in front of a legion of scouts, coaches and front office personnel at the Combine, Gerhart has been in full preparation mode for months. He’s aware of the stakes – impressing NFL staffs, and thus solidifying an early round status, could mean a difference of millions of dollars. And so he works.

No one can dispute Gerhart’s success at the collegiate level. The 2009 Heisman runner-up ran for 3,522 yards and 43 touchdowns in his career. He started for two full seasons. The numbers are eye-opening, but production alone does not a good NFL prospect make. The offseason leading up to the draft provides an avenue for teams to evaluate a player’s athleticism and character, which, along with amateur accomplishment, helps them project future success.

“Everyone said I had the intangibles, the background, the intelligence in terms of understanding the game, and great tape,” Gerhart said. “I had years of tape where I ran for a lot of yards and a lot of touchdowns, but then there are certain measurables, between the 40 [yard dash] and my official height and weight and vertical, that matter, too.”

Before doing all of the requisite drills at the meat market known as the NFL Combine, the perception of Gerhart was that he was a good but not great athlete who may be a step slow and too one-dimensional for the next level. His draft status fluctuated anywhere from the late first round to the fourth. He was viewed as a fullback and not a running back. With so much riding on his performances in group and individual workouts, Gerhart took a leave of absence from Stanford for winter quarter, dropped off the baseball team and moved south to train at the Velocity Sports Performance Center. There, he spent hours per day on his lateral and linear speed, cone work, pass catching, interview tactics, play diagramming and so on.

“It was just straight training. I liked that. I didn’t have to worry about school, I didn’t have to worry about anything else, I was just 100 percent into training,” he said.

There were two areas of his game that required particular attention: his straight-line speed and receiving abilities. He was generally seen as a bruiser that did not have a terrible amount of quickness; such players rarely find extensive success at running back at the next level. Additionally, he did not catch too many balls at Stanford<\p>–<\p>it was rarely a large part of the Cardinal game plan during his career<\p>–<\p>so teams did not have a good read on whether or not he could be a force in the passing game. Lastly, there was a medical question: Gerhart tore his ACL as a sophomore and was forced to miss practically the entire season, and any lingering effects could damage his draft stock.

And so Gerhart trained, then he trained some more. For the first time in his life, he was focusing solely on football<\p>–<\p>instead of dropping weight to become a better baseball player, he was able to instead work on crafting his body to NFL specifications.

“I spent the day working out. I was in the best shape of my life. In terms of body fat, speed, everything was going nicely,” Gerhart said of his time in Irvine.

Then came the Combine in late February, where Gerhart was able to show off his abilities. Medically, his knee checked out<\p>–<\p>his MRIs and x-rays were examined by doctors from every team. His weigh-in produced no surprises: 6-foot-0, 231 pounds, just about where he was listed as a Cardinal. But that was simply the calm before the storm: the drills were ultimately what mattered, and Gerhart excelled.

“We started out with the vertical [jump], and that went really well. Then there was the broad [jump], and that went pretty well,” he said. “Then we got down to the 40 and for me, everything was riding on the 40. I was confident.”

“You finish your 40 and you have no idea what you’ve ran. They don’t tell you your time,” he continued. “I checked my cell phone to see if anyone was texting me. One of my roommates from Stanford just posted “Hell yeah!” as a text message so I thought, ‘Well, it must have been pretty good.’”

Indeed, it was: he ran a 4.53 in the event, a very fast time for a man his size. With one run, he had answered a wealth of questions. When he performed flawlessly in receiving drills, it was the icing on the cake to what was seen, uniformly, as an excellent Combine performance.

“I got a lot of positive feedback,” Gerhart said. “I didn’t see the television broadcast, but my parents said they were expecting me to run mid to high 4.6s, so by running a 4.53 it opened a lot of people’s eyes and showed I was much faster than people thought. It solidified my draft stock a little more, and it solidified me playing running back at the next level.”

Post Combine, Gerhart begin individual workouts. The New York Jets flew their running backs coach out to put him through drills last week; he will have a similar meeting with the Denver Broncos this week. He has already flown out to meet the San Diego Chargers, and will visit the facilities of the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles.

“It’s exciting, but it’s also crazy. You talk to teams and you may get a good feeling from them, but then they don’t draft you, and a team you never talked to is someone who picks you,” he said.

The draft is less than three weeks away. For now, Gerhart has established himself as a late first to mid second round prospect. He’s back at Stanford to finish his final 13 units; he’ll graduate on time in June. He’ll be at home on draft weekend, surrounded by friends and family.

“I think we’re going to have fun and enjoy the process and wait for a phone call. Hopefully it comes earlier rather than later and we can celebrate.”

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