By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Eddie Royal arrived at the Athletes' Performance at the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze, Fla., shortly after his career as a Virginia Tech wide receiver concluded in January. He was intent on unleashing the same frenzied work ethic he employed while playing for the Hokies. Alongside several other draft prospects -- including teammates D.J. Parker, Vince Hall and Chris Ellis -- Royal pushed as hard as he could: more weight, more repetitions, more everything.
As Royal attacked the initial workouts, though, something odd happened, something Royal had never considered.
"I found people telling me I was doing too much work," Royal said.
This weekend, Virginia Tech may surpass its school record from 2006 of nine players chosen in one draft, led by possible first-round cornerback Brandon Flowers. While Flowers leads the pack, none of the Hokies solidified his draft standing this offseason more than Royal, who is from Herndon and won a high school state championship at Westfield his senior season.
Royal's sterling performance at the NFL combine, mixed with the appeal of being one of the elite return specialists in the draft, probably will allow him to hear his name called before the third round ends.
Royal entered the winter facing questions. At Virginia Tech, he had played with Josh Morgan, Justin Harper and Josh Hyman for four years, a balanced wide receiving corps that prevented any one player from producing eye-catching statistics. Talent evaluators wondered if Royal, at 5 feet 10 and 182 pounds, could stand up to the pounding NFL cornerbacks deliver at the line of scrimmage.
The first test came at the Senior Bowl, where Royal impressed scouts by fending off press coverage by some of the country's best cornerbacks. Then, at the NFL combine in February, Royal set himself apart. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds, fifth among wide receivers. ("And he told me he could run a little better than he showed," Westfield Coach Tom Verbanic said.) He registered a 36-inch vertical leap, sixth best among receivers. And he bench pressed 225 pounds 24 times, best among wide receivers.
"I know I shocked a lot of guys at the combine," Royal said. "I take pride in that."
He forged the performance at the Athletes' Performance center in Florida, where he adapted to a new kind of training. Under strength coach Mike Gentry at Virginia Tech, Royal's focus was adding strength and size for the field. He approached weightlifting with the same zest he applied to most everything.
Royal would set up small, orange cones on a practice field by himself, then sprint around them to perfect his pass patterns. He would try to squeeze advice out of everyone -- he often chatted with Denie Marie, a facilities manager who once worked with wide receivers. As a freshman, even as his star quickly rose, Royal was shy around reporters. By his senior season, he became one of the most loquacious players on the team.
"He really cared about what people thought about him," Hokies trainer Mike Goforth said. "He was a very conscientious guy. He wanted to get better at everything."
At Athletes' Performance, that meant a mentality change. His program centered on him peaking for the combine, like a sprinter preparing for a race. Becoming a better football player became somewhat secondary to acing the combine drills.
Royal tweaked his running form and improved his flexibility, but he did so in a new way -- rather than pushing harder, his performance coaches emphasized technique. For example, Royal would perform 10 sprints before arriving at the facility. His coaches made him run six instead, but while using superior form. Rather than simply strive for more raw speed, Royal honed each part of his technique, no matter how minute. He launched out of the blocks quicker, then he made the transition to sprinting at top speed more seamless and more powerful.
"Eddie knows what he can do," said Andy Barnett, one of Royal's coaches in Florida. "He understands his capabilities. The thing I liked about him was that he was calm and not necessarily calculating. He knew how far he'd gone with his speed and his agility, and I think he knew he hadn't reached his full capability yet. You'd see him processing it -- 'I can see what they're saying, and I can see how it's going to help me.' "
Royal and his teammates adopted other new habits. The center's nutritional requirements called for changes in their diet -- white rice and white bread would be replaced with brown rice and wheat bread. The players even dabbled in yoga.
"It's not for me," Royal said. "It was just a little bit awkward."
Said Ellis, with a chuckle: "I actually enjoyed it. Eddie's a little stiff. He's fast, but he's stiff."
But, ultimately, it worked. With the questions hovering over him answered, Royal could emphasize what may be his most alluring asset -- his explosive ability returning punts and kickoffs. NFL teams are searching for the next Devin Hester or Josh Cribbs, a jitterbug return man who can change a game at a moment's notice. Royal believes he can be a similar force.
"It's definitely going to help me," Royal said. "Rookie receivers tend to struggle. I feel like I'll be able to come and help right away. The first game of the season, I should be able to play the opening kickoff. I feel like a team would be getting an instant contributor."
Ever since Hester burst into the NFL with a league-record six return touchdowns as a rookie, Royal watched film and studied how Hester set up his blocks and accelerated through open lanes. Royal once faced Hester, when the current Chicago Bears return ace played cornerback at Miami and Royal was a freshman. He hasn't met Hester since, but Royal said he hopes to eventually sit and chat with the player he studies most.
"All the little things that I do, I want to know if he's having the same thoughts," Royal said. "That's part of being a professional. If you want to be the best, you got to find out what the best are doing."
And, Royal now knows, that sometimes means doing less.