How Penn State dominated pre-draft workouts

Can Barkley live up to the hype? (0:52)

Saquon Barkley is expected to go near the top of the 2018 draft and match the production of big-name RBs who have been drafted early before him. (0:52)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The NFL pre-draft process isn't the time for consensus building. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a single prospect to soften the skeptical eyes of pro personnel evaluators.

Much less a group of prospects.

Much less a group of prospects from one university.

But three weeks from the draft, no contingent of college teammates has made a stronger case than the one from Penn State. It started in Florida, days after a PlayStation Fiesta Bowl victory over Washington that cemented PSU's second consecutive 11-win season, as Lions draft hopefuls began training at spots around the state. It continued as Penn State "won" the NFL scouting combine with 13 medals -- players who finished first, second or third in events at their respective positions -- the most of any school. The magical week in Indianapolis included dominance from Mike Gesicki and Saquon Barkley, NFL Network shout-outs for strength and conditioning chief Dwight Galt, and Deion Sanders trying to find the words to describe Troy Apke's speed.

Penn State's pre-draft showcase ended back on campus March 20, as players built or augmented their draft profiles at pro day.

After producing just one draft pick in 2017 -- wide receiver Chris Godwin, a third-round selection -- Penn State is poised for a larger and glitzier output.

"We've got some very talented, talented people," cornerback Grant Haley said. "Everyone was talented coming into college, but now with the help of coach [James] Franklin and the defensive staff, offensive staff, especially Coach Galt and the weight-room staff, we were able to take that to the next level. The whole program is changing, not just the football aspect, but beyond football.

"The testing efforts have really been impressive."

Like all victories in football, Penn State's combine triumph doesn't stem only from the toil of recent months, but rather years. Apke remembers his first series of workouts with Galt in 2014.

"The first day we got in there as freshmen, we tested well," said Apke, whose combine 40-yard dash time of 4.34 seconds was the best among safeties by six one-hundreths of a second. "With Coach Galt, we pushed through a lot of stuff, a lot of work. We knew we were going to test well. We trained really hard the last four years."

Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton started his Penn State career in 2013, when the program was still processing the historic NCAA sanctions handed down the previous summer. Hamilton thinks the sanctions created "a whole different type of work ethic" on the roster.

In January 2014, Penn State hired Franklin. The new coach brought in Galt, who had been Franklin's strength coach at Vanderbilt following a lengthy run at Maryland, where he trained eventual first-round draft picks Vernon Davis and Shawne Merriman.

"Big Deeg, he's done a great job," said Hamilton, who ran a 4.52 in the 40 at Penn State's pro day after competing in other events at the combine and performing well at both the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game. "He transformed me. Some guys usually hit their peaks by their second or third year, but at least with me, he's helped me get stronger every single year. He's helped me get faster and quicker."

Penn State's combine performance wouldn't have popped nationally without big performances from its draft headliners. While Barkley fell short of his personal expectations, he still led running backs in the vertical jump (41 inches), tied for the lead in bench-press reps (29) and finished second in the 40-yard dash (4.40 seconds). Gesicki nearly swept the events for tight ends, finishing first in the vertical jump (41.5 inches), broad jump (10 feet, 9 inches), three-cone drill (6.76 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.10 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (11.33 seconds), tying for first in the 40 (4.54 seconds) and finishing second in the bench press (22 reps, one behind the leader).

After a solid on-field workout at pro day, Gesicki put himself in the first-round conversation as one of the top four draftable tight ends. He called the pre-draft period "a dream come true."

"The main goal with Mike was don't mess him up," said Russ Orr, a performance manager at EXOS training, who coached Gesicki during his draft prep. "We saw the potential he had walking through the door. Mike had some lofty goals to run very, very fast for his position. For him, it was learning proper start technique, proper running technique. How do we put him in the best position to express his speed and athleticism?"

Gesicki, a standout volleyball and basketball player in high school, had the leaping ability to excel in the vertical and the broad jumps, especially when he learned explosive jumping from a set position. He had produced on the field, both for Penn State (129 catches for 1,481 yards) and in the Senior Bowl, but faced doubts about his 40 -- "Definitely the money drill," Orr said -- because of his long strides (he measured 6-foot-5 at the combine). At EXOS, Gesicki spent extra time reviewing video of finishing a sprint at top speed, and delivered in Indianapolis.

"Some people were not expecting me to run that 4.54," he said. "But I know my speed and my abilities and all that kind of stuff. In that aspect of it, I was able to open up some eyes."

Barkley had the eyes of the NFL all season. He didn't need a huge combine to become a top pick. Yet Barkley, who would later declare himself "not a combine guy," showed up ready to work when he arrived at Tom Shaw Performance in Orlando.

A shoulder sprain in the Fiesta Bowl delayed his lifting until mid-January, and he didn't rep-out at 225 pounds until about a month before the combine. His first lift: 27 repetitions. In mid-February, Barkley ran a 4.29 in the 40, so his actual combine time, despite impressing others, came as a bit of a disappointment.

"The only person I can compare him to physically as impressive is Khalil Mack," said Shaw Performance coach Bert Whigham, who also worked with Mack, the No. 5 overall selection in 2014 who has made three Pro Bowls as a linebacker with the Raiders. "And he's going to work harder to be the best version of himself. You come across very few of those kinds of people in life.

Penn State safety Marcus Allen trained alongside Barkley at Shaw Performance. He worked to get leaner and to release tension in his hips so he would be more explosive in the 40.

The result: 4.59 seconds at PSU's pro day.

"In six weeks, he turned from having a little bit of a tire around his waist to shredded," Whigham said. "It was awesome. Those guys don't live by comparison. They're trying to max out their ability. That's how you put up arguably the best combine performance of all-time in Saquon, and that's how you broad-jump a 10.7 for Marcus at 215 [pounds], and you vertical 37 inches, and then you run a 4.59 on your pro day."

Combine trainers who worked with Penn State players described them as strong natural athletes who thrived in the school's developmental program and entered the pre-draft process with no entitlement. "I'm not taking anything away from any other team, but those guys are unbelievable," said Orr, who also worked with wide receiver Saaed Blacknall, who clocked a 4.39 in the 40 at pro day, and linebacker Jason Cabinda.

"They obviously have a high standard for performance," said Brian Stamper, a Tom Shaw performance coach. "It's not like they're having to dig down and draw out the ability to finish and do things the right way and do them well. It's innate. This is what I need to do. There's no other way to do it. That's the biggest thing I see consistently around there."

While satisfied with the players' pre-draft performance, neither Franklin nor Galt seemed the least bit surprised. Sitting in his office flanking Penn State's cavernous weight room, where players' lifting and speed records line a wall stretching up to an extra-high ceiling, Galt said, "They see the numbers all the time on the board. So it's a collateral positive to what's happening in the combine."

"For us, we kind of knew," Franklin added. "Every year our guys that go to the combine test pretty much like we say they're going to test. Chris Godwin, no one agreed with us -- everybody thought he wasn't going to run that fast, and he did. And all of the guys we've had at Vanderbilt and here who have gone to the combine have pretty much tested exactly the way we said they would, which is good because we know the way we're doing it is consistent."

How Penn State's pre-draft blitz translates in Dallas remains to be seen. Barkley's name will be called, perhaps first overall, and Gesicki's shortly thereafter. Penn State will eclipse last year's output. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.

But the praise Penn State has received during a notoriously nitpicky process should have an impact on the program for years to come.

"We've set a standard that everybody's going to have to try and match; everybody's going to try and exceed that," Hamilton said. "If they do, then they're obviously on the right pace."