LeCharles Bentley still opens lanes

Terrell Suggs spent his offseason outside Phoenix, working at a gym with his private trainer.

As Suggs put in his time, another group of players worked near him. Suggs noticed they were all offensive linemen, as he said, "getting after it."

"I didn't agree with it," the Baltimore Ravens pass-rusher said recently. "I don't agree with offensive linemen getting better."

That group was the membership of a unique but growing fraternity in the NFL. They are the guys who take part in LB O-Line Performance, a year-round program tailored specifically to offensive linemen and run by former NFL lineman LeCharles Bentley, a two-time Pro Bowler.

Suggs said he would wander over to the linemen as they worked to try to discourage them. He left shaking his head at what he saw.

"You don't see offensive linemen training like these guys do," Suggs said. "They do some things that I question I could do."

For Bentley, it's part of a transformation forced by one of the worst cases of staph infection in recent NFL memory. His playing career ended with a brutal and sudden thud, but soon after he found a niche in a business that lacked year-round, position-specific training for some of the most important players on a team. There are clinics and camps for offensive linemen; Bentley's is the first brick-and-mortar facility dedicated to their training, play, health and well-being 12 months a year.

"This is not for everybody," Bentley said of his academy. "It takes an elite-minded individual. Not just a guy who wants to be in the NFL, but a guy who wants to thrive, to make the most of his potential."

Bentley doesn't promise that his clients will become the next Joe Thomas or Walter Jones, but he aims to bring out the very best in each player, and do it through work, nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.

It might sound somewhat obvious, but the results are there. Chance Warmack was the 10th pick in the 2013 draft, but he came to Bentley to get better after his rookie season. Colorado State's Weston Richburg may be the first center taken this year. Geoff Schwartz and Shawn Lauvao went from being undervalued players to landing free-agent contracts worth approximately a combined $34 million this offseason.

"It's been nothing but beneficial for me," Richburg said.

"LB, bar none, for offensive linemen is the best guy out there," Lauvao said.

Schwartz joined Bentley's academy one year ago after two injury-filled seasons.

"This last year was the best year I've ever had," he said. "I'm much stronger, and normally my elbows really hurt from 'punching.' I didn't have any elbow pain all last year. There's no doubt he's the reason I've got this contract [four years, $16.8 million with the New York Giants]. It's not even the weightlifting part of it. It's the whole lifestyle program."

The staph infection that cost Bentley his dream of playing for his hometown Cleveland Browns -- he signed a six-year, $36 million contract with $12.5 million guaranteed but never played in a game for the Browns -- led him to study recovery, the body and performance, which in turn led to him to traveling throughout the United States and Europe to gain knowledge, then to opening the O-Line academy in a suburb west of Cleveland.

He moved it to Scottsdale, Arizona, in November 2013 and, recently, to a 20,000-square-foot facility in Chandler, Arizona, with Nike as a primary corporate sponsor.

Bentley brings a unique combination. He understands what it takes to play at a Pro Bowl level in the NFL, and he understands the mechanics of training and nutrition. He tries to take a holistic approach to helping players succeed. He is a certified strength-and-conditioning coach, certified sports nutritionist and certified strength therapist.

"Ninety percent of it came from my experience of dealing with my knee injury," Bentley said. "I was so hungry to get myself better that I had a guise into the world of performance.

"Many people didn't want to touch me. A lot of folks didn't want to deal with it. It was such an awkward situation, considering the magnitude of the contract and the severity of the injury.

"A lot of my recovery was left to my own devices. I had to get better on my own or sit back and forget about football."

Bentley grew up in inner-city Cleveland and played successfully at Ohio State. He spent four seasons with the New Orleans Saints before signing with the Browns in March 2006. At 26, he should have been entering his prime years.

But on the first play of the first team drill of the first day of his first training camp with Cleveland, Bentley stepped and collapsed, his left knee mangled. He had torn his patellar tendon.

He had surgery to repair the tendon but developed a staph infection that ate away at the repaired tissue. More surgery was needed, more antibiotic flushes. At one point, the extreme was presented to him -- that he might lose his left leg.

Bentley persevered, but when he announced a scholarship in his mother's name at his alma mater (St. Ignatius High School) the following spring, he met the media and could barely stand for 10 minutes to talk without becoming sweaty and shaky. When the interview ended, he sat back down, an intravenous line still in his arm to feed antibiotics to fight the staph.

Bentley tried to come back but eventually asked for his release. He could write volumes about his time with the Browns, but a settlement that followed his lawsuit against the team keeps him from discussing what he went through, and he says he doesn't want to. He's turned the page and happy about it.

"I'm not getting into all that," Bentley said. "There was no connection with the team, and that was OK at the time. It allowed me to grow and develop into what I am today."

His attention turned to life after football. He tried working in media as a pointed and direct radio talk-show host -- perhaps too pointed for some. All along, he pursued the idea of training offensive linemen, and in 2008 he opened a 6,500-square foot facility in a strip mall in Avon, Ohio. He dubbed it the first of its kind dedicated solely to developing offensive linemen year-round, with training and offseason and in-season video work and scouting.

"It was a wide-open niche, a wide-open market," he said. "I knew it needed to be filled. As I was leaving the game, I saw how the game itself was changing. Defensive players were becoming bigger, faster and stronger. Offensive linemen were becoming faster, but not necessarily stronger or more skilled. You might say they were getting fatter."

His training is focused on developing specific muscle groups. Bentley said he watched as positions on the offensive line went from being ones that included players who could pull, trap and move to a group of heavy guys who would muck and mash.

Defensive players, meanwhile, became more and more athletic, quick and sculpted.

"I remember lining up and looking across the line and seeing Julius Peppers," Bentley said. "His uniform was painted on. I would think, 'I'm supposed to block that guy?'"

That attitude drives his training. He sees players train for combines and tests, but he realizes they don't train for playing offensive line. "Offensive line is the last position anyone really cares about until you have to care about it," he said.

One of his first "projects" was San Francisco 49ers guard Alex Boone, a talented player from Ohio State who candidly admits he was drinking himself out of the league.

"He was downtrodden," Bentley said.

The two had a heart-to-heart, and Bentley told Boone he had to re-establish himself, that he would help him step by step, but that Boone had to commit. After spending 2009 on San Francisco's practice squad, Boone followed Bentley's plan: Be a backup for a year, start, then make the Pro Bowl (he was an alternate last season, though many thought he deserved to be in Hawaii).

Boone started attending Alcoholics Anonymous before he started working with Bentley, but he was 325 pounds and not in football shape when he arrived at the academy. He now is a "leaner" 300 pounds and has started every game the past two seasons for one of the best teams in the league.

"If I had to create a player in terms of what I believe, or used to be, that's Alex Boone," Bentley said. "He has superseded my expectations in his development as a man and a player."

Bentley now trains 50 NFL linemen, including Larry Warford (the Pro Football Focus Rookie of the Year), Warmack, Lane Johnson, Jeff Allen, Boone, Schwartz and Donald Stephenson.

Bentley also finds and trains a select number of draftable players, and this offseason he is concentrating on centers.

Bentley does no advertising, often finding players through referrals. If a player reaches out to him on his own, the player goes through a lengthy interview and film study with Bentley to see if he should join. Bentley doesn't accept everyone, but he has high expectations -- and demands -- when he takes someone.

"I'm not looking for volume; I'm looking for quality," he said. "I tell the guys all the time: They don't produce a lot of Rolls Royces, but they make a whole lot of Toyotas every year."

Players come to the academy after the season and stay until organized team activities begin with their respective squads. They return after the last minicamp and stay through training camp. The commitment is strong -- Bentley says "buy-in" is vital -- with the entire emphasis on body composition, to "create as much muscle mass as possible while losing as much fat as possible."

Bentley doesn't want to give away too many secrets, but among the position-specific workouts is one described by Richburg and Schwartz in which individual players pushed a Ford F-150 truck with Bentley driving and occasionally tapping the brake.

The point was to develop hip explosion, which is vital for linemen.

"Everything you do is with a purpose," Schwartz said. "Hip explosion. The punch. Working on the core."

Bentley has had players flip tractor tires to strengthen the lower back and drag tires chained around their waists while in a crouched position.

He also feeds his players, usually several small meals per day. All are nutritionally sound, designed to fuel the engine and make it run more efficiently.

"Every guy's is different," Richburg said. "If one guy needs to eat more than somebody else, they do. He changes up diets due to different body composition. If you need more carbs, he'll feed you more. If you need none, you'll be on a no-carb diet."

Said Bentley: "It's beyond what you eat, though. It's healthier eating and living. It's how you sleep, your after-hour activities, how you recover."

Bentley does not have a set arrival time for his charges. Instead, he'll text a player the night before with his time, which could be 6 a.m., or it could be 10. If a player arrives late, he doesn't work out.

"You don't show up at your facility 15 minutes late or call your position coach and say you're running late," Bentley said.

If it happens too often, the player is sent on his way.

"It's learning what it is to be a pro," Lauvao said, "instead of just looking at it."

Players say they notice a difference, quickly.

"Definitely," Schwartz said. "I have a much stronger core base."

"There's no doubt," Richburg said. "I noticed a difference in strength real quick. His nutrition has done wonders for my strength and body composition. I could tell an improvement just at the Senior Bowl."

Bentley is quick to say he is not trying to teach any player something different than what his coaching staff wants. Bentley has a good relationship with the league's offensive-line coaches and says he's not competing with strength coaches or position coaches, instead supplementing what they do. If a coach teaches a technique differently than the way Bentley did it as a player, his goal is to make sure the player does it as efficiently as he can.

"I don't want anybody's job in the NFL," he said. "I've been offered jobs, and I don't want them. I want to make and develop the best possible players, so when a player goes back, it's easier for the strength coach and offensive-line coach."

Big things are expected in Detroit from Warford, who weighed 343 pounds when he played at Kentucky. Warford joined O-Line Performance after last season, and Bentley has focused on redistributing Warford's weight. He now weighs 330. Bentley described him "genetically" as a sports car in a dump truck's frame, a guy who needed the layers removed to bring out the performance.

Then came the technical side. The summer before Warford's rookie season, Bentley and Lions offensive-line coach Jeremiah Washburn texted frequently about getting Warford to shorten his first step in order to keep his body balanced better.

"We did notice a big change in him when he came back in training camp as far as his attitude, body," Washburn said last September. "Spending those however many weeks in Arizona with LeCharles made a big difference."

The regular season, Bentley said, is when things get really busy. It's then that he watches video of his players, provides scouting reports, breakdowns and insight into the next opponent.

"Details, pass set, footwork, hand placement," Lauvao said.

His players help each other, too, providing feedback on opponents they've faced.

"Let's be real," Bentley said. "The offensive-line coaches have a tough job. They manage not just five starters in-season, but they have to manage and develop five other guys. They have to break down film and get ready with game plans for the upcoming week while trying to make sure the right guard's foot is in the proper position. That's not easy.

"What I'm doing is I'm providing a service to not just the player, but potentially the coach."

It's difficult to think that someone could come up with something that hadn't yet been tried in the modern NFL. But until Bentley, nobody had done something on a 12-month basis specifically and solely for offensive linemen.

"There has to be a shift in the thinking and process of developing the big athlete," he said. "It happened with defensive linemen. Why can't it happen with offensive linemen?"

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter Michael Rothstein contributed to this report.