Kye Heck doesn’t sugarcoat it when explaining to his athletes the odds they must overcome.
“1.6 percent of NCAA college football players go on to play in the NFL - 1.6,” said Heck, director of Accelerate Performance Enhancement Center in Tyler. “So we tell the guys, ‘Those of you who are in this room, if any of you make it, it will only be one.’ We are quite honest with them because it is a grind.
“When you think about it, we are talking hundreds of seconds, tenths of seconds and a few inches could the difference between getting millions of dollars or having a 9-to-5 job.”
East Texas natives Patrick Mahomes, Fred Ross, Tyus Bowser and Greg Ward have a strong chance to be a part of that 1.6 percent. All four of them participated in the invitation-only NFL Scouting Combine held earlier this month in Indianapolis.
But what about the guys who weren’t invited?
Someone like Stephen F. Austin receiver Justice Liggins, a John Tyler graduate, who torched Texas Tech last season for 80 yards on 10 catches and a touchdown.
Or Dalton Santos, a Van graduate who went to Texas as the No. 1 linebacker recruit in the country before injuries slowed him and he finished out his career at Louisiana Tech, totaling 47 tackles as a senior.
What about Will Coleman, a Robert E. Lee and Tyler Junior College product at defensive line, who broke into the starting lineup at Mississippi State in 2015 before an injury curtailed most of his senior season.
They are three of six NFL hopefuls putting in daily work at APEC trying to be in the 1.6 percent. Joining them are defensive end Karter Schult (University of North Iowa), linebacker George Stone III (SFA) and linebacker Jordan Burton (Oklahoma State), a Longview graduate.
All of the preparation is to get them ready to perform at their school’s pro day in the coming weeks.
“A lot of these guys were big-time players for their school, so they are coming off a long senior campaign,” Heck said. “A lot of the jobs of the strength coaches during the season is to keep them strong and keep them held together. There is not a lot of performance increases, so when we get them after, we are dealing with a lot of issues that we have to correct.
“On top of that, we have to get them to the right body size because it’s kind of a picture show, a beauty contest if you will, for some of the scouts.”
Another way for these guys to be discovered is to put up “wow” numbers at a pro day - just like former Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans cornerback Josh Aubrey, now retired, a Robert E. Lee and SFA graduate and an alumnus of the APEC program.
DELIVERING IN THE MOMENT
Four years ago, no one in NFL circles was calling Aubrey, a cornerback for the Lumberjacks, but all of that changed on March 26, 2013.
A frigid, windy day did not prevent Aubrey from delivering an all-world show for the approximately 20 scouts on hand. He posted a 37-inch vertical jump, a 124-inch broad jump, 21 reps on the bench press at 225 and a 4.42-second 40-yard dash.
He was no longer an unknown.
A little over 30 days later, Aubrey signed a contract with Cleveland as an undrafted free agent.
APEC coach Tony Bush believes one or more of the six regulars working out in Tyler can recapture what Aubrey did.
“He is one of our poster (boys),” Bush said. “We only had a month with him and (he delivered in the moment).
“These guys (here now) have the heart, the desire to play and the work ethic. When you do get that opportunity, you still have to show up; you have to have a day of days.”
Liggins is still a couple weeks away from his pro day at SFA (March 29), but the former JT standout already made news with his regional combine held Feb. 21 in Houston.
Held at the Houston Texans Methodist Training Center, Liggins began with a 125-inch broad jump, went 42.5 inches on his vertical jump and posted a 4.45-second 40-yard dash time.
“My agent got me into the regional combine and I was able to head out there and put up some real good numbers,” Liggins said. “Kind of have my name thrown in the mix. I have talked to a few NFL teams myself and my agent has as well.
“I have just been enjoying this whole process - chasing a dream since you were a kid, basically. I have been doing this now for almost nine weeks (at APEC) and I have just come in here to make sure I am focusing on technique issues, make sure I am doing the same stance and the same steps every day. If your technique gets off (a little bit), it can be the difference between a 4.4 and a 4.5 or 4.6.”
CHASING THE DREAM
Will Coleman is listed 6-5, 245 pounds, with Heck saying he’s trimmed up even more to produce a specimen of speed, strength and power.
“Will is an incredible athlete for his size; a big man that can move like him is rare,” Heck said. “He almost reminds you of a basketball guy because of the way he moves. He is dealing with some injuries coming out of Mississippi State. … As far as raw talent and motor for the sport, he is up there with the (best) of them.”
The Mississippi State pro day is Wednesday as Coleman will join teammate Ross back in Starkville, Mississippi, in the hopes of joining up with another former Bulldog, Dak Prescott, in the NFL.
Coleman said he trusts the process put forth by the APEC coaches.
“I have been training hard, eating right and just keeping the process, the routine,” Coleman said. “It (career at Mississippi State) didn’t go how I wanted it to. … Before camp I got a stress fracture in my back, so I missed the first five games because of that. It was just rehabbing and staying strong and staying focused.
“Now it’s kind of trying to prove that I am recovered from my injury. I have been working on my range of motion, explosiveness - a little bit of everything here. APEC is a great place to train and prepare for any sport. I have been trusting the guys - Bobby (Stroupe), Kye and Tony - and they’ve been getting me in premier shape.”
Speaking of shape, that is what Santos has put the most work into at APEC. Stroupe, APEC founder and president, said the staff challenged the former Texas Longhorn to drop 30 pounds.
“I think he’d be the first person to tell you that (Dalton) didn’t take care of business in college the way he’d like,” Stroupe said. “He’s back to looking like the body he had in high school when he was the No. 1 recruit in the nation.”
Heck has worked with Santos since he was in eighth grade and watched his development. The coach said Santos did not have the season he envisioned at Louisiana Tech after transferring, which has fueled his fire.
“He’s hungry and has made a huge, drastic change in body composition,” Heck said. “He weighed in at 264 and we’ve got him down to 234. He’s a great kid who we hope for the best for.”
The majority of pro days will be over at the end of the month, with the NFL Draft scheduled for April 27-29 in Philadelphia. NFL jerseys adorn the stairwell at APEC from former players like Kendall Hunter (San Francisco), Graham Harrell (Green Bay) and more of the guys who fulfilled their dream of playing pro football.
Stroupe said he wants to hang a few more jerseys on the wall from this year and urges all of his athletes to keep grinding.
“Every day that they are doing this, every day they are dream chasing, they are a professional football player until someone tells them that they are not,” Stroupe said. “We love that aspect of this. Right now, from the point that they got here, until someone tells them they can’t, they are a pro football player. Their dream is still alive.”