Editor’s note: The Roanoke Times is following former Virginia Tech left tackle Christian Darrisaw as he goes through the NFL Draft process. This is the second part in our series on the projected first-round pick. Click here to read Part 1.
Virginia Tech strength and conditioning coach Ben Hilgart always expected to find Christian Darrisaw in the weight room quietly going about his business.
The offensive tackle didn’t have any issues fitting into Hilgart’s world where “GRIT” is the motto and Big Squat Fridays are weekly holidays in the offseason.
Hilgart coaches plenty of boisterous personalities — Dax Hollifield yells, screams and grunts through most workouts and he’s far from alone — but the strength coach said it’s a mistake to think Darrisaw’s low key approach means he’s not as dedicated as his vocal counterparts.
"There is a look in his eye that he has on game days or in the weight room, just a feeling about him that this guy is about to go get it,” Hilgart said, in a recent phone interview with The Roanoke Times. “He doesn't have to hoot and holler to get himself motivated. He's going to go out there and crush it. He's going to go attack. That's the energy he brings everyday without saying a whole lot."
EXOS physical therapist Zak Mitchell came to the same conclusion after spending less than two weeks training Darrisaw.
"He's been one of the easiest people to work with,” Mitchell said. “I think he's already a professional. He's prepared to do what he needs to in the league. He's just a grinder.”
Darrisaw is training at EXOS until mid-March. Normally he would be using that time to prepare for the annual NFL combine at the end of February, but the coronavirus has upended this year’s draft calendar.
The only chance for 2021 draft prospects to perform in front of NFL personnel and scouts is at their school’s pro day, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Darrisaw.
Darrisaw went for an MRI right before Christmas on the advice of his previous representatives.
The offensive lineman was never one to complain about injuries during his collegiate career. He played the entire 2018 season with an ankle injury that required offseason surgery.
The groin injury he suffered last fall wasn’t as severe, but it lingered throughout the year and forced him to miss a game late in the season against Pittsburgh. Darrisaw was reluctant to sit out for only the second time of his career and went through pregame warmups at Heinz Field before being ruled out.
Darrisaw would feel sharp pain in his thigh from basic movements like sitting down when the injury was at its worst, but he was pain free when he travelled to Philadelphia for an MRI at The Vincera Institute in December.
“It was kind of a precautionary thing,” Darrisaw’s mother Kim Cherry said. “He wasn't having immediate pain, but since it was a recent problem area they wanted him to get it checked out."
The scan revealed a core muscle injury to his groin, a tear or group of small tears to the core muscles which can occur from the chest to mid-thigh.
“With the combine up in the air, I had nothing to lose,” Darrisaw said. “Teams would rather have you healthy. I knew it would be a weight off my shoulders if I got into surgery right here, right now."
And that’s what he did.
Darrisaw’s surgery was performed by The Vincera Institute’s founder Dr. William Meyers, who is a pioneer in the treatment of core muscle injuries. His list of past clients include Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster as well as numerous other high-profile professional athletes.
“When someone is going under anesthesia there’s always an unknown, but we were confident in the procedure and the people who were doing it,” Cherry said.
Cherry dropped her son off for the outpatient procedure at 7 a.m., spent a couple hours doing work at their hotel and picked him up at 1 p.m. He walked out of The Vincera Institute with no visible signs he went under the knife.
“I didn't notice a difference that he just came out of surgery, it was things like climbing into his truck and he didn't have the bend in his legs and as he started moving around, he was just a little bit slower,” Cherry said.
After an initial physical therapy session at The Vincera Institute the following day, Darrisaw headed back home and was on his way to Florida by the end of the week.
A Brand Name
The only question Darrisaw considered when picking a facility to train at was whether he wanted to go to the EXOS facility in San Diego or the one in Pensacola at the Andrews Institute in Florida.
There are established training facilities across the country for NFL hopefuls, but as his agent, Cody Recchion put it, “EXOS is the biggest brand in our industry.”
According to the 2021 EXOS training program, the company has trained 998 drafted athletes and 191 first-round picks. Last year, 83 players that trained at EXOS were drafted and five of them were top 10 picks.
"That was his decision,” Recchion said. “He wanted to go to EXOS on day one. Honestly, the first time I ever met him he mentioned EXOS, so it was easy."
Darrisaw said EXOS came highly recommended from his former teammate Yosuah Nijman, who trained there before signing as an undrafted free agent with the Green Bay Packers in 2019, and his cousin Josh Holsey. Holsey, who trained at the Pensacola location, is a former Auburn cornerback who was drafted in the seventh round of the 2017 draft.
Young Money APPA, the agency Darrisaw signed with, is covering the cost of his training. According to Recchion, the costs typically range from $18,000 to $30,000.
Darrisaw is staying 6 miles away from EXOS at the Portofino Island Resort and has a 2021 Chevy Tahoe rental to get him around the city, all of which is included in the training package.
“I'm actually in the penthouse on the top floor,” Darrisaw said, with a laugh. “It's huge. You are just looking out at the ocean 24-7. Every window you look out of you see the beach. In three weeks when I'm back in Blacksburg I'm going to miss this for sure."
EXOS provides their clients with meals as well.
Darrisaw eats lunch at the facility and orders from a small, but diverse menu for the next day’s breakfast and dinner. All the meals are prepared by the location’s in-house chef.
The amenities allow Darrisaw to focus entirely on his training.
Under the microscope
Darrisaw is one of six offensive lineman training at the EXOS location in Pensacola, a group that includes Michigan offensive tackle Jalen Mayfield, Pittsburgh center Jimmy Morrissey and Buffalo offensive tackle Kayode Awosika.
They have a rigorous six-day a week training schedule with athletes arriving at 8 a.m. and working out until 3 p.m. The morning session is dedicated to movement training and athletes lift in the afternoon.
The Monday and Friday schedules are the same with linear movement work in the morning and a lower body lift in the afternoon. On Tuesday and Thursday, the focus shifts to multi-directional speed work and an upper body lift. Wednesdays are a recovery day.
Most of the group works directly with a position coach — in the offensive line’s case that’s former Packers offensive lineman Josh Sitton — but Darrisaw breaks off separately to work with Mitchell and the other physical therapists.
The first step in Darrisaw’s rehab process was the same one every athlete goes through (healthy or not) that walks into EXOS.
“They go through full assessment of their movement,” Mitchell said. “We will look at their movements from global patterns which could be a squat or lunge, upper extremity movements and we will break those moves down to smaller parts. If you look at a squat, it involves hip flexion, spinal rigidity, and all that can kind of stuff.”
Trainers break down the result to see if there’s any asymmetry or dysfunction in any of their movements to prevent future injuries.
Athletes are also asked to run all the combine drills when they arrive at EXOS to establish a baseline for their coaches and provide them film they can use to study. Darrisaw wasn’t cleared to do the field drills when he arrived.
“Early on, it was a lot more rehabbing from the surgery and the incision sites and maintaining certain precautions,” Mitchell said. “We usually started with physical therapy type things like manual therapy and corrective exercises.”
Darrisaw got one-on-one attention every step of the way, and didn’t experience any setbacks. He received a four to nine week rehab timeline from Dr. Meyers and was recently cleared to return to more strenuous activity.
“At this point, he's obviously able to do a lot more stuff,” Mitchell said. “We have been incorporating more explosive powerful movements. He's been doing more explosive type running. He's been progressing every step of the way.”
The COVID Draft
The NFL sent out a memo to teams in January outlining changes to the pre-draft process in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that included canceling this year’s scouting combine, an annual event that’s been held in Indianapolis since 1987.
In a normal year, 300-plus prospects would gather in Indy to go through a variety of workouts, in-person interviews, psychological testing and medical exams.
The various elements of the traditional combine have all been split up — athletes will work out during their pro days, interviews will be conducted virtually and the league is selecting a group of prospects to take a comprehensive medical exam over a three-day period in early April.
Darrisaw was one of the athletes invited to the modified combine and plans on attending, according to his agent.
“They will fly him out to Indy for medical only,” Recchion said. “No teams will necessarily be there, no other testing will be allowed and no interviews.”
Those virtual interviews have become as much a part of Darrisaw’s daily life as his training.
The NFL is allowing the league’s 32 teams to have up to five virtual interviews with each draft prospect. It’s made for a chaotic couple of months with Darrisaw and Rechion both scheduling interviews around his training.
Recchion maintains a spreadsheet database to keep track of who Darrisaw has talked to.
“It's important to even know if a scout or position calls his high school coach or his college coaches,” Recchion said. “That stuff all matters, you can go back and look and see who has shown the most interest and who is really hot on him.”
As of late February, Darrisaw had spoken to 20 different teams. He said the virtual interviews vary quite a bit with some teams preferring one-on-one interviews while others rely on larger groups. They all typically run 45 minutes to an hour.
“One team had everybody on there — the GM, the coach and I was shocked looking at 15 different faces and they all asked me questions,” Darrisaw said.
Teams haven’t asked Darrisaw anything too weird, but he did laugh when one team wanted to know if he would rather be a cat or a dog.
“Oh man, I said 50-50,” Darrisaw said. “You want to go all dog, but cats have got that finesse and are smart."
NFL teams have become accustomed to conducting business virtually since the pandemic broke out in March, but executives and scouts with experience in the league said completely missing out on in-person contact with draft prospects isn’t ideal.
“It's such an intangibles based position, you really need to know who the kids are, have a good feel for them and know if you want to coach them or not,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “That's going to be the biggest missing piece for Christian."
Nagy was hired by the Senior Bowl after serving as the southeast area scout for the Seattle Seahawks. He spent nearly two decades as a scout and was part of six Super Bowl winning teams.
Former New York Jets general manager Terry Bradway agreed with Nagy’s assessment.
“The NFL guys will be creative in getting that done and getting the information they need to get, but still not being able to sit there and shake a guys hand and look them in the eye, is going to be something that's different,” Bradway said.
Bradway was the New York Jets general manager from 2001-06. The team made the playoffs four times during his tenure and reached the divisional round twice. Bradway’s first round picks during his run were linebacker Jonthan Vilma (the 2004 defensive rookie of the year), wide receiver Santana Moss, linebacker Bryan Thomas and defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson.
He was still part of the Jets front office when they picked offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson with the No. 4 pick in the 2006 draft. Ferguson made 160 consecutive starts during his 10 year career without missing a game and made the Pro Bowl three times
The upside to the virtual interviews could be that teams cast a wider net than in past years.
“You don't have to fly a guy in, you don't have to fly a coach in,” Bradway said. “You can do it anytime of the day or night. You don't have a 15 minute limit like at the combine ... It was just like this offseason for GMs and head coaches. There were more GMs and head coaches interviewed this year than ever before because it was easy to do.”
One step at a time
Darrisaw and those close to him are cautiously optimistic that he will be able to compete at Tech’s pro day. It’s unclear if he will go through all the testing and drills even if he’s healthy, but that’s certainly his goal.
Barring any setbacks.
"Oh, I definitely want to be out there, it's the competitor in me,” Darrisaw said, toward the end of February. “I want to be out there training with all the guys right now, but I know I have to take my baby steps to get back right. I don't want to push anything and make it worse. I definitely want to be out there.”
Darrisaw wants to be available for his future team's rookie mini-camp in May, but he also knows that his draft stock could take a hit if he’s unable to perform in front of scouts.
“It certainly wouldn’t help him, but I think smart teams have put a lot more emphasis back on the tape,” Nagy said. “I think we got away from it awhile and put too much stock in what happens in shorts and T-shirts whether it's at the combine or pro days. I think the smart teams have pivoted back and done more of a tape based evaluation, but if it's close, teams are going to want as many possible boxes checked.”
“If you've got two players graded very similar and have all the information on one and have missing pieces on the other, you are probably going to lean on the one you have all the information on."
Darrisaw also figures to perform well in some key categories if he participates. Darrisaw said he would do well with the 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash and the vertical and broad jump.
Nagy and Bradway viewed those three drills as key data points for offensive lineman when they were evaluating talent.
"You are always looking at the 10-time, because they got to be in a stance and come out of it,” Bradway said. “For me, on some of the big guys, the vertical jump was a good thing. The guys that could get over 30 inches at 300 pounds, that's pretty good. If you are at 23 or 24 then that's a little bit of a concern.”
The other question mark about Tech’s pro day is how many people will be able to see it, at least in person. There’s no cap for how many NFL scouts and personnel can attend a team’s pro day in a normal year.
Before COVID, teams could even put players through drills themselves.
“In the case of an offensive lineman, there might be four or five coaches that want to put them through certain drills where they want to see something specific,” Bradway said. “Some guys like to do things a little different than others. There might be a certain footwork drill one guy wants to see or a hand placement drill that other guys don't do.”
All that will be scaled back this year.
NFL teams will be limited to two to three attendees at each pro day while navigating scheduling conflicts — Tech’s pro day is scheduled for March 26 on the same day as Boston College, BYU and Michigan — and coaches who do attend won’t be allowed to work with players like in year’s past.
“It's going to be very standard across the board where the NFL league office is trying to get all these schools on the same page, sending out videos of what position drills they want the position coaches to do,” Nagy said. “They want Virginia Tech’s offensive line coach to run all the same drills they would at the Indy combine.”
Nagy said the standardization is to make sure no one — teams or players — get a competitive advantage.
“If you are Walker Little at Stanford, everything on tape is going to be exactly what Christian's is at Virginia Tech,” Nagy said.
Regardless of how the testing turns out, the way Nagy describes the ideal offensive tackle fits Darrisaw to a tee. He said the most successful tackles he scouted were all “strong, competitive, mean and durable.”
Hilgart used a nearly identical list of adjectives when describing Tech’s former offensive tackle.
“Tough, athletic, mobile, smart,” Hilgart said. “I can't think of one quality that an offensive lineman should possess that he's missing."
Darrisaw wants to make sure the NFL knows that too.
Next: NFL scouts will converge on Blacksburg at the end of March for Virginia Tech’s pro day. The Roanoke Times will take a look at what the day was like for Darrisaw. Plus, a look at the latest draft projections as draft day approaches.