International players that apply for scholarships in NCAA Division I and II colleges in the United States are a growing breed. The NFL Academy, based in England’s Loughborough University, is producing some seriously elite players and the proof is in the results. 2023 marked a record year for the academy with six men at the time of writing inking their names on contracts, and packing their bags to head to some of the most sought-after Division I colleges among any aspiring NFL star.

At least two more athletes were also signed to Division II colleges last year, but it is clear that all these guys have one thing in common. At the NFL Academy’s swanky official signing day in London, they told Muscle & Fitness that strength had conditioning had been a game changer in turning them into the prospects that they are today.

London’s Henry Lyes, who has just signed with NCAA Division II college Glenville State in West Virginia, came to the NFL Academy with no previous experience of playing football but his love of the sport and background in rugby made for a great foundation. The academy’s focus on gym work, however, was a learning curve in its own right. “The biggest difference for me, in terms of the academy and what I did before was the strength and conditioning, and an emphasis on being an athlete,” Lyes tells M&F. With NFL Academy players being expected to get their academics studies in order, Lyes says that it’s all about balance when vying for a college football scholarship. “My goal is to make it to the NFL and I can’t wait to get working out there,” he beams.

Lyes is not the only NFL Academy player who has just earned a U.S. scholarship and attributes much of his success to strength and conditioning. Italy’s “EJ” Ofosu is also headed to Glen State. He explains that the level of play in the United States, where football is firmly embedded in the culture, is intense and appreciates how the academy readied him in terms of impressing the scouts. While he will be expected to shine at GSU, Ofosu explains that this is nothing new for him. “Loughborough University have provided us with great facilities and great gyms, so it’s really about just putting in the work (in the U.S.), and we know we can do it. “

Daniel Akinkunmi of the University of Oklahoma wearing an NFL vest
NFL Academy

Strength and Conditioning Prepares Athletes for the Challenges of Gameplay

London’s Daniel Akinkunmi has played across the full offensive line and considered more than 30 Division I offers before committing to OU and the Oklahoma Sooners. He feels more than prepared to play at the highest level. “Our (NFL Academy) strength and conditioning staff are amazing,” he says. “We strip it down to the basics.” Akinkunmi explains that there’s just as much training off the field as there is on it, and his time at Loughborough University involved isolated sessions for speed and strength. When you consider that this 300-pounder can run a 40-yard dash in a seriously impressive 4.9 seconds, you’ll appreciate that his strength and conditioning investment was essential.

So, what aspects of strength and conditioning must any aspiring football player include in their regime? “The main task that gets all the attention is the 40-yeard (dash) because at the end of the day, it’s a speedy game, so you want to make sure that you’ve got speed,” says “EJ” Ofosu. But he also understands that this is a task that almost all footballers work on, so to gain the extra edge, you need to become strong as well as fast. Playing on the defensive line, Luke Yau Gayle understands this too, and spent countless hours in the gym to become a rounded Division I athlete. “You want to lift heavy weights, but it’s also about the technical stuff,” explains one of the University of Buffalo’s newest recruits. He points to the power clean as a fundamental tool in his armour. “You want to do workouts that can relate to being on field skills,” he adds.

Power Cleans Can Translate Success From the Gym to the Football Field

Power cleans, a variation of the clean and jerk, is a great lift for football players because it works on both speed and strength. The power clean will improve a range of important skills such as hand-eye coordination and explosive power.

Try it for yourself:

  • Start with the barbell on the floor, over your feet.
  • Bend your knees and lower yourself down and grip the barbell a little wider than shoulder-width.
  • Pull the bar smoothly by pushing down on your heels until the barbell is at mid-thigh level.
  • Now comes the speed aspect as you perform a shrug and raise the bar to a front squat position. Keep you elbows up and back straight.

“Playing d-line is a physical position,” adds Luke Yau Gayle. “You have to get your hands on someone at all times, run them over, and things like that, so you’ve gotta lift. You’ve got to lift heavy. You’ve got players that are 300 pounds.” Mastering the power clean along with squats and deadlifts as a great way to work on your athletic performance is also backed up by a range of studies and reports, including the International Journal of Strength & Conditioning.

Learning to master speed and explosive power in the gym will give any player an edge on the football field, helping them to understand how fast they can get in and out, or bulldoze their way through any situation. Not only that, but strength and conditioning work will also improve a football player’s stance. While NFL Academy players also watch countless hours of film in order to understand both the physicality, and the theory behind football, replicating the challenges of gameplay in the gym is another great way to become better from all angles. M&F wishes all these athletes well as they embark on their exciting college careers.

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