By Greg Archuleta
UNM Assistant Director of Communications
Kasey Carrier was at home in Houston, training for a shot to attract one or more NFL teams to give him a chance to make a roster next season when he made a startling realization.
He really wasn’t at home in Houston.
So Carrier, the Lobos running back who rushed for 1,000 yards back-to-back seasons to cap his college career, returned to UNM to continue his training – for a strength coach who has worked with Carrier the past two seasons and with teammates with whom he’s worked out for the past five years.
Carrier and six of his teammates currently are working with UNM strength and conditioning coordinator Ben Hilgart to get them ready for the University of New Mexico’s Pro Day workout – a workout in which NFL scouts come to UNM to test seniors aspiring to play at the next level on their strength and agility.
Last season, Lobo wide receiver Lamaar Thomas parlayed his workout into a training camp invitation with the Denver Broncos and eventually a practice roster spot on the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Earning a shot is what each Lobo is striving for, and Carrier realized he’d have a better shot in the hands of people familiar with him and his skills.
“I knew I had to get stronger and faster, and learn how to perfect the drills (on which NFL scouts will test the student-athletes),” Carrier said. “I feel like you’re taking a chance when you go off to a specialty camp to train because you’re training with somebody that doesn’t know your body, doesn’t know you personally. Coming back here, I knew what I was getting into, I knew what we were going to be working on, and coach Hilgart knows all my injuries, all my strengths and weaknesses.
“He knows everything I’ve been through, so I feel more comfortable working out here.”
Hilgart, along with assistants Kyle Kudrna and Joe Stoner, have been working out with the departing Lobo seniors from Tuesday-Saturday each week, getting them prepared for the NFL Combine-style testing that will take place March 13 at UNM.
It’s a responsibility the Lobo staff takes seriously. After all, they are volunteering their time to help the Lobos chase their pro football dreams.
“Coach Hilgart has been doing a fantastic job focusing on each of us, individually,” linebacker Dallas Bollema said. “He is one of the best specialists around. He’s willing to donate his time to us for free, train us and get us ready. All we have to do is commit ourselves to him and work as hard as we can to get ready for Pro Day.”
Hilgart reemphasizes that helping the Lobos train is part of his job description.
“It’s just our culture,” Hilgart says. “When these guys are done (eligibility-wise), they’re not really done. These guys are still part of our football program. If there’s anything we can do within our power to help them, we’re going to help them. I don’t think that’s different than any other facet of our program, whether it’s academics or any other area. That’s consistent with our concept of making sure our players know they’re Lobos for life.”
Carrier, Bollema, kicker Justus Adams, tight end Andrew Aho, defensive lineman Jacori Greer, offensive tackle Darryl Johnson and punter Ben Skaer are taking part in the Pro Day training. The strength and conditioning staff go over techniques on how to complete the bench press, the footing for the vertical jump and the footwork and technique for the 40-yard dash and agility drills.
Because Hilgart and his staff are donating their time, they expect the players they’re helping to be fully committed to getting themselves ready for Pro Day.
Not that Hilgart is worried about any of the players’ commitment.
“The culture of our football program in general is one of outwork, so for these guys, it’s easy to transition into this because these guys are used to that,” UNM’s third-year strength and conditioning coordinator says. “They’re used to working hard. We make it clear to them at the beginning, our expectations, and these guys have done a great job of living up to those expectations and putting themselves in position to be successful.”
Hilgart said the best way to prepare his charges is to expose them to a typical Pro Day schedule.
“We’ll have a mock pro day, and we’ll do everything we can do to make them feel comfortable on that day,” Hilgart said. “But I think the biggest thing for them is confidence in their preparation. If they have anxiety or stress or don’t feel completely confident on that day, they may not perform as well as they can.
If they feel like they’re getting prepared, like I know these guys will, I know they’ll have confidence on Pro Day. And if they have confidence on Pro Day, they’ll perform to their fullest potential.”
In the case of an under-the-radar athlete such as Aho, confidence is paramount. Aho played tight end on the No. 4 rushing offense in the nation last season. That limited his own stats to nine receptions for 179 yards in 2013 – not exactly the kind of numbers that will capture scouts’ attention.
So Aho knows he has to do it on Pro Day.
More than that, he believes he’s ready.
“I know that I’m in the best shape of my life,” said the Roswell native who was UNM’s Hard Hat champion for his work in the weight room during the 2013 offseason. “It’s all credit to coach Hilgart, who’s been pushing us to our limit and testing us in new ways. I feel good about that day coming up.”
Last year, kicker Greg Rivara, who handled only kickoffs for the Lobos, spent some extra time with an NFL scout last season after an impressive Pro Day. Aho is looking for a similar workout that will open some eyes.
“I have some numbers in my mind that if I achieve them, I think I they will be eye-popping to some scouts,” he said, preferring to keep those numbers to himself. “I don’t want those numbers to be what defines my Pro Day because who knows how I’ll be feeling on that day or the night before? I just want to do everything right and to know that I gave it my best shot.”
Aho points to the fact that last year Lobo senior tight end Lucas Reed had an awesome display on the bench press, with 27 repetitions of 225 pounds, only to have the scouts rule that 10 of those did not count because of poor form.
That’s why the Lobos have spent the past eight weeks with Hilgart, going over what to expect, what is considered proper form each of the tests they’ll take on Pro Day.
“That’s the thing about Pro Day,” Hilgart said. “The NFL gives us the questions to the test before we take the test. We know what the questions are. What we’re doing right now is we’re working on the answers.”
UNM had four players last season earn free-agent tryouts – Thomas, Reed, Freddy Young and Korian Chambers.
Hilgart said he believes his current group has multiple players that have the potential to work their way into an NFL training camp in the summer. And he admits to feeling a source of pride when his student-athletes realize their dream.
“Obviously it’s exciting to see those guys fulfill their dreams, and where we’re at in our program, we’re hoping to see more and more of that,” Hilgart said. “If they have aspirations of playing at the next level, we want to help those guys.”
But Hilgart added he believes he has a responsibility to help the players grow – beyond what takes place on the field.
“That’s the exciting thing about football,” he said. “It can teach them so many life lessons. I think even in the weight room, with some of the things these guys have to endure from a standpoint of just training hard and playing in a disciplined program, it teaches lessons. And I think there’s things those guys can take with them, whether it’s in the NFL or it’s in life as a business person, to be successful. To see that happen, the fruits of your labor, so to speak, it’s exciting and I think there’s a great deal of pride among all our coaches to see that.”