In just 40 yards, Easop Winston Jr. came to a troubling realization the day he showed up to the STARS sports training facility in Anaheim, California, in January.
The Washington State wide receiver, teammate Brandon Arconado and a handful of other NFL draft hopefuls had committed to 10 key weeks in Southern California, where certified trainers and nutrition specialists would prepare them for the most important job interview of their young football careers.
For Winston, who had more touchdown catches (19) over the past two seasons than anyone in the Pac-12 Conference, it was no longer about what he could do with his mitt-sized hands, but how fast he could churn his feet. Specifically, in a test measured 40 yards long.
On the first day at STARS, athletes are tested in a preliminary 40-yard dash. In order to measure improvement, it’s important to have a “before picture” on hand, even if it isn’t a pretty one. Winston’s wasn’t. The receiver clocked in at 4.72 seconds.
While the time would’ve been in the top half of quarterbacks at this year’s NFL scouting combine and wouldn’t have been too shabby at tight end, it didn’t hold up against the times other receivers posted in Indianapolis. Of the 45 who were timed at the combine, 43 ran better than 4.70.
“From then on, we just kind of worked it and that’s when I figured out — I didn’t really know how to run, to be honest, before getting there,” Winston said. “Being a football player on the field, you’ve kind of either got it or you don’t when it comes to speed. So, I usually just run on the field. I never really knew how to.”
Some may dispute that, including Corrion Ballard, the Utah safety who lost a footrace to Winston on the 89-yard catch-and-run that pushed the Cougars past the Utes in 2018, but deceptive speed isn’t usually the speed that shows up in a short, straight-line test such as the 40.
Thankfully, Winston was in the right place to get serious about speed.
Jason David, a former WSU cornerback who played five seasons in the NFL and won a Super Bowl XLI ring with the Indianapolis Colts, is the founder and co-owner of STARS. He oversees the operation and works with many of the NFL prospects who file in to his facility. This year, David partnered with well-known speed coach Gary Cablayan, the CEO and founder of EVO Sports Training.
Cablayan has a long clientele list of NFL players and has been working with DeSean Jackson since the three-time Pro Bowl receiver was 8 years old. But the most impressive line on his résumé is the one that includes former Washington receiver John Ross, who clocked a 4.55 in the 40-yard dash when he began working with Cablayan and upstaged Chris Johnson’s combine record by running a 4.22 the next month in Indianapolis.
It isn’t uncommon, Cablayan said, for players to spend four years in college without knowing the basic fundamentals of running, let alone precise mechanics — especially if they didn’t have a background in track and field.
“Nowadays, everybody spends 90 percent of their time working on 10 percent of what they do on a football field,” Cablayan said. “Which is learning how to cut and run routes.”
What did Cablayan see in Winston that needed fixing?
“Pretty much everything,” he said, laughing.
While Winston demonstrated impressive lower-body strength, he ran abnormally wide and often relied on his quadriceps, which altered the “chain of sequence” the body uses to fire when running, Cablayan said.
“(The) timing of his running wasn’t on point,” he said, “meaning when you run, it’s downward, so it fires from the glute, hamstring, calf, foot, all down the line.”
Still, Winston’s starting point was much higher than that of his teammate, Arconado, who caught 78 passes for 1,109 yards during a highly productive senior year with the Cougars but ran a humbling 40 time of 5.04 his first day at STARS.
“Brandon had way more flaws than Easop, but Easop was already pretty fast but still had some flaws, where Brandon wasn’t that fast and had a lot of flaws,” Cablayan said. “With Easop, his arms and legs were at least matched up where Brandon, his arms and legs did two different things. So, it’s a rarity, but it happens on a greater scale than you’d think.”
Three days per week, for about 1 1/2 hours in the morning, the small group of pro hopefuls went through speed training drills with Cablayan that used a variety of accessories like resistance bands, wickets (think of a small hurdle) and weighted sleds.
Cablayan also addressed what can be a common misconception regarding the 40-yard dash — using short, choppy steps at the start of the run instead of bigger, slower strides.
“He always emphasizes start, how those first five steps could set you up to either run a good time or a bad time,” Winston said. “So, that’s what we focused on the most is just the first five steps and getting out there explosive and getting big, long steps. Because a lot of times, with the 40, a lot of guys try to get out too fast and they’re not getting the exact stride they need to get. It may seem like you’re running slow the first three steps, but you’re actually eating up ground.”
If Cablayan’s speed training did its job, Winston’s time would improve by approximately three-tenths of a second — something that may not be noticeable to the naked eye, but could represent the difference between an NFL contract and no NFL contract for someone like Winston.
On March 20, the day STARS athletes took part in a virtual combine at a local high school, a video of Winston surfaced on Twitter. He dropped into a sprinter’s stance on the goal line, lifted his left arm and took off.
Seconds after Winston reached the 40-yard line, a timer blurted out the official time: “4.42.”
“It was great, man,” Winston said, “because a lot of scouts and a lot of different coaches, that was a question mark on me.”
Arconado saw an even greater return on the time he spent with Cablayan, clocking a 4.68.
Even as the most productive receiving tandem in the Pac-12, with 163 receptions, 2,079 yards and 18 touchdowns, Winston and Arconado aren’t projected NFL draft picks. Fortunately, hearing what they aren’t capable of on a football field is something to which they’re both accustomed.
Winston had no FBS offers out of high school, playing at City College of San Francisco, and Arconado took a more circuitous route, only receiving a walk-on offer from the Cougars out of Chaffey (California) College.
“One thing a lot of people need to know is his IQ on the field is crazy. When a team plays zone, Brandon knows exactly where to sit,” Winston said. “He can also beat man coverage, being he’s not the fastest guy on the field. He’s just very deceptive with what he does. He’s good with his eyes, he’s good with his head, face, he has very good hands.
“So me and him, I’d say, are very underrated players that, when we get our chance, we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
Winston has been in contact with more than 10 NFL teams and five have shown fairly strong interest in the San Francisco native: the Rams, Chargers, Texans, Packers and 49ers. He’s spoken with 49ers wide receivers coach Wes Welker, who played for Mike Leach at Texas Tech before starring in the NFL, and traded stories about the head coach.
“The way Wes Welker explained him,” Winston said, “it was like, ‘Yeah, he hasn’t changed one bit.’ ”
Winston is a lifelong 49ers fan who lives 3 minutes from the old Candlestick Park, which served as team’s home venue until 2013.
“I still have pictures going to Niner games,” he said. “… So I went to a lot of games. … It would definitely be a dream come true, but at this point I’m just starving for the opportunity, so whatever team gives it to me, I’m going to be forever grateful and happy. I don’t really have a preference.”