Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

'Speed kills:' Sprint coaching is leaving a mark in football preparation

It's the one element of football Chris Bertoia and other coaches can't teach. "Speed kills. Everybody knows that, at our level and the professional level," said Bertoia, the Waterloo Warriors head coach.
New York Giants wide receiver John Ross (12) celebrates his touchdown reception with wide receiver Kenny Golladay (19) in the first half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Derick Hingle

It's the one element of football Chris Bertoia and other coaches can't teach.

"Speed kills. Everybody knows that, at our level and the professional level," said Bertoia, the Waterloo Warriors head coach. "Football is a physical sport but I think being fast also equals being explosive, which in turn helps you with the physicality of the game.

"We always say, 'You've got to get faster.' When you can run 3.9 (seconds over the 40-yard dash) and can race Usain Bolt, that's when you're fast. Until then, you're not fast enough. No one will ever say a player is too fast."

And it's the never-ending quest for speed that makes the 40-yard dash the marquee event when pro football officials gather to grade prospects at scouting combines.

That was certainly the case last week during the NFL combine in Indianapolis, where receiver Tyquan Thornton and cornerback Kalon Barnes, both from Baylor, raised eyebrows in the 40-yard dash. Thornton appeared to post a record time of 4.21 seconds that was later changed to 4.28 while Barnes had his effort of 4.29 seconds amended to 4.23 seconds.

New York Giants receiver John Ross set the record of 4.22 seconds in 2017. While that mark remains intact, there was plenty of speed at the combine as Thornton was among eight receivers to run under 4.4 seconds.

And that caught the eye of Stuart McMillan, former coach of Canadian Olympic champion sprinter Andre De Grasse.

"Watching some of these 40s at the combine, it seems like almost all of the sprint-coaching is top-notch these days," McMillan tweeted. "I wonder if some of the athletes might benefit from quicker rise through (acceleration) though?"

The 40-yard dash success of Ross, Thornton and Barnes isn't surprising as all three are former sprinters. Bertoia knows all about that as Waterloo quarterback Tre Ford — the '21 Hec Crighton Trophy winner as Canadian university's top player — and his twin brother Tyrell, a starting defensive back, are also sprinters on the university track team.

The Fords will be front and centre March 25-27 at the CFL combine in Toronto, where Tyrell Ford is hoping to post the fastest 40-yard dash time. The current record is 4.31 seconds set in 2010 by Bishop's receiver/returner Steven Turner.

Tyrell Ford said his track background has definitely helped his football training.

"Track is definitely more top-end speed," he said. "It's all about being relaxed and smooth when you're running rather than being powerful.

"In my 40, my last 20 yards are way better now. It definitely has impacted me positively."

That doesn't surprise Mike Gough, a Toronto native who has trained amateur and pro athletes since '98 at Athletic Edge Sports in Bradenton, Fla.

"Track athletes are great starters but they're also usually stronger finishers," he said. "Many football players are effective on the start but in the 40 you have an acceleration phase and a top-end speed phase and the fastest guys usually look like they're accelerating all the way through.

"Football players, like defensive backs and receivers, are working in that 10-to-15 yard range and that's their honey hole. But with a sprinter who's going 60 or 100 metres really puts much more emphasis on that top-end speed training."

While natural speed is important, Gough said there's a lot that goes into making a player faster than merely adopting a track-specific regiment. It's breaking down every element and looking at how to make it more deliberate and stronger, eliminating wasted effort and resulting maximum movement efficiency.

"It's a combination of track and biomechanics," he said. "Instead of just getting up to the line and sprinting, you're breaking down all of the joint angles, the first step, length, hand position on the start, torso angle at the start, all of those different things and focusing on that refinement aspect."

There's teaching to be done with sprinters as the 40-yard dash is a shorter distance than they're typically used to, and they can't use starting blocks. But like in the 60- and 100-metre events, competitors are running straight ahead.

"The 40 is a different animal but track guys pick up on those technique differences early," Gough said. "Now, with the change-of-direction drills like the shuttle, you're going to see a little different dynamic because they're not used to moving that way."

Ford has extra incentive to run well at the CFL combine as he's hopeful a solid showing there could garner NFL attention. And with Barnes setting the 40-yard benchmark for defensive backs, Ford certainly has a standard to shoot for.

However, as important as speed is in football, nothing beats overall ability. And there's no better example of that than receiver Cooper Kupp of the Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams.

Kupp, who led the NFL in catches, yards and receiving touchdowns this season, posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.62 seconds at the 2017 NFL combine. He was drafted in the third round later that year by the Rams.

"Speed is important to an extent but I think sometimes it's a little bit overblown," Ford said. "I think it's running crisp routes and just having good footwork overall and being able to play football, just flat-out being a gamer.

"Obviously I'd love to play in the CFL but I'd also love a shot in the NFL and I think in order to get that I have to run a really good 40. That's pretty much why I'm working so hard in the 40."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2022.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press