There is little time for Connor Shaw to reminisce. Even if there were, there would be little desire.
“I have so many more goals ahead of me that I don’t think I can think about it until I hang up the cleats forever,” he said. “It’s hard to look back when you have a lot of stuff in the future you want to accomplish.”
That’s why Shaw is here — in an anonymous, one-story brick building tucked into the back of an anonymous office park outside Atlanta — working out five days per week and up to six hours per day, bunking at a Marriott down the street along with nearly 40 other former college stars who are chasing the same dream as they prepare for this week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
Shaw and his counterparts — among them former Clemson running back Rod McDowell and former Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy — are the charges of Chip Smith, who is in his 25th year in this business. Smith “is like family,” Shaw says, which for an NFL hopeful is best kind of virtual nepotism.
Never miss a local story.
Smith has trained more than 1,300 NFL players, including 300 who were on rosters last season. When ex-college football players are looking to become professional football players, they come to places like these for six weeks of specialized training. Smith’s warehouse-sized facility is wallpapered with framed jerseys and photos of alumni that speak to his success in the business. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick went through these same drills under Smith’s stopwatch not so long ago.
Shaw has been coming to Smith’s gym since he was 8 years old and Smith ran the more famous Competitive Edge Sports. Smith sold CES late last year and opened Chip Smith Performance Systems along with his two sons. At the time of their original meeting, Shaw was a tag-along, in tow of his older brother Jaybo, who would go on to play quarterback at Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern.
“Connor would come and hang out, and I would kind of throw him in some of the drills,” Smith said. “That’s when I realized when he was a young, young kid that he was very gifted athletically. He was very, very coordinated at a very young age. I told his dad when he was 8 or 9 years old, if he keeps working, he’s really going to be special.”
While most former college players train at a gym chosen by their agents, Shaw was coming back here for his workouts, regardless of his representation.
“He’s like a son to me,” Smith said.
Shaw spends two hours per day working on speed and agility and another two hours working on strength on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesdays are for pool workouts and 7-on-7 drills, and all of his work features the latest in techniques and torment devices designed to pull every ounce of ability out of a body.
There are resistance bands, which Shaw wears to add difficulty to every drop back and change of direction. There are overspeed bands, which do just the opposite, dragging him through the same drills to force his muscles into an acceptance of faster output. Everything here can be — and is — measured.
“There are so many different things that can help you that you don’t really have at your disposal in college,” Shaw said.
While college strength and conditioning programs must design one program to fit 100 players under one umbrella, operations like Smith’s are a custom job.
“The NCAA rule is they get 8 hours a week in the gym. He’s in here six hours a day,” Smith said. “In the physical training world, there is a saying called ‘evidence based.’ In the sports performance world, we are results based. I’ve only got these kids for six weeks. He will make more gains in six weeks than he did in four years in college.”
Shaw, who weighs 209 pounds and hopes to be up to 215 before South Carolina’s Pro Day in April, has been looking at most of these jerseys on Smith’s wall for a dozen years now, and he never dreamed he’d be so close to wearing one, he said.
“It’s pretty neat,” he said. “When I was a kid, I never really thought I would be in that position. I am very blessed.”
He knows, though, that he has work to do to cross that final divide between potential and paycheck. For many players such as Shaw, who is expected to be a late-round pick or free-agent signee, the difference can be as small as one-tenth of a second in the 40-yard dash or a step in a shuttle drill. That’s why he spends so much time in the gym mastering the drills he will do at the combine.
He can tell a difference, he said, in his 40-yard dash technique and time, and thinks that will be a place he can make a mark in Indianapolis.
“I can open up some eyes if I do an impressive 40,” he said. “I know a lot of people think I am quick and have some speed on me, but I don’t think they realize how fast I really am. I think if I got the combine and run a 4.5 or a sub-4.5 then I think they are going to understand that I’m as fast as what I think I am.”
Smith normally puts his quarterback clients with a private coach in Atlanta for their position drills, which can take up to two hours per day in addition to the rest of the work, but Shaw had another old friend in mind for that, too. So, twice a week, he drives from Atlanta to Rabun County in the far northeast corner of the state to visit an unlikely ally in his quest — George Bobo, the father of Georgia offensive coordinator and former Bulldogs quarterback Mike Bobo.
George Bobo, like Shaw’s father Lee, is a longtime high school football coach in the state and a native of its mountains. He kicked off Connor Shaw’s training by telling him, “Everybody at Georgia is glad you are graduating,” and the two went to work.
“I am working on everything you can think of — footwork, accuracy, velocity, drawing up stuff on the board, getting a better grasp of different schemes and protections and all that kind of stuff,” Shaw said. “By this point, I have a pretty good grasp from a knowledge standpoint of knowing what I am doing, but I think there are areas you can improve in those things. There is always something you can improve on.”
There has been and will be no overhaul of Shaw’s mechanics, but he has worked with Bobo and Smith on improving the velocity of his throws. The two have spent a lot of time on the types of throws NFL quarterbacks are expected to make: fast and decisive.
“It’s really a lot about being on balance when you get to the launch point when you throw,” Bobo said.
Like Smith, Bobo knows Shaw as a quick and serious study.
“Connor doesn’t really smile a whole lot,” Bobo said. “He understands what you tell him, and that’s why I think he has a chance. You can talk to someone and tell them something, and he says, ‘Coach I feel exactly what you are saying.’ He is a very good athlete now. He is, and he has what you can’t buy. He’s a competitor. His will to win is just unbelievable. He is as good a competitor as you ever want to see. The more people who tell him you aren’t going to make it, he’ll bow his neck and make it.”