ALLEN PARK, Mich. — They gathered together on the beaches of the North Shore getting ready to train. In front of them were endless views of sand for running and agility drills.
NFL players typically get around six weeks off between the end of minicamp and the start of training camp to refresh, and get one more break before the long grind of the season. For one week in mid-July, though, about a dozen NFL pass-rushers took a week of vacation in Hawaii and used it to train on the beach instead of relax on it — part of workouts structured by Seattle Seahawks defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril.
A year ago, they had done it alone. This year, it was a combination of the older — Avril, Bennett and Detroit Lions DE Wallace Gilberry — and the new, including the Houston Texans‘ Jadeveon Clowney, San Francisco 49ers‘ Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner and the Lions’ Brandon Copeland.
Together they worked on cardio and pass-rushing for a week with one purpose: improvement.
“Just exchanging tips, because at the end of the day, we’re all great in something, and when you get guys like that in one place and you’re all talking football, you pick up on something that you wouldn’t pay attention to, just through your guys,” Gilberry said. “So it’s all about connecting dots, man. That’s what this business is all about, connecting dots.
“If you have the right dots connected, you’ll be around for a while.”
These particular dots started connecting during Gilberry’s rookie year. He met Avril at the Senior Bowl. Then he connected with Bennett when the two were in Tampa Bay. The three linked up — they talk often through group text and over the phone — and Gilberry always said he wanted to train with them.
It didn’t work out until this year. And when Gilberry agreed to go, he asked to bring along a young pass-rusher he believed had potential: Copeland. Gilberry and Copeland hit it off immediately. Copeland gave Gilberry his number, No. 95, when Gilberry signed with the Lions. As they talked more, Gilberry wanted to do something for the young defensive end learning the position after converting from linebacker.
So Gilberry invited Copeland to Hawaii as a way to thank him for the number and to give him a chance to be educated by some premier pass-rushers with the caveat that when Copeland became a veteran, he might do that for a young pass-rusher one day.
“It was like spending days in the library, in terms of the defensive end pass-rush library,” Copeland said. “In terms of soaking up the knowledge those guys have and the wisdom that they have just from playing and the experience that they have, as a young guy playing and going out there, using all of their drills.
“Obviously you can drill football up so many different times, but the way that they did it and everything that they work, every drill that they do, every lift that they do is geared towards making them a better pass-rusher. For me, that’s exactly what I needed.”
They worked on Copeland’s explosion off the line of scrimmage, an area Detroit defensive line coach Kris Kocurek stressed Copeland needed improvement on after spring workouts. When Kocurek found out Copeland would be training with one of his former pupils, Avril, he told him to watch everything he did.
Copeland did more. He peppered Avril with questions about his explosion, his training and various moves he used.
“Sometimes guys are too prideful,” Avril said. “Copeland was completely the opposite. He was asking me, even during workouts, ‘Hey, what do you think of this stuff?’ or ‘Hey, what do you think about when a guy does this?’
“I gave him how I process things and tried to open his head up to a little bit of how to rush and how to approach it.”
Avril told Copeland about his weighted workouts to help himself move faster. They weren’t able to replicate it in Oahu, but they drilled “get-offs” over and over again. By the end of the week, Avril said Copeland “reminds me of myself, honestly, as far as how explosive he is and how fast he is off the line.”
The work showed. Copeland has been more consistent and effective exploding off the ball since training camp started.
“It’s not something that’s natural,” Kocurek said. “It’s something that you have to train with repetition over and over and over, just training your eyes to see it and drowning out everything that’s not you and the ball. Obviously, he put in a lot of work with that.”
It was more than just Copeland, though. All of the players involved opened up, explaining how they accomplish the moves they find successful. They never have to physically face each other, so they were willing to share their time and their information to create better football players. The vets spent a lot of time coaching the younger players. They also mined them for tips they may have picked up from college coaches as they entered the league.
Buckner said he picked up some of Bennett’s pass-rush moves, something even a veteran like Gilberry peppered him on. Gilberry said Bennett took the time to break down his footwork and, in painstaking detail, explained the nuance to it.
“Just a whole bunch of different moves,” Buckner said. “Just working on our hands and making it more natural so when we get into situations in the game, we know what to do.”
Gilberry broke down how he uses his hands to gain leverage, since that’s his biggest tool to reaching opposing quarterbacks. Avril picked up tips from Gilberry on hand placement and hand movement.
Bennett set up the workout times and locations, including at his Hawaii Optimum Performance gym in Honolulu, and had a chef on-site to both prepare food and answer questions about nutrition and diets. Gilberry spent some of his time picking up nutritional tips from the chef.
The whole week, coordinated by Bennett, was a giant camp tutorial — and Avril said the duo is open to having even more pass-rushers come next season. After all, Avril is “not paying for them to come.” He’s just providing his own knowledge — it’s a give-and-take — once they get there.
The workouts would last three to four hours. Sometimes, they’d go twice a day. In addition, they also worked Bennett’s camp in Hawaii. Some players, like Avril, brought his family with him for a vacation. Others, like Buckner and Manti Te’o were able to train close to their families.
While going to Hawaii in July might seem like vacation, it wasn’t. The dunes and Bennett made sure of that, creating what Gilberry called “gruesome” workouts.
“You were so tired,” Gilberry said. “That’s what I keep telling people, like, ‘Oh man, you went to Hawaii?’
“Like, nah, man, it wasn’t that kinda trip. It was strictly business.”
ESPN NFL Nation 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner contributed to this report.
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