Perhaps this fact is no more apparent than in football. A football field is only 100 yards long and 53.33 yards wide. The faster a player can navigate that space, the more dangerous he will be.
One player who knows the importance of speed? Treston Decoud. The former Oregon State cornerback was recently drafted by the Houston Texans thanks to his combination of size, speed, and athleticism. “Speed is everything—speed kills. That’s what a lot of NFL coaches, college coaches, high school coaches look for,” Decoud told STACK.
Decoud hones his speed under the guidance of speed and conditioning coach J.J. McCleskey, a former cornerback who played six seasons in the NFL and is now director of training movements at ME Sports in Madisonville, Louisiana. McCleskey firmly believes efficiency and explosiveness are two pillars of speed. “Speed is everything in the National Football League, but [it’s about] being able to be efficient with your speed. In and out of cuts, those transitional parts. Everyone talks about running the 40, but you never run a 40 in football. Being able to start and stop and be violently coming out of your transitions is important,” McCleskey says.
McCleskey also knows that an athlete can never reach his full-speed potential if one leg is stronger or more powerful than the other. That’s why he emphasizes single-leg training during his workouts. “We’re trying to get both legs even. Most people’s right leg is stronger than their left leg. So we really want to concentrate on single-leg movements. You play football, you play other sports, on one leg,” McCleskey says. “Speed is measured by how much force you put into the ground. If I’m running and my right leg is stronger, I’m decelerating [every other step] because my left leg isn’t putting the same force into the ground. Just getting that left leg stronger will get you considerably faster.”
To build NFL-level speed and explosiveness, integrate these drills from McCleskey into your training.
1. Circle-Around-The-Cone Drill
This drill is about body control and the critical transition that occurs between short-area footwork and sprinting.
The setup here is simple—all you need is one cone right next to you and a pair of cones about 5 to 8 yards downfield as your finish line.
Begin on either the left or right side of the cone. To start, shuffle in front of the cone before backpedaling behind it. Move as quickly as possible while maintaining good form. Once you’re around the cone, burst forward and accelerate through the finish line.
- Stay tight to the cone as you circle it.
- Keep your feet inside the frame of your body.
- Try to avoid taking any false steps.
- Keep your shoulders square as you circle the cone.
Sets/Reps: 6 total reps (3 moving left around the cone, 3 moving right around the cone)
2. Fast Feet Drill
This drill focuses on teaching your feet to move quickly in tight areas. Performed correctly, the drill improves your balance, footwork, and acceleration mechanics.
Set up one cone at the beginning of the drill. Five yards in front of that cone, set up a pair of cones side-by-side and staggered just a bit to the right of the first cone. Five yards in front of those cones, set up a pair of cones as your finish line.
Begin on either the left or right side of the first cone. Circle around that cone as fast as possible while keeping your shoulders square (just like the Circle-Around-the-Cone Drill) before accelerating to the pair of cones in front of you. Transition to a backpedal between that pair of cones before accelerating through the finish line.
- Stay tight to the cones.
- Sprint in a straight line between the cones.
- Sprint 3 yards past the last cone.
Sets/Reps: 6 total reps (3 starting on the left of the first cone, 3 starting on the right of the first cone)
3. High-To-Low Drill
This drill focuses on the transition from a sprint to a backpedal (and vice versa).
Arrange four cones in a straight line, about 2 feet apart. Five yards beyond the final cone in the line, set up a pair of cones as your finish line.
Begin about 8-10 yards back from the first cone. Skip into the drill, emphasizing arm action and high knees. Once you hit the first cone, lower your center of gravity and run to—but not past—the fourth cone. At the fourth cone, switch to a backpedal. Run backward to all the way to the first cone. Then sprint to the third cone. When you reach it, backpedal to the first cone. Repeat the pattern for the second cone, then sprint from the first cone through to the finish line.
- Skip into the cone setup.
- Keep your hips square to the finish through the entire drill.
- Keep your chin over your toes during the backpedal.
- Backpedal and transition at each cone in the set-up.
Sets/Reps: 3-5 total reps
4. Speed Ladder Change-Of-Direction Drill
This drill helps you develop faster feet and the ability to turn and run on a dime.
Lay down a speed ladder in an open area. Eight to 10 yards beyond the end of the speed ladder, set up a pair of cones as your finish line.
Starting at the beginning of the speed ladder, either backpedal or move laterally through the ladder. No matter the variation, follow the same pattern—two feet in, two feet out. Once you complete the final rung of the ladder, turn and accelerate through the finish line.
- Walk through the drill first, then perform as fast as possible.
- Go through the ladder both laterally and backwards.
- Stay tight to the ladder and keep your hips low.
- Turn and explode into the sprint at the end of the drill.
Sets/Reps: 4-5 reps of each variation (backward, laterally to the left, laterally to the right)
5. Left-To-Right Jumps
This drill focuses on single-leg explosiveness and balance.
Using nine mini-hurdles, mimic the set-up shown above. Make sure the hurdles create 90-degree angles with one another.
Start in front of the first mini-hurdle standing on one leg. Hop over the first hurdle, then immediately hop over the hurdle to your right. Hop back over that same hurdle to get back in the middle of the drill, then immediately hop over the next hurdle in front of you. Follow this pattern until you clear the last hurdle, then burst through the finish line. Hop on only one leg throughout the drill, then repeat the sequence with your opposite leg.
- Stay balanced with your chin over your toes.
- Be quick off the ground.
- Explode into a sprint at the end of the drill.
Sets/Reps: 6 total reps (3 on each leg)
6. Single-Leg Hops
This drill focuses on rapid turnover and teaches you to produce a tremendous amount of ground force through your foot.
Arrange eight mini-hurdles in a straight line. Allow roughly a yard of space between each mini-hurdle, though this number can be adjusted based on your size and skill level (hurdles that are closer together will be slightly easier).
Start in front of the first mini-hurdle, standing on either your right or left leg. Hop over each hurdle, emphasizing quickness off the ground and explosive arm action. Once you clear the last hurdle, burst into a 10-yard sprint.
- Focus on rapid turnover and quickness off the ground.
- Explode in the sprint as you clear the final hurdle.
- Allow for full recovery between sets.
Sets/Reps: 3 sets on each leg
7. Single-Leg Swiss Ball Squats
This drill focuses on single-leg strength and stability. If one of your legs is weaker than the other, your sprint speed will be seriously hamstrung (no pun intended).
Grab a Swiss ball and find an open spot on a flat piece of wall. Put the Swiss ball against the middle of your back. Pressing against the Swiss ball and standing on either your right or left leg, lower yourself into a Single-Leg Squat. Once you master the movement, add light dumbbells.
- Keep your back flat against the ball.
- Squat until your thigh is parallel to the ground.
- Begin with no weight and progress from there.
Sets/Reps: 5×8 on each leg (superset with Single-Leg Jumps)
8. Single-Leg Band Jumps
This exercise helps you learn how to generate an awesome amount of single-leg power and explosiveness with the help of an exercise band.
Find a sturdy beam or pull-up bar that gives you plenty of clearance for jumping. Loop an exercise band around it and pull the slack through. This should create a “handle” for you to put your elbows inside as you hold the band.
Loop the band around your elbows and grab hold of it with both hands. Assume a single-leg position. Lower yourself into a Single-Leg Squat (also known as a “Pistol Squat”) before launching yourself off the ground and into the air.
- Squat down slightly past parallel.
- Keep the weight on your heel as you lower.
- Explode upward and land softly.
Sets/Reps: 3×3-10 on each leg