So what's it like to be senior speed demon Dri Archer, Kent State's do-it-all Heisman Trophy candidate? Right now, it's probably not as glamorous as you may expect.
Archer, like college football players across the country, is in the midst of the preseason camp grind as the Golden Flashes prepare for their 2013 season opener on Aug. 29 against Liberty. The hard work he'll put in over this three-week stretch will hopefully lead to glory for both Archer and his team once the season begins, but before the glory comes the grind.
With the help of Kent State head coach Paul Haynes, who provided full access to the team, Record-Courier sports writer Allen Moff spent last Wednesday following Archer through a 16-hour day, featuring a pair of practices and several team meetings.
Here's what happened, a day in the life of Dri:
It's Wednesday, Aug. 7, the first day of dreaded two-a-day practices at Dix Stadium. Archer wakes up early to get prepared for a long, strenuous day on and off the field.
"It was an early day, our first two-a-day, so I got up early this morning at 5:45. I wanted to wake up early and make sure I'm awake for practice. The bus (transporting players from their dorms to the stadium) left at like 6:15, so I made sure I had all of my stuff ready. When I get here (Dix Stadium), I go straight to the training room, get taped, put my pads in my pants, put my pants on. Then I have breakfast. I usually eat cereal every morning, just keep it the same, either Apple Jacks or Fruit Loops. After I eat cereal, I go back into the locker room and just hang out for a little while, just sit at my locker until we have meetings."
On this day, team meetings start at 7:40 a.m., followed by a morning practice at 8:30. As practice begins, I warn Archer's running backs coach, Ted Bahhur, that I'll be following him around throughout the day.
"That's great," said Bahhur. "He'll be all over the place."
Practice begins under cloudy skies, with a cool breeze blowing through the stadium and temperatures comfortably in the mid-70s. Players are in full-pads, and action begins with a walk-through on the offensive side as plays continue to be installed early in camp. Archer is lined up at wide receiver as the quarterbacks practice check-downs.
Archer and several teammates practice catching punts produced by both the team's punters and a machine that for whatever reason spits out an ugly, side-winding kick that not even Archer can run up fast enough to field.
But Archer proceeds to catch the next several punts cleanly and looks very comfortable doing so.
Since kickoff returns are being fazed out at the pro level, Archer needs to add the ability to return punts to his arsenal to impress NFL scouts. Aside from his size (5-foot-8, 175 pounds), the only knock on Archer last year was his hands -- he was inconsistent as a pass-catcher, and previous head coach Darrell Hazell hesitated to install him as a punt returner because he wasn't completely confident in his ability to consistently catch punts.
Returning punts is also another way to get the ball in Archer's hands this season, since teams will almost assuredly avoid booting the ball his way on kickoffs.
"It's just added another role. I feel very comfortable (catching punts). It's something I work on to try and get better at every day. That was something I worked on mostly in the off-season. I came here every chance I got, had a punter come out here and just caught punts. I'm pretty comfortable."
After catching punts, a trainer gives Archer an extra five-minute stretch before kickoff return drills begin. Archer led the nation a year ago by averaging 36.9 yards per kickoff return with three touchdowns.
walk-throughs continue, as Archer and Bahhur spend some time working with junior running back Anthony Meray on route-running techniques. He also spends some time pointing things out to freshman running back Roman Clay.
"I try to coach some of the young guys playing behind me in the same role, to get these young guys up to par. Having an upperclassman to watch and learn from, having them talk to you, it helps them a lot."
As practice continues to unfold, Archer breaks into short conversations with several different players from both sides of the ball. Archer doesn't seem to be involved in a certain "click," which can be typical of star players. He just mixes in and mingles with just about everyone, even breaking out into dance along with various other teammates as rap songs play periodically throughout practice.
"I'm cool with everybody. I talk to everybody. Even the defensive side, I mess with everybody. I just try to have fun while I'm practicing. It's all fun out here. We go at it on offense-defense, but it's just all fun for real."
The team splits up for individual position drills, and the running backs don't seem overly enthused about it.
"I know you guys are tired, but we gotta get going," Bahhur prods.
It's been nonstop football since the players reported for camp last Thursday, and it's obviously starting to take its toll on them both mentally and physically.
"The toughest part of camp is getting rest and coming to practice every day and wanting to work, especially for the young guys. They say every day they just want it over, say they don't want to do it, but it's our job now. That's probably the hardest part for everybody, just coming together every morning and wanting to go to practice. It's tough both (mentally and physically), but it's more mental. You've gotta have the mentality of wanting to do something to be able to do it, you don't want to take plays off, take days off. It's all up in your head. I just use it as another chance to get better each and every day."
Seven-on-7 drills begin. Archer tries to down-block 220-pound freshman defensive back Elcee Refuge and it doesn't go real well, as Refuge powers through the block and helps break up the play. Archer isn't afraid to get his nose dirty blocking, but it's not something he'll be asked to do all that much this season for obvious reasons.
About 15 minutes later, during more 7-on-7 drills, offensive coordinator Brian Rock voices his displeasure with the offense's tempo. The effort level rises, but so do the turnover numbers as several poor snaps from the backup center wind up on the turf.
The team goes live, offense vs. defense, although tackling to the ground is not permitted. While the offense has had the better of the defense early in camp, that doesn't happen on this morning as several blitzers go unblocked and several more snaps are not properly executed. Four passes are tossed Archer's way, but none are completed. On one attempted screen to Archer four defenders are waiting, forcing quarterback David Fisher to just throw the ball into the ground.
Moments later practice ends, and Haynes isn't overly impressed with the showing. He calls the offensive execution "very sloppy," and criticizes the defense for not running to the football.
"We know the price. We've gotta be willing to pay the price," Haynes tells the players in the post-practice huddle.
"(Haynes) hasn't been very happy," said Archer. "You're gonna have your good days and you're gonna have your bad days, that's all part of football, all part of camp. It's just a long grind, you know. We've just gotta have a better practice this afternoon."
Archer is then first to the cold tub, which is just as it sounds -- a huge tub filled with ice that each player must soak in after practice. Physically, he's feeling great so far, and he wants to keep it that way.
"It's definitely a grind, but I'm healthy as I've been in awhile. We've practiced six days, and I'm doing good so far. I'm happy, feeling pretty good coming into the season."
After practice, I look back at what I've just witnessed and realize that if I didn't know Dri Archer was Dri Archer, I probably wouldn't have noticed him all that much.
As a player, his incredible speed and burst aren't being utilized or emphasized during the early stages of preseason practice.
"Now we're just trying to install all the plays in our playbook. It's not like get Dri the ball this play and that play. We try to spread the ball out. It's just practice. I know when the game comes, it's gonna be a little different. I understand what we're working toward, we're working towards the season. We've just gotta take steps each and every day."
As a teammate, Archer basically just blends right in with the rest of the squad.
"I'm just a laid-back guy. I'm not really one of those guys that's gonna say this, say that. I'm pretty chill, outside of football especially. Just like a normal kid. I try to blend in, try not to be noticed too much."
Of course, it's hard to "blend in" entirely when you're a star player from Kent State that's being touted for the Heisman Trophy.
Archer considered leaving school early and entering the NFL Draft following his record-shattering junior season, but after he decided to stay, he was promised that the school would promote him for the Heisman. Kent State has delivered with a campaign that includes an official Dri4Heisman.com website, an @Dri4Heisman Twitter page, Facebook page and a digital comic strip, "The Archer," illustrated by Kent State graduate Chuck Ayers of Crankshaft and Funky Winkerbean fame.
Obviously, being a Heisman candidate from Kent State is "neat," but is it a distraction?
"It's a little bit (time consuming), but not really. It's very unique, it's great getting recognition from being in the MAC. It's a good feeling. But I'm just trying to be humble about it. I still gotta go out and just play football. It's something that's just not even on my mind. I'm just worried about the guys on this team and winning the MAC championship. I just focus on the playbook, focus on our next opponent, which is Liberty."
Lunch (grilled chicken, rice, pasta) at Dix Stadium follows the morning practice, then the players have a few hours to recover before reporting for practice No. 2 of the day at 3:30.
"After lunch, we had some down time to relax before our next obligation, so I took a little nap, just tried to rest and get off my feet. I had a banana, drank some Gatorade to put some fluids in my system so I don't cramp up at practice. Then it started all over again. I got taped back up, we had specialty meetings then individual meetings, then practice."
Archer alternates between position meetings between the running backs and wide receivers, since he plays both spots.
"I switch week by week. This week I've been going with the running backs, next week I'll probably go with the receivers. I talk with the coaches and we make that decision, so we're all on the same page."
After Archer emerges from a quick trip to the training room, he and yours truly sprint (guess who won?) through a downpour from the locker room to the running backs meeting room next to the ticket booth at the front entrance of Dix Stadium.
Eight running backs, coach Bahhur and I are all crammed into a small room that fits a table, a desk holding a computer and a video screen -- barely.
Bahhur talks first about ways the offense was tipping off plays to the defense during the morning practice, including the screen pass to Archer that was completely blown up.
"I see what you're saying (about the tip-off), but they still all knew that (play) was coming," said Archer, as Bahhur agreed.
Bahhur then goes over other things the coaches noticed from the running backs after watching film of the morning practice, and relays plans and plays they will run during the afternoon practice session. He then tests some of the younger players' knowledge of the playbook by asking them what they're supposed to do on certain plays, as Archer and fellow 1,000-yard rusher from 2012 Trayion Durham help their teammates through the process.
Before dismissing the backs so they can suit up for practice, Bahhur tells his troops that they're "gonna be tired for the rest of camp. You've gotta fight through it."
While the meetings were taking place, the storm ended, but not before dropping enough rain to effectively flood the west side of the field. Still, since the rain has ceased, Haynes decides to practice outside rather then move it indoors to the fieldhouse.
While some players quietly question that decision as they emerge from the locker room and notice huge puddles on the field, Archer quietly trots onto the turf at 4:10 p.m.
Archer and the wide receivers take turns catching short passes, then at 4:40, Archer receives the ball on an inside handoff on the first play of a walk-through.
Although players are only wearing shorts and shells (helmets and shoulder pads) during the afternoon session, most of it is spent conducting live drills. The defense once again gets the best of the offense repeatedly. A pass is picked off, a pitch is fumbled and Archer actually shows some frustration when he breaks open a couple times on pass routes but fails to get the ball.
"That's just how I play, I can't help it. I'm a player that likes the ball, and when I don't get the ball -- especially when I'm wide open -- it gets under my skin. But I just gotta keep my composure. I know the ball will find its way to my hands."
After the practice ends, a disappointed Haynes delivers a stern message to the players, questioning their effort, attitude and how much they want it -- a form of the same speech just about every other coach in the country will use at one point or another as a wake-up call during the two-a-day grind.
Later, I overhear the offensive assistant coaches talking about how the unit was sharp in previous practices, but just had 'one of those days' on this day.
"You could definitely tell today was the first two-a-day," said Archer. "It was slow, guys were tired. It was a bad day overall, I'm not gonna lie about it. There's room for improvement, and we've gotta get better starting early tomorrow morning."
Archer is once again first in the cold tub, then the players quickly shower before busing to the student center for dinner.
"(Haynes) mixes up the scenery so we don't have to be at the stadium all day. That's why we have dinner on campus and have meetings in this room, so we're not stuck at the stadium all day. We get different looks."
In the chow line, Archer spends several minutes picking a plateful of individual pineapple chunks out of a huge fruit salad. Some players don't really like it and whisper about it, others joke directly with Archer about it, but they all decide they're not challenging their beloved Heisman candidate over pineapple chunks.
After dinner, the entire team heads to the M.A.C. Center Annex for one final meeting. Haynes conducts these team meetings every night of camp, and they all feature guest speakers and lectures/speeches from coaches and players.
The guest speaker on this night is Logan Vance, a member of the 2nd Ranger Battalion -- a special operations light infantry unit of the United States Army -- who is now a student at Kent State. Haynes names all of his special teams units after military units and loves to have guest speakers from the military address his players.
Vance, who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, talks to the team about being a professional at all times and striving to be the best at what you choose to do.
"(Previous head coach Darrell) Hazell had speakers too. That definitely helps, getting words from a lot of different people. It hits everyone deep. I think it's very useful."
Assistant coaches then lecture on two-minute offense/defense, then the meeting ends with touching senior speeches by quarterback David Fisher, defensive back Fabrice Pratt and center Phil Huff. Archer will give his senior speech next week.
I catch up with Archer one last time before he trudges off to his room to rest up for yet another grueling day that will start in less than eight hours.
"It's always good to end the day, knowing you have another (long) day tomorrow. But I feel good. I'll get some rest and hit the field running full speed tomorrow morning."
Facebook: Allen Moff, Record-Courier