Aug. 19, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Among whatever else they've experienced this preseason, Marshall's defensive linemen have learned the route to the quarterback around Sandley Jean-Felix is like having to take a detour.
The redshirt freshman has gotten plenty of reps with the "ones," protecting star QB Rakeem Cato in August camp. That's because junior Clint Van Horn, the returning starter and Lombardi Award watch-listed at right tackle, has been sidelined with an injury.
Jean-Felix may be a rookie, but beating him takes great lengths.
This is not a stretch.
"I went to a Florida camp one time," Jean-Felix said after practice Monday, "and they told me I'd have the second-highest wingspan in the NFL if I was there right now."
The 6-foot-5, 319-pound Jean-Felix's sleeve length is 36 3/4 inches.
So, where does he buy his shirts?
"Every store I go to, I can't really find sleeves that long," he said, smiling. "It's tough."
Only one prospect at the 2014 NFL Combine - Kansas State's 6-8 Luke Lucas -- had an arm length of 36 or more inches.
Jean-Felix's own detour to this point came last season, when he tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee during a September game-week practice. Last preseason, his strides were as long as those arms.
Now, the Sunrise, Fla., resident has the quality reps to go with his potential - and it was that upside that made Herd Coach Doc Holliday and his staff so big on a big guy other recruiters ignored.
His size wasn't everything, however. He wasn't ready to be the player he has become. When Jean-Felix arrived at MU, his first trips to the Pruett Training Center were eye-opening.
"Sandley came in and he had no flexibility," said Scott Sinclair, the Herd's strength and conditioning coach about whom Herd players rave regularly. "For us, a squat is when you squat down (like a baseball catcher) and you're parallel to the top of the ground with your thigh.
"We tell them that if we put a tennis ball on top of your thigh, it shouldn`t roll forward. It should stay still or roll backward. Sandley couldn't flex. He couldn't get down into a squat -- zero flexibility, I'm not joking. He couldn't do a lot of lifts because he couldn't get down in proper position to begin the lift."
So, Sinclair got tough.
"He got there through tons of working with him, jumping on his back, pulling his knees, the most aggressive stuff I've ever done, and always not letting him get out of things," Sinclair said. "Sandley did the work, too, and he ended up being able to squat 405, which not going from anything to a squat is good.
"Hey, for him then, doing his body weight was good. At 405, it's not a big number for an offensive lineman, but for the fact he could actually go down into a parallel position that was good. He did a 290 power clean. As soon as his technique is a little bit better, that's going to go through the roof. He's getting there. For a freshman, he did 24 reps at 225 (pounds) in the pro bench (ranking sixth on the team). That's really good."
Jean-Felix admits he wouldn't be filling Van Horn's role without that weight-room boost.
"I lifted when I was in high school (Boyd Anderson, in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.), but I didn't work on my flexibility like I should have. When I came here, one of the first things they did was help me get way better there. I thank Coach Sinclair for that, and I'm a much better player on the field because of that."
Then, it was Marshall offensive line coach Alex Mirabal's turn to turn Jean-Felix into a tackle that could play for a team getting plenty of preseason attention nationally.
"The great thing about what Coach Sinclair did with Sandley is when you watch film, you can really see him sinking his hips and dropping his knees, which is what he needs to do," Mirabal said. "And Sandley sees that on film, so when he goes to Coach Sinclair, he make Scott push him even further.
"He's also very strong and he's got the tools. He does 225 upwards of 20-some times, has 36 3/4-inch length arms, abnormally long. His wingspan really is ridiculous, which is what you want in an offensive tackle. Length makes up for a lot of things. If you make a mistake, you can still get an extra shove, an extra push. "And even though Sandley has some flexibility issues, he's still very athletic. He was a basketball player in high school, and he probably has the best pass protection kick (step-back) of all our guys. "Then you couple that with the length of his arms and then he's 320 pounds, and he's a hard man to deal with.
"With Clint being out, Sandley is getting all these reps, and it's only going to make him better and better. And he's going against kids who have played Division I football - not freshmen -- so his learning curve has gone up pretty rapidly."
Jean-Felix credits Van Horn as a "mentor, on and off the field ... He's taught me a bunch of things. I thought I'd get some reps in camp, but nothing like this. I knew Clint's past, that he unfortunately he had some injuries before, and I'm ready to cover his spot the best I can and represent him and the team."
Jean-Felix said Herd defensive linemen have remarked to him about the degree of difficulty in playing across from him in drills.
"They'll come up and say things like, `Man, Sandley, it's tough to get around you.' I'm just trying to do my job and so are they. The opportunity for me is really big. It's exciting.
"I didn't expect this much this soon, but the coaches say when you have an opportunity, you need to step up. I'm trying to take advantage of this and show I can play when they need me to play."
Asked what - in his mind - he needs most now, Jean-Felix didn't hesitate with his answer.
"I need to be tough," he said. "Yeah, I'm really easy going, but when I'm on the field, I have to turn on a tough switch and just go out and get at it."
Undoubtedly, Van Horn will reclaim his spot before the Herd's Aug. 30 opener at Miami (Ohio). But Jean-Felix has established more than the fact he has a wingspan that needs one of those "oversized load" signs on escort cars.
"If Aug. 30 were today, he'd be the starting right tackle and I wouldn't have to worry about him," Mirabal said. "In my mind, he's a starter, and when I say a starter, I mean he's a starting-quality caliber kid, and you can win major college football games with a Sandley Jean-Felix at right tackle, which is awesome."
So is that wingspan.