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Can slimmer, motivated Mario Edwards Jr. convince NFL he's first-round material?

4/27/2015

The morning of the NFL draft, Mario Edwards Jr. will look at himself in the mirror, just as he’s done every morning since declaring for the draft. He’ll pose a question to his reflection, knowing he doesn’t have a satisfying answer.

“Why did I take so long?”

The former Florida State defensive lineman, who entered the draft after his junior season, is 6-foot-3 and weighs 279 pounds and is in such good shape he spent pro day wearing the football equivalent of spandex. It’s a stark contrast to where he was less than a year ago.

The last draft-eligible No. 1 high school prospect was Jadeveon Clowney, who was drafted first overall in 2014. Edwards, who succeeded Clowney as ESPN RecruitingNation’s No. 1 recruit, isn’t following the same trajectory. Instead, Edwards’ name draws varying opinions. There’s talk of him sneaking into the second half of the first round or falling all the way to the end of the second day.

NFL front offices have to ask why it took so long for Edwards, who ballooned to 310 pounds at FSU, to turn himself into the player people expected -- and whether the change is permanent.

“In order for me to be great, I've got to take care of my body,” Edwards said. “The 310, it’s a closed chapter.”

Edwards’ reputation preceded him when he arrived at Florida State in 2012. He was described as a pass-rusher with first-step quickness who also possessed the power to play defensive tackle. The Seminoles had aspirations of competing for a national championship, and the decorated recruit was expected to contribute. Unprepared and overweight, though, he would have redshirted if not for an injury to a starter.

Part of the problem was he always ate until he felt full. It might take a bucket of hot wings or a burrito bowl with quadruple meat and three tacos to do that. That would be lunch, and he’d reorder it in the evening for dinner.

Teammates cracked fat jokes, but it didn’t faze Edwards. Even at 300 pounds, he could still do standing back flips. The problem, he said, was he couldn’t sustain his performance all four quarters. His weight caused him to wilt.

“I couldn’t blame anybody but myself,” he said.

The other problem was the hype and publicity, said Edwards’ father, Mario Sr., who has coached his son the last six years -- the last three as Florida State’s director of development.

“I think he had the big head, because all his life he’s been more talented than most guys he faced. Like a lot of kids, he felt like he already arrived,” Mario Sr. said. “Being humbled and not realizing I’m not the big dog on the block anymore, it was the wake-up call he needed.

“The seed needed to be watered and nourished, and it blossomed into something beautiful.”

As a sophomore, Edwards showed flashes of brilliance and dominated in the 2013 national championship. This past season, Edwards was voted a team captain. His numbers aren’t staggering when compared to those of other linemen, but his role as a 3-4 defensive end differed play to play, a team-oriented role he learned to relish.

“I was an all-about-me player and not about the team,” Edwards said, “and I had to learn it wasn’t about me and support my teammates. I’m the guy that does my job that you don’t have to worry about.”

Still, NFL teams will worry. In pre-draft workouts, Edwards outperformed most other linemen and was one of the biggest risers to come from the combine. But central to the pre-draft process is convincing teams the weight will stay off. Edwards weighed 276 pounds at the Rose Bowl and 272 at pro day. He’s at 279 now. That question is put to bed, he said.

Training with EXOS, a health and performance consulting company, Edwards worked with dietician and performance nutritionist Bob Calvin. Calvin said Edwards was motivated to change his eating habits, which consisted of about 80 percent of his calories coming from poor food choices.

Calvin heard all the right things from Edwards, but he still had to see whether Edwards was applying it. One of the ways Calvin gauges a player's level of sincerity is if they're eating vegetables at breakfast and eschewing sugary drinks for water. That’s exactly what Edwards was doing on a daily basis, and he was ending nights with Caesar salads and sweet potatoes.

“He made upgrades in his habits and saw the rewards and benefits,” Calvin said.

Weekdays at EXOS before the draft have also consisted of four workouts. Edwards was in the top linemen group, joined by potential first-round picks Dante Fowler Jr., Cam Erving and D.J. Humphries. Edwards said he wasn’t the quintessential teammate early in his Florida State career, but EXOS performance specialist Stefan Underwood said he has been a valuable asset in group settings during training.

“He elevated the people around him,” Underwood said. “He was there to work and brought a business mentality.”

Because of his size, Edwards is being looked at as a 4-3 defensive end -- he said he’ll play end in either scheme or even stand up as a linebacker -- which means he’ll have to improve his pass rush. For the past month, Edwards has worked with three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tra Thomas.

Edwards and Thomas worked on the rookie’s stance and spin moves. The two watched film and Thomas offered insight into the tricks that annoy offenses most. There was no lack of motivation, Thomas said.

“He’ll give a lot of O-linemen fits,” Thomas said. “He’s going to be a huge success.”

On draft morning, Edwards might not have an answer for himself when he looks in the mirror, but he knows the person staring back is here to stay.

How does he know?

“I love what I see in the morning now.”