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Road to the NFL: Appleby, Anzalone, Sharpe, prepare for Draft at IMG Academy

ROAD TO THE NFL

For 22 prospective NFL players at IMG Academy, wakeup call is 6 a.m.

They head out to the track to practice their 40-yard dash times -- or to the other side of campus for multi-directional training.

That's where you'll find former Gator football players Austin Appleby, Alex Anzalone and David Sharpe five days a week.

Though they may never have to perform a 3-cone drill or 20-yard shuttle again, it's a necessary part of an NFL audition. With the Combine and Pro Day just around the corner, this six-week program grooms former collegiate athletes into finely-tuned professional football machines.

To reach crucial improvements in size, strength, speed and technique, their schedule is designed to revolve entirely around the sport, from sun-up to sundown. It may get redundant, but if there's one source of relief, it's not having to attend class in between practice and meetings.

"You can focus more on football," Sharpe said. "You don't have to worry about that homework and test the next day."

"I've found I have more time to take care of my body," Appleby said. "Go spend the extra time in treatment or stretching. You can spend more time in the film room or do the things -- the little extra stuff to separate yourself."

They may not be in the classrooms of UF's campus anymore, but they're still going to school.

After completing the day's two or three workouts, they have more than two hours of meetings, where they watch film, study NFL playbooks and run through mock interviews.

They also go through vision and cognitive training in the "mind gym," using the Neurotracker, FITLIGHT and Dynavision D2 technologies. It's a program based on the pilot training at the Air Force Academy.

Hopefully, a completed program equates to a successful Combine or Pro Day appearance.

"It's a great feeling," Sharpe said. "Smiling everywhere. Texting everybody. Talking to everyone. It's just a big smile. It's just a great feeling, knowing that you nailed it, especially if it's at that big stage."

"There's so much that goes into it, but you can't put pressure on yourself to perform to a certain standard," Anzalone said. "You just gotta go out and do your best and control what you can control, and whatever happens, happens."

"There's gonna be head coaches, GMs, guys that are gonna be making decisions," Appleby said. "All eyes are gonna be on us, both at the Combine and at Pro Day ... it's definitely gonna be a cool feeling to go out and show the whole country and the NFL what we're all about."

Sometimes, it's a 12-hour day. But, the work is worth it. NFL stars like Cam Newton, Eli Manning and Russell Wilson went through this draft prep program at IMG, too.

As with most Draft trainees, these former Gators have been working toward an NFL career for their entire lives.

"Something cool about my childhood is -- I forget what age, but I put on a piece of paper -- I wrote, 'I'm going to play in the NFL,'" Anzalone said. "And I put it on my ceiling, and I'd look at it before [I go to bed] every night."

"I can vividly remember me and my little brother, who's two year's younger, being out in the backyard and having the little plastic helmet, Dallas Cowboys jersey, just being in your own little world," said Appleby. "Just dreaming of being on that stage and being an NFL player and throwing the ball up to yourself, but in your imagination, you're in front of 100,000 people."

"Growing up as a kid, playing in the backyard, [we'd] be out there playing full-fledged tackle football," Sharpe said. "I broke my arm -- all that stuff -- but it was always the dream. Just being able to live it out, it's crazy."

The 2017 NFL Draft begins April 27. In two short months, the former student-athletes will be the running with the guys they grew up watching on TV.

"Getting drafted's a lifelong dream," Sharpe said. "Just when you get there, the goal is to stay. Stay as long as you can."

"It's something you've had your eyes on and you've been working toward your entire life, and then once you hit it, you definitely enjoy it" Appleby said. "You embrace it with your families. It's gonna be a truly special day. And then you go to work."

But, Anzalone said it's important to keep it all in perspective.

"Once you get drafted and everything, it's kinda just the beginning," he said. "It's when the work really starts ... in perspective, it is a little crazy that your childhood is coming to fruition. But it's a new level of competition. There's people out there who have to provide for their families, so you have to take it seriously. You can view it as an accomplishment, but you have to take it with a grain of salt."

Right now, they're still teammates. Though in a couple months, they could be rivals.

But, that won't change much.

"We got a brotherhood at the University of Florida, and it doesn't just stop once we're done playing there," Appleby said. "These are going to be my best friends for the rest of my life."

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