"I should be in the 330s by the combine."
Zach Banner repeated this sentence over and over after Tuesday's Senior Bowl practice as reporters tried to ask him questions about the feasibility of the plan.
"I should be in the 330s by the combine."
Banner is the largest player at the entire Senior Bowl, measuring in at 6'8 and 361 pounds. While scouts and media members collectively gasped when seeing him in person for the first time, Banner continued to turn heads when he detailed his weight-loss goals after the first practice.
"I've dropped 20 pounds since since the Rose Bowl and that should be in the 330s at the combine," said Banner.
Dropping 50 pounds in 57 days would be dangerous for the average person. But for a person with a frame as large as Banner's it's a reasonable goal. Banner is a player who has struggled with weight issues throughout his career, but now claims to have a renewed commitment to maintaining his body.
Since signing with the sports agency Athletes First, Banner has participated in intensive training at a location in Santa Ana called "The Marke". The roof of this high-end apartment building has been turned into a training facility where a training group called Proactive works with the 16 Athletes First athletes training for the combine.
But intense training is not new to Banner. Playing an entire career at USC, he has always had access to the best facilities. The difference now?
“I have the money to afford a nutritionist,” said Banner. “I don’t have a binge-eating problem but I need to watch what I eat. I have a nutritionist now and she cooks for me three times a day. Danielle is awesome, write down Danielle’s name and shout her out.”
"Danielle (Chef)" as she appears in Banner's phone, is Danielle Kuhm, a personal chef hired by Athletes First to manage the nutrition of its athletes. Kuhm's original background is in restaurant management, but she has been a personal chef for the last seven years. Every athlete she works with has different dietary needs, depending on whether they are trying to gain, maintain, or lose weight, so finding the right combination of foods is a key part of her job.
"All the guys have different caloric needs, so I cook their breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus snack, for six days out of the week," said Kuhm. "They have one free day. But out of that I have to break it down. One guy might need more calories in protein and another might need more veggies. So each guy has a different caloric need and from there we do it based on the micronutrients so that they're getting the exact amount of everything they need."
At its simplest, weight maintenance comes down to consuming more/less calories than ones body burns throughout the day. This can be a tricky balance to find for athletes as big as Banner, because he needs significantly more calories than the average person just to maintain health, but is also physically exerting himself a large amount by working out and training.
According to Kuhm, Banner is eating about 3,200 calories per day in food along with another 400 calories in protein shakes. That sounds like a lot of food for someone trying to lose weight, but Kuhm finds ways to get Banner the nutrients he needs while cutting calories when possible.
"For Zach, since he's trying to lose weight, we do the protein mixed with water," said Kuhm. "Versus the guys trying to gain weight, I use peanut butter powder, a banana and milk instead of water so that they're getting extra calories."
Because maintaining their desired weight is so important to these players, Kuhm, the Proactive training staff and members of the Herbalife team have weekly meetings going over all of the statistics regarding the players' health. When Banner first brought up his weight-loss goal, the immediate questions from scouts and media members were, can you really do that and is that healthy?
While Banner's immediate response was just to reiterate his goal, Kuhm knows there are a variety of ways to encourage weight loss, and understands the importance of doing it safely.
"He definitely has a lot to lose, but he's been very good about following the exact program," Kuhm said. "But as much as we want Zach to reach that goal, we want him to do it the right way and not lose too much. Keeping him hydrated is important too. But for example for the guys trying to gain weight we add some extra salt and for Zach I take the salt out of his diet the closer we get to the combine so he loses that water weight."
Kuhn has complete control over Banner's diet for six days out of the week, and she says one of the important things to do to help cut weight is to cut down on carbs. It's not smart to completely eliminate carbohydrates like some diet programs suggest, but carbs are often more difficult for the body to digest. Because of this, Banner usually gets half a cup of carbs in his meals, compared to two cups for the athletes trying to put on weight.
Along with a low amount of carbohydrates, Banner's diet consists mostly of vegetables and proteins.
"For breakfast he usually gets scrambled eggs and a turkey sausage. Whereas some of the guys that are trying to gain weight I throw some potatoes on there, but Zach isn't getting any of those," said Kuhn with a laugh. "A snack would be roasted hummus and some veggies. And lunch would be chicken salad, salad. About half a cup of chicken salad that has apples and walnuts and put that on top of a green salad with an oil vinaigrette. And then another afternoon snack might be some light fruit. And finally dinner might be grilled chicken, roasted vegetables and a brown rice/quinoa blend."
Kuhn is clearly dedicated to putting Banner in the best position to succeed, and she feels he is dedicated as well. While dropping 50 pounds in 57 days sounds incredibly difficult to most people, Kuhn continually emphasized Banner's commitment to the program and noted that his drive is what makes the goal feasible.
For Banner, a guy who has struggled with his weight over the course of his collegiate career, he feels a change has been made. In addition to simply being able to pay a nutritionist, Banner thinks this commitment to keeping his weight down shows his growth as a person and hopes NFL teams see that.
“I’ve grown up, I’ve turned myself into a man that understands he’s going to lose money, he’ll lose his spot, he’ll get fired,” said Zach after Thursday’s practice. “I knew that at SC and I knew the competition level was high…so I’ve grown and I understand what I have to do. Like I’ve said, I’ll be in the 330s by the combine.”
As far as Banner's NFL prospects go, his enormous size lends him to being a strong run blocker. That was often his reputation during his time at USC and it's proven to be true at the Senior Bowl. Banner was quick to mention a pancake block he had on Tuesday's practice, and used the word "dominate" to describe his play more times than you hear the phrase "Fight On!" when walking through USC's campus.
Banner's strength being run-blocking was the consensus among scouts and talent evaluators I spoke with, and most quickly noting his weakness being pass-blocking on the outside. His struggles with speed-rushers were on national display against Alabama's Tim Williams in the opening game of the season, and this issue is one of the big reasons why it's important for Banner to keep his weight down. Along with it showing commitment to his body and future, a couple scouts I spoke with said that if Banner could drop to the 330s range by the combine, it could help improve his speed and boost his draft stock a fair amount.
For Banner, it's about those two things. Weight and dominance.
"Every time I'm able to jump on the scale and prove to them I'm losing weight but maintaining my dominance, every time I'm able to show my athleticism and what I can do, it brings me up more on the board. Where on the board, I don't know and I don't care," said Banner.
The biggest man in college football is trying to get a little less big. With the help of Danielle Kuhm, Banner has the means to lose an amount of weight that seems obscene to most people. But while most college football players at the NFL Combine have statistical goals they're trying to reach through performance, the most important number to Banner will come before he even steps foot on the field.
Now we just have to wait and see whether or not he will be in the 330s at the combine.