Chris Johnson
By (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
May 10, 2013

A simple motto from coach Pat Fitzgerald made a lasting impression on former Northwestern defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt. He’s always understood the superficial, motivational, standard list animated coach-to-player message behind “as hard as you can for as long as you can,” but it wasn’t until Arnfelt’s individual pro-day workout in late March that the limits of his individual exploits were truly exposed in their proper context.

Thirty-eight repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press (tied with SMU’s Margus Hunt for the highest number recorded at this year’s NFL combine) would have made a noteworthy workout on their own, were they not paired with a 4.43 short shuttle run, a 31-inch vertical leap and a 4.81 40-yd dash – one of the fastest 40 times clocked by a defensive tackle this offseason. Arnfelt wasn’t invited to the NFL combine, even if his workout measurables most definitely suggested he should have been.

In the end, the NFL came calling, anyway. Shortly after the draft ended, Arnfelt had found his professional home: the Pittsburgh Steelers. Arnfelt has already competed in his first minicamp, already found a niche at a new position in a different defensive scheme (3-4 defensive end) and is already preparing for the long slog of organized team activities, better known as OTAs, which Arnfelt considers just one part of the player evaluation process.

“It’s a revolving door,” Arnfelt said of the fluid if unpredictably cruel way NFL personnel handle their rosters in the preseason. “You always have to be at your best.”

In his final season at Northwestern, Arnfelt anchored a defensive line that improved in every statistical measure available. The most obvious metric was run defense: the Wildcats held opposing backs to 3.77 yards per rush (good for fourth in the Big Ten) just one season after allowing 4.49. Or try sacks, where the Wildcats wrapped up opposing quarterbacks 28 times after finishing last in the Big Ten with 17 one year prior.

Neither of the above numerical upticks (sacks, in particular) is directly attributable to Arnfelt; collective defensive statistics are inherently group-applicable. But it’s impossible to deny Arnfelt’s presence – he stayed healthy from start to finish last season, after being held out of all but five games in 2011 – wasn’t a chief driving force. Arnfelt’s powerful run-stuffing forays at the point of attack created near-constant disruption on the line of scrimmage, and the attention his pressure drew, often collapsing an opposing quarterback’s wall of protection, facilitated pass-rushers like Tyler Scott and Deonte Gibson off the edge.

Ask Arnfelt, and he attributes the surge to something entirely different.

“We just took on a certain attitude,” Arnfelt said of the defensive line last season. “We just paid attention to those little details.” At the risk of getting too bogged down in football jargon, Arnfelt’s diagnosis essentially boiled down to two things: 1) encouraging his linemates to muster a strong push on every single play in an attempt to knock back opposing lineman and 2) creating more room in the “box” for linebackers to “flow free” and make plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Those granular details explain the defensive line’s improvement. But what about Arnfelt himself? How did a two-star recruit from Stillwater, Minnesota, morph into one of the Big Ten’s more dominant interior lineman and a feted NFL “workout warrior” in just one season as a  full-time starter? It goes back to what Fitzgerald drilled home, what really stuck with Arnfelt throughout the pre-draft process and into the offseason.

“Conditioning is huge,” he said. “I’m currently in the best shape of my life.”

We can tell.

The physical improvements – the show-stealing pro-day workout – are at the heart of what made Arnfelt a potential late-round draft pick and ultimately, what led the Steelers to give him his first run at professional football. His final season with Northwestern, where any scout-discerning eye could easily observe Arnfelt not only applying pressure, but battering and blowing back Big Ten interior linemen play after play, was another component.

The mental aspect was another change. “They give you a lot of plays and see how you respond. A lot of tape studying and a lot of attention to detail.” Arnfelt has received some help along the way from former Wildcats, including NFL-tested defensive linemen Corbin Bryant and Corey Wootton. He also endured an eight-week training regimen at TC Boost, a professional training facility frequented by former Northwestern players.  “It really helped to work with some guys who have been there [in the NFL] before, showing me how to use my hands and little stuff like that.”

Advice never hurts, particularly when it comes from players who likewise soaked in Pat Fitzgerald’s motivating individual motto not so long ago. Arnfelt remembers a moment before his final season where he felt his individual limits pushed to the limit. It was at the Wildcats’ preseason NAVY SEAL workouts, a team-building exercise that ended up building Arnfelt’s internal strength in equal measure.

“You learn that you can break through those physical limits by just working past them,” he said.

At the next level, Arnfelt will need to eclipse a few more individual thresholds before securing a roster spot with one of the league’s most historically successful franchises.

“With my conditioning, one of the biggest benefits is being able to run around a lot and not getting tired too easily,” he said, matter-of-factly, but all too critically in a profession that demands peak physical condition all day, every day – a state Arnfelt has worked to develop and maintain in trying to earn permanent foothold in an uber-competitive professional environment.

The process is already well underway.

© 2013 Inside Northwestern