Buffalo Bills guard Michael Jasper says he has come a long way in 18 months, since his days as a 440-pound giant among boys at small Bethel University in Tennessee.
"I was tripping out the other day," Jasper said after Thursday's practice. "I was looking at old pictures of me in college to now. I'm still a big human being, but as far as the girth in certain areas and the muscle strength and the leanness, it's pretty awesome. I enjoy it."
A full offseason of hard conditioning work in Orchard Park has Jasper in the best shape of his life, at 375 pounds, and hopeful of making the roster in his second season with the team.
Jasper is the "mountain in the rough" the Bills picked in the seventh round in 2011 because of his remarkable size and agility. He played at 440 pounds at Bethel, an NAIA school in McKenzie, Tenn. He had trimmed down to the 380 range last spring. Before the draft, he ran a time of 5.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash, had a 32-inch vertical jump and broad-jumped 9 feet, 5 inches.
To put those numbers in perspective, the first guard taken in this year's draft was David DeCastro, a 316-pounder taken 24th overall by Pittsburgh. He ran 5.34 seconds in the 40, had a 29.5-inch vertical jump and broad-jumped 8 feet, 2 inches.
Jasper weighed in at 383 last July. He spent all of training camp and preseason playing nose tackle. After the Bills signed him to the practice squad on Sept. 4, they switched him back to guard, where he played in college. Bills General Manager Buddy Nix said at the time the Bills didn't want him to impress other teams at guard in the preseason and get scooped up after the final round of roster cuts.
Jasper spent 15 games on the practice squad. He got promoted to the 53-man roster for the season finale but did not see action in the game.
Having missed out on offseason work with NFL trainers last year due to the lockout, Jasper was determined to make the most of his offseason this year.
"I was only home for 2 1/2 weeks after the season ended," Jasper said. "I've been here since late January, getting in shape. I've done some amazing strength work with [strength coach] John Gamble. Weight is no longer a factor. I'm in shape and I'm doing what they ask me to do."
Jasper says he's getting a lot more comfortable at guard under the tutelage of line coach Joe D'Alessandris.
He was able to rely solely on his size and strength in college.
"At Bethel I was so big, when I moved to offense there, it really just became run the ball behind No. 69," he said. "A lot of power runs. Just go. Hit everything in my way. I had some great running backs there at Bethel. There was very little technique. A lot of power. We're not throwing the ball unless it's third and 20."
Last summer, he did not have the benefit of daily drills with the linemen in training camp.
"I'm really just learning the techniques and getting to actually hone in on the craft," Jasper said. "Last year when I made the switch to offense we went right into the season so I was on the practice squad and really had to focus on game-planning. So now I get a little bit more attention with Joe D, and I'm getting a lot of reps that I missed out on."
Jasper sees blitz-pickup and adjusting in pass protection as the biggest leap for him from the college game.
"There's some off-the-wall stuff that comes at you," he said. "Learning the technique of being a true O-lineman. Being a great pass blocker in this offense and picking up the blitzes that come has been the toughest thing, but Joe D has got me up to speed."
Making the roster won't be easy. The Bills have a good man as their backup interior lineman in Chad Rinehart, a former third-round pick who started 12 games last season. Jasper will have to play well enough to convince them to have extra depth at guard. He also could go on the practice squad again.
At this point, Jasper simply is eager to get pads on and show what he can do.
"I feel like I can be an asset one day," he said. "I'm working every day. I'm taking it day by day. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't itching for the preseason."
The Bills had their fifth organized-team activity workout Thursday on the grass field behind the fieldhouse. They close their second week of spring practices today and have four practices scheduled next week.