Under Head Coach Dennis Franchione, Alabama tests its athletes on four core lifts: the standard bench press, the incline bench press, the squat and the hang clean. When Ben Pollard, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Football, first took over the program back in January he tested all the athletes on those lifts. Those numbers provided a base line upon which to judge the squad's improvement.
Helduser doesn't discount the benefits of adding pure power, but he knows that the squads on Alabama's schedule are also made up of quality athletes. And he hopes for a more telling advantage as the season wears on. "In the long run, the two major areas where strength improvement is an advantage is that it will help our durability and endurance as we go through the course of the season," Helduser explained. "There comes a point in the season where it becomes a grind. The middle part and two-thirds of the way it wears you down. And if you have good strength going in, then you survive that a lot better."
Helduser will quickly explain that the offensive line was nowhere near where they needed to be strength-wise when the new staff came on board. And he along with the other Tide coaches immediately began an intensive effort to improve the squad's strength across the board. Bama's O-Line coach is also acutely aware that several of his most physically gifted athletes haven't exhibited much of a work ethic in the weight room in year's past, leading many fans to criticize their effort.
But since he arrived back in January, he has been pleased with their response to his challenge. And while he understands the fans' curiosity regarding specific numbers for individual athletes, at this point he is guarding his players' privacy, choosing instead to speak in overall terms about the unit's progress while also highlighting individual effort.
And viewing the numbers from the most recent test session, Helduser is satisfied that his athletes are making progress. "On the bench press, 15 of our 16 athletes are lifting at least 400 pounds," he related. "The average lift for the group is 425. Those numbers are highlighted by Marico Portis' 500 pound lift (a position record). Matt Lomax and Eric Boschung both had 60-pound gains. Marico's gain was 55 pounds."
A 400-pound bench press is generally considered the standard for most linemen, but due to the change in angle the incline bench is slightly more difficult. Keith Stephens holds the position record at 440 pounds. "On the incline, they don't really have a baseline to compare like a 400-pound bench," Helduser explained. "But the average for the group is 378 pounds. Marico had an 80-pound increase, and Keith Stephens and Dennis (Alexander) both went up 100 pounds from January. Six athletes are 400 pounds or more on the incline, which is pretty good."
Besides the flat bench press, fans are generally also familiar with the standard squat. With 500 pounds considered a baseline for linemen, junior Bart Raulston is the Tide star. "On the squat, 12 of our 16 athletes are at 500 pounds or more," Helduser related. That's highlighted by an 800-pound lift for Bart Raulston. Bart had a 100-pound increase, and Shaun Williams added 190 pounds to his personal best. The average squat for the group is 584 pounds."
Raulston had surgery on both wrists last year and has been very careful in protecting himself against re-injury since then. So his ‘legal' record on the squat now stands at 635 pounds. "There are seven athletes that are working with the safety bar (due to injury), which allows you to do more weight," Helduser added. "But the testing is the same, so their poundage increase is valid. It just makes the average higher. Bart is back to the point now where he doesn't have to limit his lifts."
Of the four basic lifts, Coach Pollard has said that the hang clean is his favorite, primarily because it most closely mimics muscular movements common to the football field. And this is especially true for offensive linemen who explode upward with arms and legs on every snap. 300 pounds is generally considered a good baseline for linemen. "On the hang clean, 13 of 15 that were able to test achieved 300 pounds or better," Helduser said. "Justin Smiley's 380-pound lift is the position record, representing a 60-pound increase.
"Wesley Britt increased his personal best by 70 pounds. Several guys had 60-pound increases: Danny Martz, Matt Lomax, Dennis Alexander and Eric Boschung. 320 is the average clean for the group."
With only junior Dante Ellington the only returning upper-class starter on the line, Helduser has an obvious concern about the level of experienced maturity on the O-Line. "You always want older players starting," he stated. "Anytime that you can play with more experienced people you have an opportunity to be better. The biggest transition out of high school that an offensive lineman has to make coming into a college program of this stature is generally that they are behind in strength levels. Incoming players need to have 18 months, 24 months or whatever to improve their strength."
That doesn't mean that Alabama will never start a true freshman lineman, but fans shouldn't expect it to happen very often. "Those athletes that play well on the offensive line as young players are exceptional guys," Helduser explained. "Of course our philosophy is always to play our best players, so if we have a freshman that has that ability, then his youth won't preclude him from playing. That applies to the guys that are here now, the recruits we signed this year and those we'll sign in the future."
It's not so much a matter of acquiring a mean streak to battle effectively in the trenches, but more a natural maturing that simply takes time. "Guys that are recruited to this level are going to have some margin of physical toughness," Helduser said. "So it's more of a maturation in regards to technique, the speed of the game and how to play at this speed."
And even beyond the physical aspects of maturing and gaining strength in the weight room, Helduser points out that when it comes to building a cohesive unit capable of competing at the highest levels--there is simply no substitute for time. "The thing you have to take into account for the unit is playing together," he explained. "Guys that can play together over an extended period of time become better. It's tough when you continually have to change (your lineup) and shuffle players around."
So how long will it take? When will Tide fans be able to expect a return to dominating blocking from the ‘Big Uglies' up front? "It's a difficult question to answer because you have a variety of situations at different schools you take over," Helduser replied. "The ages and experience of players is different. The younger and inexperienced group of guys is obviously going to take longer to get up to speed than a more experienced group.
"I think it'll take us a little bit longer with these guys to get to the level where we want. But their work ethic toward doing what we want them to do has been phenomenally good. They'll get it done as quickly as it can be done."