It's not that athletes weren't given target weights last year as they left for summer vacation--because they certainly were. But inexplicably, several key players still managed to report overweight. And their number wasn't only limited to incoming freshmen.
But as part of a laundry list of other expectations, Franchione let it be known last spring that along with accountability and trust, ‘lean and mean' would become a new Tide catch phrase. "We like our linemen big and strong--but also mobile," explained Jim Bob Helduser, Alabama's offensive line coach. "And it's my responsibility to follow up with them as they go through the course of time to see that they're getting to their target weight. It's not a situation where we say on January 1st that you need to weigh this number in August and then have no follow-up in between. It's a continual monitoring process for the staff members responsible for those particular players."
A lot has been said about the number of Tide players already in Tuscaloosa, working out and preparing for next season. But along with the extra weight lifting and film watching throughout the team, several linemen stayed even during Interim term to burn off the excess pounds. And the extra work is paying off. "The progress so far this summer has been really good," Helduser reported. "There will be some individuals in that group of guys that we're trying to get down who will be really close to meeting their goals."
As is his habit, Helduser is cautious in his choice of words, being careful not to claim victory when the game is just barely into the second half. And he's also fiercely protective of his players' privacy. But when pressed the veteran coach reveals a grudging note of optimism. "What I would say right now is that what has transpired so far would lead me to believe that we're going to be in much better condition than we were," he acknowledged. "Especially when compared to when we got here."
As the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Football, Ben Pollard is very much Helduser's partner in this effort. And Pollard has faith in the system. "If your program is set up properly, and the athletes are working hard, then you're going to have success," he explained. "If the kids are working through the summer and spring, things will happen. It's just a matter of them being there and being motivated. And we'll get them plenty of motivation."
The entire squad is lifting Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with running and agility work a five-day affair. And the several athletes faced with significant weight loss are putting in extra roadwork and time on the stationary bikes to achieve their goal. "That responsibility goes back to (the players') work ethic and their dedication to the program," Helduser said. "They need to make sure that they're following a good diet and are taking care of themselves from a dietary standpoint. If they'll get in the weight room and train like we require, then we'll have an opportunity to get them in the kind of shape that they need to be in."
A common misconception among fans is that only 5-10 players were judged overweight last April. The truth is that up to a third of the squad was given marching orders to take off at least some weight, including relatively svelte quarterbacks like Andrew Zow and Tyler Watts. But of course it's no secret that a handful of linemen (including Dante Ellington, Keith Stephens, Anthony Bryant, Dennis Alexander and Marico Portis) faced the biggest challenge.
But overall clear improvement is evident. As tailback Santonio Beard commented recently, "You can see the progress just by looking at everybody. Guys are really starting to see their work pay off."
"If they can see it transfer to the field, then you've got them," Pollard agreed. "If they see themselves having success as a result of improving in here, then the motivation part is over. If it's helping them, then they're going to keep doing it. Ultimately, all our goals are the same. For them to be the best football players possible so we can have the best football team we can have. Success leads to success."
And as he works with his individual players to get in peak condition, Helduser is careful to point out that this job is also a team effort. "We're very involved with our players in all aspects of their career," he explained. "We're going to be involved educationally, from a training standpoint as well as the actual football part. Our basic philosophy is that we exist as assistant football coaches because of our players. If it weren't for them, we wouldn't be here in the first place. So we're going to be very concerned about everything--not just what they do on the field. We watch the weight room, the classroom and socially."
Don't expect him to reveal the details, but rest assured that with careful notes Helduser tracks the weight loss of his linemen day-by-day and pound-by-pound. Just like a trainer preparing his fighter for a championship match, Helduser is determined that his athletes will make the weight by fall two-a-days. "A lot of it is geared toward their personal desire to be a good player and if they're willing to work," Helduser said. "But then it becomes our responsibility to bring out those intangible things in each player, no matter what their differences are, to help them be successful. It goes back to the fundamental program that each one of them is put on as an individual.
"But you don't just wait till August and then expect them to run off the weight. Absolutely not."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Specific weights are not included in this story for a reason. The Tide coaches refuse to embarrass their players--especially those working hard to improve. And honestly, as a former classroom teacher, this writer understands the policy completely. But sometimes pictures are indeed worth more than words.