Two factors affected the squad's off-season preparations. No bowl game for a definitely deserving 2002 squad cost the team almost a full month of "free" practice time. Plus, Pollard and Head Coach Mike Price decided to hold the Night of Champions before, rather than after, Spring Drills.
"It's been kind of a long winter--but also short," Pollard explained. "This year's date is almost two months earlier. In the past the Night of Champions has been the last week in April. May first was when we did it last year, so that will make some difference. As a squad we're not as good as we were when we tested last spring (following spring practice), but this earlier date gives us a longer working period before we test again in the summer."
Under new Head Coach Mike Price, Pollard enjoys more freedom to design his program based on what's best for the athlete--without any particular regard for PR value. And he says that holding the weight-lifting exhibition before spring drills will help. Pollard explained, "This schedule will be better for the athletes during spring practice, because I won't have to require them to lift as heavy during spring. That lets us work on other things."
Benefiting from an extra month and a half in the weight room, last year's exhibition produced numerous position and program records. "As a squad we're not as peaked as we will be in the summer," Pollard said. "Being closer to the (2002) season, we're not yet at our optimal lifting levels. The bench press is where we're the furthest behind. The season takes a toll on shoulders more than on anything else. I don't see bench press records falling, but I do see a chance for some hang clean records falling."
As the name suggests, the Night of Champions is an opportunity for fans to watch their heroes up close, working and excelling apart from just football. And Pollard does expect some records to fall. "Justin Smiley and Antwan Odom are going to be competing for a record," Pollard said. "Smiley already owns the team record for the clean, and he's got a chance to improve on that. Wesley Britt has a chance to squat 600 pounds (500 is considered very good)."
And as Pollard often explains, the event isn't simply a showcase for his heaviest lifters. If it were, then he could easily make up his participation list merely by taking the top number in each group. Pollard also uses the night to reward players for extraordinary hard work.
He talked about his reasoning. "I put Roberto McBride in for the squat. He's been the Iron Man for two years in a row. Roberto's going to try to squat 500 pounds, which is pretty impressive for a 175-pound kid. Greg McLain is another one that has worked very hard and has earned the opportunity to be out there."
Pollard obviously likes to spread the wealth around, but this year he also made a conscious decision to include several newcomers. "Friday will be a chance to let people see the freshmen," Pollard said. "I know that people are wondering ‘Is he going to be able to step in and play for us next fall?'"
Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Kyle Tatum has made excellent progress since arriving last fall. "Kyle is impressive because when you see a kid that's 6-7 (inches tall) doing some of the things that he does," Pollard said. "He does a great job squatting. Some day he's going to be a kid that's going to compete for the record in the hang clean."
With fans worried about replacing Jarret Johnson, Kindal Moorehead and Kenny King, it's no accident that redshirt freshman Jeremy Clark will also compete Friday. "Jeremy has had a very good off season as well," Pollard said. "Jeremy has done a great job on his hang clean. If he does what I think he will squat-wise, then you're talking about more than a 100-pound increase on that lift. I think he's getting his strength levels to where physically he'll be ready to step in and do some things."
Other players included in the lineup that weren't even on campus last spring are McLain, Derrick Pope, Kenneth Darby, Demeco Ryans and Nic Luke. "Fans will see Demeco Ryans, one of our young kids, with an impressive squat," Pollard related. "Kenneth Darby has had some great gains. And Nic (Luke) is one of the hardest workers we have, so I wanted to reward him. I'm not sure how much he'll squat, but he'll do fine."
The vertical jump exhibition has always been a fan favorite. Two years ago fans marveled as lineman Aries Monroe jumped through the roof, and last year Waine Bacon's 42-inch personal record (spurred on by the cheers of his teammates) thrilled the crowd.
"Both Brandon Brooks and Triandos (Luke) have a shot at jumping 40 inches," Pollard said. "I think the fans will probably be more impressed with Brandon, when they see him jump, because he's not very tall they're going to be impressed with that. He's got a legitimate chance to jump 40. And Tri jumped really well the other day as well."
Watching smaller skill players sky isn't necessarily unusual, but Pollard is tempted to ask two of Bama's Big Uglies to do double duty Friday night. Both Justin Smiley and Evan Mathis will be otherwise occupied, but a surprise is possible. Pollard explained, "Smiley and Mathis both jumped 35 inches during testing, which is incredible for a 300-pound kid. They're both lifting in other events. But we may try to sneak one or two of them in there."