Learning the Ropes

Arkansas redshirt program puts newcomers through the ropes. Jason Veltkamp's program gets players ready to play in a hurry. This is the first of a three-part series. Features on Braylon Mitchell and Luke Charpentier are still to come.

Hold on to the rope. That's been a coaching adage about as long as there have been athletic competitions.

Arkansas redshirts don't just hear that from their strength and conditioning coaches, they feel it in every muscle of their body in a body-building test each Saturday morning.

"The ropes, they are about as hard as anything you could do," said Kurt Schmidt, assistant strength and conditioning coach with the Hogs.

"They are thick and have a lot of weight to it. We ask them to swing them up and down. They are so heavy that if you don't put in a lot of effort, the rope doesn't move. You aren't going to cheat on the rope."

That comes at the end of a four-day work week in the strength and conditioning program for the redshirts, perhaps something akin to the only fun day of the week. It's really the fifth day. It's the most intense routine in the program.

Head strength coach Jason Veltkamp said there are also two-day lifting routines for the starters designed to maintain strength, and also three-day programs for some of the backups and freshman not playing a lot. There are also special needs routines for some players who need"extra."

Veltkamp called those groups the X groups.

"Maybe they need a little extra work on hip flexibility, or they are getting something for a specific position, say more shoulder work for a quarterback," Veltkamp said. "So we really have six groups going at the same time."

It's toughest for the redshirt group, that long week with four days, then the competition on Saturday.

"Specifically, in season, we are running several programs at the same time," Veltkamp said. "The three-day and four-day programs are both developmental. The four-day is coordinated by Coach Schmidt.

"The one thing we want the players to understand is that they are NOT in the four-day program to wait two years down the road to compete for a job. We want to get them ready to compete their very first spring. We want to see those kids out on the field next year competing for jobs.

"We want them ready in strength, size and power. We are aggressively attacking these kids. Really, the four-day program turns into a five-day program because they also come in on game day and compete.

"We even leave a couple of strength coaches behind when we travel so that they get a workout on game day. They'll come in at 8 a.m. because it's important to get their extra (nutritional) shakes and extra work and compete on game day.

"Coach Schmidt does a great job with those kids in their ups and downs and also directs our nutrition program. So when a kid comes into the program, they are going to either be in the three- or four-day developmental program. The fact he can guide them in that program and their nutritional development in their first year on campus is big-time."

It's a grind for the scout teamers on the redshirt list.

"There's no payoff on the weekend like you have for the guys playing in the games," Veltkamp said. "The redshirts work hard and give a look to the varsity all week long on the scout team, but maybe you don't even suit up for the game. They don't have anything to look forward to on the weekend, so we try to give them something where they get the right to talk trash to the other guys for a week."

Schmidt likes to think the Saturday workout is both a challenge and something juicy.

"They have something to get out of bed Saturday morning and go compete with each other," he said. "That takes some of the monotony out of the week.

"It's also a pride thing. They come together. The ropes aren't easy. They talk about it. They say, 'Hey, we have to grind, work hard, we had to come together.'

"Ropes are about 10 yards long, really thick and a lot of weight to them. We use two of them at one time. It's metabolic, full body workout. You get a conditioning component to it.

"We want to create a bond and let each other see everyone working hard and pushing each other. When they get back with the vets, they know they can push through things. They've been pushed to the limit and had to make that choice whether or not they are going to give up or quit. That's something we talk about all the time in the offseason."

It's easier if they are matched in games even with the weight lifting sets.

"We go a lot of directions in the weight room as far as competing," Schmidt said. "We might have a speed day where we have units we measure how fast they can go with the bar. For example, we might point out that Luke moved the bar this fast, Luke you need to go just as fast.

"It helps motivate each other to compete. We see who the best finisher is each day. We might do a towel hang for time, or a push-up competition." There are actual group games, too.

"On Saturday, we'll get a medicine ball and play something that's close to ultimate Frisbee," Schmidt said. "There bodies are sore and worn down and it's a great way to get that out of them.

"Our whole goal is to get them in shape and get them moving and burn calories. But there is a winner and loser. We put the coaches and Gas in there to the mix competing. When the coaches in there getting beat, they love that.

"We had four teams, then had the winner's meet and the loser's meet. There are rewards for the winner and the loser has to put up the equipment. You always want to have a result in the competition."

Obviously, the goal is to blend the redshirts into the veterans for winter workouts.

"We want to get them used to that kind of competition," Schmidt said, "because when we put them in with the veterans when we start back in January, they are ready to compete for jobs. When we do a sprint workout, they are going to compete with the guy who they have to beat for playing time. We want to teach that and develop it as much as possible."

Schmidt said the fact they aren't playing now means there are always looks into the future.

"We want them to think about where they are going to be next season and to set goals," Schmidt said. "We want them to think about being the best player in the country at their position. So we talk about that.

"They have to keep the vision one year down the road. That's how you keep them working hard, knowing what you do today will make a difference in eight weeks when they begin to train with the vets. Then you have another eight-week program to get ready for spring ball.

"So the window of opportunity is now so you can compete for a job."

Veltkamp said, "We have to make sure we are always talking about the future with those guys. You have to keep their mind right. It is hard to keep that mindset to be forward thinking. It's also tough for those that aren't playing right now that aren't redshirting. They aren't getting a ton of reps, like a Chris Smith.

"I think you go back to last year and see that's where Darius Winston was last year. We have to stay positive with them. You can see it's wearing on them and then give the coaching staff a head's up and get them looking beyond the end of their nose because there is light at the end of the tunnel, it just might not seem like it this morning.

"Every day you have to look them all in the eyes and check them. We get them before they go to class in the morning so it's a tough time of the day, a tough time in their careers and we have to be able to read them."

Schmidt said, "The good thing is that we have examples of guys who have been in our redshirt program and are now playing. There's Alfred Davis, Tenarius Wright and even Ryan Mallett. Ryan sat out his first year and went through all of this. Those are some of our best competitors."

Veltkamp sees a great class in the redshirt group. He liked them when he first got them on campus in June and he has seen nothing to change his mind.

"This class wasn't ranked highly, but I thought in the summer top to bottom it was better than the other two classes," he said. "At this point, there are not as many playing. But there are guys from that first class that are no longer here because they weren't good enough to play in the SEC.

"That's kind of strange now when you think about it, but we had to play them, especially on defense. We didn't have any tools to work with.

"I still think there is a bunch more talent in this class we just got than either of the first two. Some of them are sleepers. No one talked much about Luke (Charpentier) when we first recruited him. But you see it all the time, the kid that's the 1-star, 2-star and the 3-star turns out to be the best.

"It's really hard to judge stars on offensive linemen. You see it all the time, the walk-on or the one that wasn't rated highly turns out to be the best.

"I still remember the day I saw Luke jog by us in the weight room and I had to look back to see who it was because he was so light on his feet — and it was Luke. Now when you see on scouts, you see a guy pull and he can get out and run in space. Just with the way he runs, he's got a bright future."

Schmidt said there are a lot of stars in the redshirt developmental program. He mentioned Charpentier and Cam Feldt in the line group, along with linebacker Braylon Mitchell, quarterback Jacoby Walker, safeties Daunte Carr and Alan Turner, along with tight end Garrett Uekman. He said all of those have made significant gains in either strength, weight or changed body fat.

"I'd say Mitchell and Carr are two that have made about equal gains, really good for the time they've been here since June," Schmidt said. "(Defensive end) Chris Smith isn't a redshirt, but he's made good gains in weight — up to 245 — since he's been here. Byran Jones is playing and still gaining strength. He's going to be a great player and works hard in our weight room."

Schmidt said Charpentier and Mitchell are leaders.

"Our staff gets here at 5:30 in the morning and those two are both highly motivated to be here about that same time," Schmidt said. "They are sitting at the door waiting on us most days. They both want to do what it takes to be great players. They are determined to get done whatever we tell them."

Walker is rehabbing from knee surgery. He arrived at midterm last year, then tore knee ligaments at the end of the spring game.

"He's got leadership," Veltkamp said. "He came in last January and took the bull by the horns in our program. Then he came back and did what it took to get that knee stronger. He's going to always do extra here."

Schmidt likes what he sees from Smith, an explosive athlete not on the redshirt list.

"He's on the three-day program because he's playing some," Schmidt said. "He didn't have a background of lifting so his eyes were really opened when he got in our program. It was like, ‘Holy crap.' But once he got a taste of what the program can do, his effort really kicked in. He's gotten bigger, from 230 to 245. You see his confidence in here sky rocket."



Kurt Schmidt handles nutrition and the four-day program.

Photos by Marc F. Henning, Hawgs Illustrated

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