Watching Their Weight

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas defensive tackle Keith Jackson admitted he doesn't want to see another piece of baked chicken ever again.

He also holds a mutual disregard for lettuce.

Those healthy choices have been hard for the junior to swallow all summer after spending years enjoying the fast-food joints and late-night snacks that are common to campus life. But when Jackson wallowed around the practice field at a hefty 313 pounds last spring, he realized a summer diet was a small price to pay if he hoped to have any chance of playing for new defensive coordinator Reggie Herring.

"I would have loved some fried chicken and pizzas and stuff like that," Jackson said about his summer. "But I had to put it aside. It was tough. You want to go out late at night and grab a burger from McDonald's because you're so used to that.

"But I want the coaches to trust me and I don't want to let my teammates down."

Jackson has proven his point, losing 35 pounds to lead a group of defensive tackles that collectively let go of their love for fatty foods and relaxing summers in order to follow a strict diet and rigorous workouts. Jackson, Jeremy Harrell, Fred Bledsoe, Ernest Mitchell and Marcus Harrison were challenged by Herring to trim the fat and weighed in before Monday's practice close to 100 pounds less than four months ago.

Jackson is the overall leader of the group's competition to shed weight, tipping the scales at 278 pounds before Monday's practice. But Bledsoe (20 pounds lost), Harrison (17), Harrell (13) and Mitchell (13) aren't far behind.

Now, Bledsoe, Arkansas' heaviest lineman, weighs a "slim" 305 pounds. That's unusual in an era when defensive tackles typically exceed the 300-pound mark. But Herring dispels the notion that "bigger is better," believing a leaner, quicker and better-conditioned group will be the perfect fit for Arkansas' defense in 2005.

"For some reason, all of a sudden, we think 300 is the norm for defensive tackles," Herring said. "You don't need to be over 300 to play football. It just gets to a point where you're just so big you can't move. You know, whether you're 280 or 300, if you're non-productive at 300 then something's got to give.

"Really, what it is, it's a group being in better shape and better condition."

Herring decided to put the Hogs on the weight loss plan after watching overweight linemen huffing and puffing after two snaps during spring practice. He and defensive line coach Tracy Rocker met with the defensive tackles after the spring and asked them to make an enormous summer sacrifice by slimming down to 285 pounds.

Jackson admitted he and his teammates were a little skeptical.

"I asked coach Rocker, 'Don't you think we're going to be pretty small when Missouri State is rolling off that line and they've got 300 pounders?'" Jackson said.

"He said, 'No. Speed and power will overcome everything. He said, 'You won't lose any strength in the weight room. You'll just lose weight and get quicker.'"

Jackson said the idea started making sense when he began cutting weight and still felt strong under the close watch of strength and conditioning coach Don Decker.

Under Decker's plan, nutritionists met with players twice a week, encouraged them to drink water, center their diet on baked foods and exclude sweets. Players also were given weight loss goals each week, were weighed on Mondays and Fridays and asked to record everything they ate in a food journal.

In addition, Decker put together a stringent summer regimen for the defensive linemen that focused on cardiovascular exercise. The linemen stayed later than other teammates, jogging, sprinting and working about four times a week.

"They wanted us to lose weight and we really didn't have a choice if we wanted to play," Harrell said. "So they just ran us all summer and watched what we ate."

And Harrell said the work was evident when practice began Monday afternoon.

"When I was 294, I could play hard for maybe 2 1/2, 3 plays," he said. "Whenever you've lost as much weight as we have, it lightens everything up.

"You feel better. You run better. You don't get as tired as fast."

Rocker noticed the interior linemen fired off the line of scrimmage, moved quicker and didn't buckle in the suffocating heat Monday.

Jackson, who lagged behind throughout spring drills, was passing other teammates as he chased ball carriers from sideline to sideline.

"You could see that when it got hot out there, they weren't looking for (trainer) Dean (Weber) to come over and console them," Rocker said. "They were like, 'We're all right. Where do we line up next coach?'

"That's what you're looking for. They're wanting to practice."

Jackson said the summer also spawned some camaraderie and healthy competition.

After all, 300-pounders need help avoiding late-night binges or occasional fast-food stops. Jackson also benefited from a diligent workout partner in Mitchell, who quickly shed weight and urged his teammate to follow along.

The competition now has spilled onto the practice field, where Mitchell and Harrison have worked with the first-team defense this week. But the Razorbacks also have gotten good work from Harrell, Jackson and Bledsoe after the first two days.

Herring expects the newfound determination to continue.

"I think they see it," Herring said. "You see that look in their eye. They seem to be more confident. They feel better about themselves. It's not a set number of weight, it's what your body can hold and be productive to play full speed for four quarters.

"They bought into (the plan). I'm extremely proud of them. I think they see the difference in the way they move and, to me, they ought to be excited about it."

Jackson said they are. And, after a successful summer and solid first day of practice, he made sure to reward himself with one of his favorite foods Monday.

"I ate fried chicken for the first time (since the spring)," said Jackson, who has become a careful calorie counter. "I got three chicken breasts and didn't grab anything else. I didn't want anything else. I didn't want no veggies, none of that.

"It was OK because I'm working hard and I've got to maintain my weight this preseason. I'm back to eating what I like. But I have to watch what I eat."

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