Don Decker allowed the media to watch the tail end of Friday morning's voluntary football workout, the last before a one-week break that coincides with the end of a summer school session. We were treated to quite a show.
Included in the 40 or so running the stadium steps were Darren McFadden, Peyton Hillis, Robert Johnson, Nate Garner, Cord Gray, Matt Hewitt, Jose Valdez and Reggie Fish.
There was plenty of good news from Decker, the strength and conditioning coach, and the players we interviewed. The best news was that the calcium deposit that restricted Peyton Hillis late in the season and in January has now dissolved. He is full speed and probably at his fastest and strongest since he came to college.
Garner was a svelt 315. He actually is trying to pick up a few pounds before the start of the season. McFadden looked trim and in wonderful shape.
"Our guys have diplayed a wonderful attitude," Decker said. "The guys you have read about, the ones getting the national attention, are having a great summer. They are leading the way. They want to be challenged and they want to get better.
"You see guys like Hillis and McFadden leading the way. They come to the workout each day and say, 'Coach, give us something harder. You can't break us.' That's the kind of attitude you want from your best players."
Hillis said he's been 100 percent since the first month of the summer. He said he had full range of motion and was full speed in sprints after about four weeks in May. He's had a great June, according to Hillis and Decker.
Decker said the running has been heavy the last four weeks, after a strong month of weight lifting to start the summer. He said after the one-week break the Hogs will return for three good weeks at a level slightly below what they've done in June.
"What we've learned is that we don't want to be at a peak for the start of two-a-days," he said. "We'll work our way to the peak to coincide the start of the season. Coach (Houston) Nutt does a great job of getting our guys ready at the right time. You want to be in good shape at the start of two-a-days. You don't want to be in perfect shape. You know with a great athlete, you don't want to try to maintain that peak too long. You break down. We know that we've hit the right balance the last few years.
"Our guys are working hard and are doing a great job on the stadium steps. That's where you can see if there is any quit. They have showed me that there is no quit in this bunch. Those young linemen have made the steps great."
Hillis said he's trying to make his senior offseason the best of his career.
"I'm pretty much 100 percent," he said. "The pain and the calcium went away. I started running on it in May and it just dissolved. I've got full range of motion and I can stretch it 100 percent.
"My body has come back to where it was before the injury, maybe better. I'm the best I've ever been. I'm the strongest and the fastest I've ever been. I've healed really good. I'm ready for the year to get started."
Decker said they have worked with Hillis to find a weight where both his strength and speed comes to the perfect balance. That appears to be in the 235 to 240 range.
"In that range, he's able to do a lot of things and feel very good," Decker said. "We are trying to learn where he is at his best."
Hillis said, "I've let it fluctuate right in that space and I've felt good."
It's a grind in the heat, but Hillis said he is having fun.
"I'm enjoying it, very much," he said. "I see things coming together for the team. For seniors like me, it's the last go around. I'm giving it everything I've got and making it fun.
"I think the team has come together. I see great leadership in players like Darren McFadden and Jonathan Luigs. You see Casey Dick knowing it's his team. He's leading."
Controversy has surrounded the team in the offseason. How has that played into the offseason workouts?
"I think the way I look at it, you should be thankful for what you've got," Hillis said. "We won only five games or so the previous year. Last year, we won 10. I don't know how the rest of you see that, but that looks pretty good to me. I think that's what we are focused on, trying to build on last year, make a good year better and take it one step at a time.
"You know it doesn't happen just by saying it. You have to work for it and that's what we've tried to do this summer. We have a good attitude."
Garner, the fifth-year senior slated to start at right tackle, said it's a tough challenge to replace solid performers like Zac Tubbs, Tony Ugoh and Stephen Parker. However, he said the offensive line is putting in the work this summer to be ready.
"I think we are trying hard to fill those spots and then try to open holes for our great backs like Darren McFadden," he said. "I think you see some guys stepping up real good and we are getting good leadership.
"We are having pretty good workouts. I think we are working hard than in the past. I look at our line and it seems to me we are in real good shape.
"Coach Decker got mad at me the other day because I'd lost too much weight. I'm back up to 315 now and he wants me to add a few more pounds. I've been trying to drink a few more nutritional shakes after the workouts."
Decker sees plenty of highlights in the summer workouts. He said the defensive replacements, just like those filling slots on offense, have had great workouts.
"Marcus Harrison has had a great summer," Decker said. "He's really grown up. I've listened to him talk to the younger players. He uses the word "we" a lot. He isn't talking about trying to get ready for the NFL. He's talking about trying to help them get better. He is talking about the team and what he can do to help pull the young guys along.
"I'm glad to hear that. He's matured and really is having a great offseason. He's doing well (in his rehab from ACL surgery.)
"We have a lot of guys in that D-line group having great summers. Cord Gray is solid every single day. He is tough minded in his workouts. Ernest Mitchell continues to get things done just like he did last summer and last season. Antwain Robinson is a champ in workouts. He's gotten that shoulder in great shape. He's had a wonderful summer.
"Malcolm Shepherd is amazing. I've never been around a more humble player. He has an appreciation for everything that most his age don't. He thanks you every day for helping him. He says Yes, sir, thank you, sir to everything we give him and it's always something that is difficult.
"I'll never forget dealing with Malcolm last season in terms of some class and meeting time conflicts that were going to wipe out his lifting session. I finally said, 'Malcolm, the best I can tell, it's going to have to be at 6 a.m. in the morning. He said, 'Thanks for letting me do it at 6 a.m. I'll be there with you. Thank you.' Now, I don't know about you, but I don't know too many who are going to thank you when you tell them to be there to lift at 6 a.m. They already have a long day, and his had to get longer. He was thankful for the opportunity."
Decker praised other young players on the defensive side.
"Chris Wade has had a phenomenal summer," he said. "He has changed his body.
"Adrian Davis came in here at 205 and he's already to 235. He is doing the same things as far as gains in weight and strength -- and keeping his speed -- that Jamaal Anderson did. We are watching him transform himself into a linemen and he's working so hard. He is just getting started, too. You see the strength coming in his legs and shoulders.
"Chip Gregory is at 225. Wendell Davis is at 222. They are having awesome summers.
"Guys like Matt Hewitt, Jerell Norton, Freddie Fairchild are doing extremely well. Fred Bledsoe is having his best summer. Compared to where he was in the past summers, relative to that, he's doing well and looks like he is putting himself in position to have a good fall."
In the offensive line, Decker had praise for Joey Crossland, Ray Dominguez, Jim Hart, Mike Moffitt, Michael Aguirre, Lance Thompson, DeMarcus Love, Mitch Petrus, Jose Valdez and Nate Garner excel.
"We've worked hard on building those guys strength and work on their hip bend," he said. "We have taught them how to fire their muscles in the right way. We've added some martial arts moves to start the day that help them learn the movement to get all of their separate muscles going. You can see that help them in their running and flexibility.
"All in all, it's been a very good summer. I feel good about where this team is and the attitude they bring each and every day. Attendance is voluntary and we cannot take roll per NCAA rules. But our guys are here. I see them every day and they come eagerly and work hard. They tell me they are excited because they know they are getting better. When you find something that helps you, you embrace it and this guys have embraced our summer workouts."
Hillis Back to Full Speed
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