The summer has just begun, but Arkansas strength and conditioning coach Jason Veltkamp thinks the Hogs have hit the ground running.
Well, they've been running, lifting and at a high level, much further down the road in the third year of Bobby Petrino's third summer as head coach.
"We transitioned a little bit in that this summer and we are already developing our strength, really a continuation of the winter," Veltkamp said. "We started to run, but we are phasing in the run a little differently than last year. We didn't start as fast.
"We'll be able to take bigger steps because this team understands what is expected of them. They understand the end point. They are tougher than we were the last couple of years. We are going to be able to make the mental steps faster.
"We have closed the gap between our best guy and our worst guy. And that's a big thing.
"Our guys really went out and attacked this run today. There were guys who struggled all of last summer and they went out and took it to this run. That's one of the reasons we are going to be able to do it that way."
The run consisted of continuous 55-yard sprints.
"We didn't split it up," Veltkamp said. "We just did it right in a row. We only had 25-second rests between them and we did an outstanding job. It's a quick turnaround deal and it's all out. It takes a lot out of them. They sustained their speed throughout and it was good."
Veltkamp sees improvement.
"They are getting confidence from these type runs," he said. "There were guys who did struggle last summer and they went out to blow this one away. That's taking the next step and their confidence goes way up."
Veltkamp struggled when asked to list the leaders in the summer workouts. That's a change from the past when it was easy to name the leadership core. However, he did say senior linebacker Jermaine Love has stepped up this summer as one of the vocal leaders.
"There's just so many now," he said. "It's just a very different summer. When I say that, they've come out of the woodwork.
"At the run today, we had freshmen step up and be vocal. We had kids that have been silent the last two summers be vocal.
"There was a kid that two years ago, I didn't know if I'd see him from day to day. This summer, he's perfect. He's vocal and is one of our best grinders. He stepped out right before the last few reps and put his fist up and said, ‘It's fourth quarter, let's go.'
"Those are the fun ones, guys like this, Jermaine Love. They struggle a little bit, then they grow up, figure it out and become vocal with the team.
"You know you are going to have the vocal leadership from the D. J. Williams, the Jake Bequettes. Ryan Mallett has been great, a vocal presence in the weight room. He's been on alternative conditioning, but he's right here with the guys and been outstanding. DeMarcus Love has been his usual self, leading the guys. You know it's coming from those guys.
"Then you start to get the guys who may have been on the other side of the fence at one time and they start to develop — not just the work ethic — but they might want to help a kid that they see as being in their shoes a couple of years ago to get where they are at a little faster. As coach, that is satisfying. There is a lot of value in seeing those kids get there and change their work ethic and personality.
"Those are the things that are going to help them down the road, even if football doesn't work out down the road. That's what is fun to watch."
Veltkamp is a big believer in this group of defensive lineman, including a big group of defensive ends that includes Tenarius Wright, Damario Ambrose, Caleb Evans and Bequette. It's an impressive bunch of athletes who have made great strides in Veltkamp's weight room.
"They are impressive," Veltkamp said. "The height, the athleticism and then the work ethic is unbelievable in that group. There are lots of good groups on our team, but that's a fun one to work with. They will compete and then there are several vocal presences in that group. Ambrose is one of the guys who didn't say anything the last couple of years, but he was real vocal in the run today. They just take care of their business and pick other guys up. Tenarius Wright is a great voice on our team. Ambrose is showing up as a voice on our team and Jake Bequette is an outstanding leader.
"That's a great group in every way from work ethic, attitude, character, the leadership ability and then you start to add in the numbers — the height, weight, length, athletic ability — it's a special group."
Veltkamp is excited about what the defense can become with this end group.
"That's a BIG part of our defense," he said. "When we had Elvis Dumervil at Louisville (the NFL leader with 17 sacks last year for the Denver Broncos) there was a year he had 20 sacks. He changed our defense. They had to double team or account for him with two guys in everything they did. It makes it fun to play D-tackle or linebacker. He changed the complexion of our defense.
"We have some D-ends who are going to have to be accounted for and that makes things easier on a lot of people. It's definitely easier on the coaches.
"I'm really excited about that position. I think they can impact our team in a lot of ways."
Veltkamp continues to be excited about the 2009 freshman class. The highly rated trio in that group — running backs Ronnie Wingo, Knile Davis and cornerback Darius Winston — have not disappointed.
"I put Winston on my (weight lifting) platform in the winter and I didn't know what I thought about him," Veltkamp said. "I love him now. He's high energy.
"A lot of time a five-star guy might shrug off the weight room a little bit at first. It's come to them too easy in their life as far as playing goes.
"Maybe his wake-up call came last fall. I don't know that for sure. But that kid has embraced the weight room.
"Watching him this winter was a joy. His confidence level really jumped. He came in here not knowing anything and he sucked up every bit of information and got to grinding.
"Darius was one of my favorite guys to work with this winter because it was so new to him."
Veltkamp said it doesn't take much to push Winston's buttons in the weight room. For example, there was a day this summer that didn't start perfect.
"He came in here that day and he seemed a little quiet," Veltkamp said. "I looked at him and said, ‘Darius, where's the juice?' He just flipped the switch and he was completely different. It had been a long week. As soon as he heard me, he was on. That's awesome.
"Wingo, he's a grinder and he's awesome. So is Knile. Those two running backs have been really good in the weight room since they got here. They are really special backs."
Winston is a sub-4.4 guy in the 40-yard dash, but Veltkamp sees more potential.
"I think he's going to be real fun to watch this fall," Veltkamp said. "His speed looks real great right now. What we are going to see is a guy who can really run — and we didn't know what he was going to look like when he got here in the fall because he was maybe thinking too much. But he did show he was fast this winter. Now we are going to see a bigger kid who is more physical and can fly. That's why he's going to be successful because he'll have multiple tools.
"Out of that class, both those freshman backs are grinders and outstanding workers. But we've got some other outstanding workers from that class. Travis Swanson is an outstanding personality and a no-nonsense worker. He's going to be great no matter where he ends up in the offensive line.
"Alvin Bailey grinds and grinds and grinds. Alvin has done a great job of losing weight and is in a place right now where he can really move. He's going to be fun to watch this fall, for those who watch O-line. He really packs a punch.
"With guys like Alvin and some others, we've got some big bodies now and we are going to get some more as things continue to progress in recruiting. They are fun to work with."
Veltkamp works closely with the big men on the team to make sure they are in the proper weight slots.
"Right now, all of them are in a good spot," he said. "All of them are sitting where we need them right now on the way to where we need them in the fall.
"There are a couple of O-lineman and one D-lineman and they are all on target."
Defensive lineman DeQuinta "Dede" Jones is on target, too. He came to school last fall at around 305, but lost to almost 270 late in the winter. He was back to around 280 by the end of spring ball.
"He's still on the upswing (as far as weight)," Veltkamp said. "Sometimes kids just don't figure out how to take care of themselves. We ask them to eat five to six times per day. If they eat just three times, he's only half of what we need them to do. If they miss breakfast they are at 33 percent. Part of growing up is when you get away from mom the first time, now they might have to put some effort into eating. That can fall by the wayside when they are going to class, going to study hall, tutors, working out and going to practice. They struggle with that.
"They are burning more calories. Dede probably didn't have to work out a lot in high school, so this has been a whole new deal to him. He's been up three pounds the last few weeks and that's outstanding for him. Gaining two each week is usually what we look for, but it's been three for him. He's going to be close to 300 by the start of the season.
Veltkamp said all of the new UA assistant coaches are regular visitors to the weight room. Chris Klenakis is the new O-line coach, Steve Caldwell has the defensive ends and Kris Cinkovich coaches the wideouts. They check on the progress of their players and love Veltkamp's system. Have any provided suggestions for specific lifts that go with their position needs?
"Not a whole lot," Veltkamp said. "Everything we do goes through Coach (Bobby) Petrino. What I love about those guys, they love the weight room. When I come in here at 5:30 a.m., Coach K is here lifting. He's a guy who loves the weight room."
Veltkamp and Klenakis are old friends.
"He helped me get a graduate assistant job way, way back at Nevada," Veltkamp said. "I actually turned him down to go to Utah State with John L. Smith as a strength GA. But he had me on at Nevada. I had a choice between being a strength guy or a tight end guy. That's when I made a choice in this profession and split off.
"I had actually spent a couple of days with Coach K at spring ball down at Nevada, got to know him really well. He started out as a strength coach. He was a football coach, but he also ran the strength program back when the IAA schools had to do that."
They've stayed in touch through the years and continue to mesh.
"Coach Caldwell is a weight room guy, too," Veltkamp said. "His analysis of his players and his vision of his players is real thorough. He knows their strengths, weaknesses and where they are headed. I love to talk to him about his players.
"Those three new coaches have been 100 percent behind what we are doing. Coach Petrino's philosophy is if you are not a weight room guy, you probably aren't going to fit in here very well with the players. Those three are all workout guys themselves."
Cinkovich, an old O-lineman, asked for his players to become stronger and more physical for blocking purposes when he arrived. They've all done that. Veltkamp raves about the wide receiver group the same way he does the defensive ends.
"The wideouts, they look different than when we got here," Veltkamp said. "Joe Adams is actually starting to put a body together. Greg Childs is freakish looking.
"When you talk about Childs, both running and lifting, there are not a lot around the country who look like Greg Childs. He has really turned himself into all positives. There were some times that he had some self doubts when he first got here. He'd say, ‘I don't know if I can do this.' Greg shoved that guy in the box and he's never let him out again. He's really bought in.
"Because of that, Greg has put all kinds of extra time in here. He's a giant right now. These guys are just now true juniors. Greg Childs took his shirt off out there today after the run and he is a guy that doesn't have a six pack. He has an eight pack. He's as ripped and yet he weighs more than he ever has weighed here and he's running really well."
The players lift in groups for competitive reasons, but Childs doesn't have to lift with the wideouts to compete.
"Greg can lift with about any group," Veltkamp said. "He could lift with the linebackers, the O-lineman, the D-line. He could lift with any of them."
Veltkamp has evaluated the Class of 2010. He sees some naturals in the weight room. Obviously, one of them is defensive lineman Byran Jones, the top lineman in the state last year.
"We did our initial evaluations of the freshman with the 225-pound bench (repetition lift)," Veltkamp said. "Byran fit right in with the vets. He's a ready made, good-looking body.
"You never know in that first fall camp when you throw them out there and so much new information is coming at them how they will handle it, but for them to be here all summer, there are a bunch who have a chance to play. He will have a chance because he's going to fit in with the older guys. Byran is very strong, very explosive and he runs well.
"All of those skill guys can run. Those safeties are good-looking, long-striding kids, too. The receivers are good-looking.
"I said all along I liked Braylon Mitchell. I liked his personality. I liked him on his trip. He came all the time so I talked to him a lot. He wasn't the most highly rated kid. But he can run, he's shown toughness. "
Veltkamp has seen the most of Mitchell, running back/linebacker from Heber Springs, and Daunte Carr, safety from Gainsville, Ga.
"Those two came in May 16, a couple of weeks longer than everybody else in that class," Veltkamp said. "They are both outstanding workers. They've taken the other guys by the hand when got here first week in June. They've said, ‘Here's how we do it,' and shown some leadership. That's fun to watch."
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