Georgia Working on 2005 Season

ATHENS - Georgia football fans, being Southern football fans, already are looking forward to the start of the 2005 season.

But for their beloved Bulldogs, and three unheralded coaches, it has already begun.

"We started last Wednesday, and I said, 'This is the second day of the 2005 season football season,'" said Dave Van Halanger, Georgia's strength coach. "The first day was when we whipped Wisconsin. We started as champions of the Outback Bowl and we want to finish as champions of the Rose Bowl."

The Rose Bowl is where the 2005 national championship will be decided. It seems a long way away, but Georgia's strength coaches already have it in sight every day. Van Halanger hands out a different T-shirt for the team's offseason workouts every year. This year's reads: SEC Champions, National Champions, Family.

"That says a lot," Van Halanger said. "We have to shape our family down here, with leaders, with guys that will plug the gaps, with guys who will do the work it takes."

Van Halanger, already a Hall of Famer in his profession, has two full-time assistants, Keith Gray and Clay Walker. Both Gray and Walker were hired as part of Jim Donnan's staff and then retained by Van Halanger.

Gray is a former Virginia Tech linebacker who was a member of the school's most elite strength club - Super Iron Hokie. A four-year player, he never started, but he shaped himself into a contributor in the weight room, he said.

"I got on the field as a player and made the travel squad and all that because of the work I did in the strength program," he said. "I wasn't the best football player, but I worked my butt off, learned my football stuff and was somebody the coaches could depend on. I thought, since that's where I came from, that's where I'd like to be able to help others."

Gray worked as a graduate assistant at Southern Illinois and then as a graduate assistant at Auburn before joining Georgia's staff in 1999. He was promoted to assistant head strength coach in 2003.

Walker, an Abbeville native, was a three-year letterman at Wilcox County High School in football and baseball. He came to Athens to play football in 1999 but a car accident resulted in a cracked vertebrae and the end of his football career.

"I never had thought about coaching," he said. "It never had crossed my mind, but I don't think I could have made a better choice for my life, I really don't. I've learned a lot. I love my work."

After his injury, Walker worked as a student assistant as a position coach and a strength coach. After turning down a spot as a graduate assistant at Wake Forest, he was hired part-time by Van Halanger in 2001. He was promoted to a full-time position in 2003.

Georgia's three strength coaches spend about twice the time with the players as head coach Mark Richt and the rest of the Bulldogs' on-field assistants. The NCAA limits the time on-field coaches can spend with the players, particularly in the offseason, but the strength coaches will be with the players two hours a day, four days a week for the next seven months, Gray estimated.

That doesn't include the time Gray and Walker spend working with former Bulldogs who are in the NFL, players who need to meet specific weight goals or supervising the team's year-round 5:45 a.m. discipline running.

"I think trust is built the more time you spend together, it's like your own children, the more time you spend in an enriching environment, the more trust is built," Van Halanger said. "There's a lot of trust down there."

Georgia has two more weeks of lifting and running before it gets to its famed mat drills. That will take up the month that leads into spring practice. After spring ball, it's back to the weight room for summer conditioning.

"So much of what we do isn't just how much they can lift," Gray said. "If a guy can bench press 450 or 460 pounds it really doesn't matter. Ten pounds one way or the other isn't a huge deal. We're not in here to make them weight lifters. We could get all of them to squat 600 pounds and bench 400 pounds, but it doesn't mean that they're going to be football players.

"What we try to do is let them use this part of our program to get them better physically conditioned and mentally conditioned so that when they go to practice, they can practice their skills as a football player better and longer."

They'll do that in relative anonymity for the next right up until Sept. 3, when everybody else's season begins with a game against Boise State in Sanford Stadium.

"I don't care how good the position coach is, if we don't do what we're supposed to do, they're not going to perform on Saturdays," Walker said. "I honestly believe if we don't do our job, then the rest does not matter."

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