The Making of Champions

With spring ball a little less than two weeks away, Coogfans interviewed Director of Football Performance, Yancy McKnight, to learn how the 2016 Houston Cougars off-season strength and conditioning program is progressing.

After being hired in December of 2014, head coach Tom Herman had said repeatedly that he wouldn’t have come unless he were allowed to hire McKnight, whom he had met at stops at Rice and Iowa State. Herman even went as far as to call McKnight a "co-head coach" since the strength and conditioning staff is allowed more time with the players than the assistant coaches are during the off-season, per NCAA rules.

Herman on hiring McKnight in August of 2015, via, "He is the best strength coach in America and he was at Rice when we were there. I joke all the time with him that we won 10 games with a bunch of doctors and lawyers running around out there because he maximized their genetic potential. Then we go to Iowa State where we were not even close to bringing in the same recruits that the teams we were playing have and we go to Nebraska, beating Nebraska in Lincoln, and we are beating Texas in Austin and beating Oklahoma State when they were ranked No. 2 in the nation and undefeated. None of that would have been possible without his development of those players. That was the singular most important hire that I made was getting him here. He is my culture coach too. Not only teaches guys how to run fast and lift a lot of weight, but teaches that mental toughness part too. He is around them 10 times more than we’re allowed to be around them so he has got to be completely aligned with everything we believed in and he is really the one who conveys that message on a daily basis to our team."

McKnight told me he appreciates those comments and that they were very flattering, but he definitely does not read his own press clippings. The second year strength coach said he hit it off with Herman early in their days working at Rice and noticed "his great leadership and great command of his players; the quarterbacks and the offensive group." McKnight also recognized during those days that If Herman "got the opportunity he could be a really good leader and a great guy to work for, and work with." He adds, "Personally, I never felt that I worked for him. I know I do, but it’s just the way he sets the culture with our staff and how he makes you feel that you work with him. We know he’s the boss but he works in a way that makes you feel you’re working with him and that’s a special thing amongst our staff and I know our players feel the same way and it’s exciting to be a part of it."

As far as McKnight’s personality? "When I’m on the clock, when it’s game day, it’s rip your throat out mentality," he says in a gruff voice in which you could tell he had probably been yelling at his guys during the early off-season workouts (though I didn’t ask him as he could have just had a cold for all I knew).

"I’m tough, hard-nosed and about business and our players know that. They know that every that’s the way it is every hour of every day and that’s how it is whether we’re lifting or running or whatever it is."

"Now off the clock I would say I’m a pretty laid back guy," he says laughing. I could tell Coach McKnight wasn’t really comfortable talking about himself. That’s just not who he is as he continued, "On game day it’s about our players. I’m not a glory hound. That’s not my deal. I’m an offensive line guy. That’s what I played in college (he was a Division II All-American at Missouri Southern, earning his degree in 2001 and being inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2013). That’s what I’ve been my whole life so I like that ‘down-and-dirty,’ in the trenches, in the basement mentality. I don’t need a bunch of pats on the back per se."

McKnight sees himself and his staff as servants, "Our strength staff works hard with the guys and they sacrifice a lot, but that’s what you do when you’re a coach. You’re a servant. You serve the players and that takes a lot of sacrifice meaning you give up a lot whether it’s your own personal time or whatever. Our guys know I’ve got their back all the time and I’m going to do everything I can to make them better. My staff is going to do the same thing and that’s the number one thing and our players know that and appreciate it. They know every time they step on the field or in the weight room there’s a plan in place for them. They know there’s an objective and goal because we explain it to them. They know why they’re doing things a certain way so they’re invested."

McKnight realizes as a coach that he’s only as good as his staff and wanted a mention of his staff which includes Associate Director Rod Grace, Assistant Directors Chris Campbell, Ryan Deatrick, and Elizabeth Gore. Director of Nutrition Allison Franklin and Director of Football Nutrition Allison Kreimeier also play a huge role as Yancy states, "our nutrition staff does a wonderful job as far as investing their time into our kids. I have to tell Allison (Kreimeier) to go home. She’s really phenomenal. Our guys come in, sometimes underdeveloped, and our staff jumps in with both feet and attacks it."

Culture is every day and it never stops. It never sleeps

Culture is a buzz word that Herman introduced upon his hiring as the key to the success of his program. McKnight on what exactly it means being Herman’s ‘culture coach,’ "To us culture is every day, every minute, every rep. It’s a 24/7 year round thing. Your culture never stops. You’re never not working on your culture. It’s constant. We as a strength staff have to be an extension of the head coach since we get to spend more time with the players than the assistant coaches do (per NCAA rules), especially during the off-season. It’s important that what we say aligns with what Coach Herman is saying."

As for preparations for the 2016 season, the student-athletes have been at it for five weeks (as of this writing). They started on Tuesday January the 19th when the spring semester began. McKnight breaks down the spring and summer conditioning programs into separate phases. The first two phases are seven weeks which lead up to spring ball when they hold back a tad as the team practices for six weeks on the football field. Post spring ball they get into a "summer prep" phase where the student-athletes get back into the weight room, just not as heavy as during pre-spring as the coaching staff gives the players time for what they call "academic recovery." The strength staff also self-scouts themselves during this time and adds "corrective packages" for every single player which helps them improve what the positional coaches and strength staff thinks needs improving. These ‘corrective packages’ are based on how they finished spring ball, how they moved, what kind of weight they’re carrying and any structural limitations that need to be addressed. During this post spring period the players work on these aspects leading into two summer phases.

Pre spring ball phases

The first phase the assistant coaches are out recruiting. This period is most of January and early February leading into National Signing Day (February 3rd this year). The position coaches use the ‘dead periods’ during their allowed recruiting time to self-scout, figure out how Spring ball’s going to look and to look at game tape of personnel from the 2015 season. During this entire time the student-athletes have been lifting five days a week (Mon-Fri) during the afternoons while running three days a week (Mon, Wed, Fri) beginning at 6:30am. Per NCAA rules they’re only allowed to work out for 8 hours per week (during spring ball and the regular season they get 20 hours).

As Coach McKnight explains it the players spend a lot of time in the weight room and these lifting sessions are "heavy and intensive as they’re trying to get back some of the movement patterns from the previous season." During this same time period the players are out on their own on the practice field participating in 7-on-7 drills and doing their own position specific training which is all player led.

As the first phase is to re-indoctrinate the players back into the lifting program, phase two is where the team works on chemistry and mental toughness as a unit. This is a three week phase that leads directly into spring ball. McKnight says "this is going to be a time where it’s very competitive. Everything we do in our speed program, our agility program is going to be a competitive rep whether it’s head-to-head or it’s a 4-man crew trying to do a perfect rep in their mat drills."

Consequences for losing and rewards for winning

Their lifting sessions go down to Monday, Wednesday and Friday during this phase (pre spring ball) but are tough and heavy per Coach McKnight. On Tuesdays and Thursdays they have what’s termed "Tour of Duty" running days which start at 3pm. They have six stations manned by individuals and strength coaches in which winners and losers are documented.

McKnight gave an example, "Yesterday B.J. Singleton was going against Ralph Harvey Jr. head-to-head in all six stations and at the end of the day we figure out who the winner was and they get rewarded whether it’s a nice dinner or whatever."

These types of competitive activities help the coaches to identify as Yancy puts it, "how guys respond to losing. A guy might not be having a good day. How do they respond to adversity?" They see characteristics that are important to "championship culture" whether it’s positive or negative. McKnight says then that the staff addresses these characteristics as do the leaders of the team. This is where team leaders come in. These types of training activities helped the team overcome deficits this past season at Louisville and the huge comeback at home to Memphis. The team then goes into 20 to 30 minutes of post ‘Tour of Duty’ position specific agility work with the strength staff.

On Wednesday mornings, during the current Phase two, the team participates in mat drills in which there are six competitive stations such as a tire tug of war, two-point seat rolls, two-point waves and four-point seat rolls in which all players rotate through. According to McKnight they’re all tough and hard and "it’s all about being competitive. This is where we’re at right now. It’s about finishing the drill and doing it together as a unit and as a team. It’s about seeing individuals competing against each other. That’s the foundation work going into the next phase (spring ball)." The team has the next two weeks (including this one) to finish up this phase leading up to spring ball.

Spring ball

During spring ball as a staff, they look at the demand of the player in relation to the football field in determining the players lifting load during their respective position weight lifting sessions. During phase one the strength staff does not have to be cognizant of the player’s legs since they aren’t on the practice field. "We can pound them pretty good" as Coach McKnight puts it while laughing. They also get 20 hours of football related activities since they’re back on the field for this six week period, getting off spring break week itself. The staff monitors the practice load of each position during spring ball in how it relates to how much they can lift. For example, the wide receivers run on average around 6,000 yards in a single practice, though not full out sprints. Running backs may run around 4,500 while interior linemen (offensive and defensive lines) may run around 3,500 yards, though they get hit on every single rep. So with the receivers and running backs the strength staff needs to make sure they have their legs under them when taking into account how much they lift or run during their respective weight sessions. The interior linemen need to have their backs, shoulders and knees protected because of the constant contact they go through during practice. As McKnight puts it, "we look at player demand on the practice field and game mode (in-season) and we adjust accordingly in how we train them in the weight room."

Post Spring ball

This is called summer prep in which the players are given plans on how to improve for summer workouts which get more intensive. This is also a wind down phase as the staff gives the players time for ‘academic recovery’ as previously discussed. "We have to be aware of what’s going on outside of football with academics being priority one," McKnight emphasized. At this point coach also points out that "they’ve had a pretty hard 12 weeks of lifting, running, agility drills, contact and competition. Mentally and physically they’re pretty tapped out." This is a four week cycle that leads into Finals in early May. During this time the team gets back into the weight room just to, as McKnight points out, "to move them around a little bit. There’s not a lot of running but we’re just getting them ready for summer work in June."

Summer Workouts

Summer is also broken down into two phases known as Summer one and Summer two. Each phase consists of four week blocks. Monday’s during summer phase one are big as far as horizontal speed work with such drills as the standing broad jump and wall drills which concentrates on body positioning. McKnight says somethings the players have forgotten to do such as chin angles and forward lean which is important during a game. Resistance sleds (push sleds for the linemen) help the players in learning how to drive their knees and get correct angles as far as leverage. They also do some short sprint work as it’s not a huge conditioning day, but a full speed movement day. McKnight points out that these drills are done "in short blasts that are five to seven seconds long, which is about the length of a play, and 10 to 20 yards in duration of sprinting in an acceleration phase."

Training with a purpose

The strength and conditioning program isn’t simply all about power. Speed has to play a factor as well. Players have to start from motionless to explosive in a single step. McKnight on how he incorporates speed and agility drills into his program, "There’s an acceleration position that we feel 90-percent of football is played at. We don’t look at the back end of the 40 (yard dash) or the back 60 meters of the 100. It’s multi-directional movements at each position. You have to train these positions. Keep your backs low, have good chin angles, things like that. They have to be worked on year round."

Continuing on with summer phase one, Tuesdays are not full speed but a restoration and conditioning day. It’s broken down into four quarters over the four week phase with 10 and a half gassers at the end of practices during week one, 12 by the end of week two, 14 by week three and 16 by week four. It’s broken down by quarter so they, as Yancy puts it, "make sure they finish and that there’s urgency in certain parts of certain quarters like there is during a game." During this day they’ll run across the field and backwards sprint back so they work on conditioning hamstrings and the lower body as well.

Thursdays is a very high speed, highly technical agility day, or a movement day that teaches what coach McKnight calls ‘movement progression.’ They’ll learn how to decelerate and stop on a dime. "If I want to go to my left I have to push off on my right foot first. Sometimes things like that are forgotten, "McKnight explains about the little yet very important technical aspects of the game such as footwork. "We want to make sure guys know how to load their feet in the ground."

Friday’s are another restoration and conditioning day. During summer phase two the only thing that changes is the restoration and conditioning days are replaced by what McKnight terms ‘metabolic conditioning’ days, which are basically about football conditioning; every drill is conducted in seven second increments, with anywhere from 20 to 45 seconds of rest as this is what happens on the football field. These drills are all about drilling tempo into the team.

You want to be strong multiple reps

People tend to think weight training is all about lifting as much weight as you can via the bench press. This isn’t necessarily the case as McKnight points out, "You hear people talk about, ‘oh you’re not strong, you’re not strong since you don’t bench or squat enough.’ My opinion is we want strong and powerful guys that can do more than 90 percent of their 1RM (one rep max) for multiple singles in a short rest time. I want to know how many times a guy can do stuff multiple times because that’s what you have to do in a game. It’s not a 1RM, it’s 85 1RM’s. I think against FSU we had 105 snaps. Great, you’re a strong guy one time. That’s not going to help you in football. Personally, I’d prefer a guy bench 385-390 pounds multiple times on a pretty short clock over the guy who benches 405 one time. I think that guy’s stronger in my opinion."

When asked who the strongest player on the team pound-for-pound is, McKnight didn’t hesitate, "Brandon Wilson. He’s a powerful, strong dude that can jump, that can run. He can press a lot of weight. He can squat a ton. Dead lift a ton of weight. Can power clean. Pullups. It’s unbelievable how much weight he can have hanging off his body doing pullups. I don’t know if I’ve been around a guy who’s that strong pulling. For his body weight he’s a strong, strong individual and I’d put him up there in the top-10 strongest guys I’ve ever worked with."

In a raging debate amongst Coogfans, I asked McKnight which position he thought Wilson should play this season, cornerback as he has most of his three previous seasons, or running back which he played the last few games this past season due to injuries. "He’s going to play at the next level at which ever position he wants," McKnight says laughing. "But it’s more than that. He’s a good dude and a team guy. Here he is playing running back, cornerback, returning kicks on special teams. He gives it all for the team and that’s what you’re looking for (as a coach). You’d like to have 90 guys just like him."

Complacency will be the enemy that we’ll fight every day

Herman spoke about the biggest fear to the success of the 2016 squad as being complacency. Coming off of a successful season, will the players work as hard and put in the work needed to have an equally as successful 2016 campaign as they did last year? McKnight on the dreaded ‘C’ word, "It is the enemy. We (coach Herman and I) talked about it. This is not a lie, we talked about our program in 2016 on January first," he says laughing again. "The next day after the Peach Bowl. And we came up with ‘complacency will be the enemy that we’ll fight every day.’ I sent that to Greg Ward because he sent me a text a few days after the game talking about how excited and how pumped he was to start the new year. And he agreed completely. Right now we don’t allow any Peach Bowl gear from our staff or our players in our building. We don’t wear it. It’s a new year, new team. The E-Rob’s (Elandon Roberts) of the world. The T-Stew’s (Trevon Stewart), The A-Mac’s (Adrian McDonald), the Alex Cooper’s. Those team captains; Kenneth Farrow. All those guys are gone."

"That’s why we put the question marks on the backs of their shirts," McKnight said in reference to the players having to earn their names back onto them. "We’re earning that stuff right now. We’re trying to figure out who we are and what we’re about. We’re trying to get bigger, stronger, more mobile, learning to be a good teammate and trying to get back that bond that we had last year and not let complacency creep in. Those are the things we work on every single day."

"That goes back to our culture. It never stops. It’s like weeds. The second you don’t pick them, there are 20 more of them. We’ve got a target on our back now. We’re the hunted. That’s a different deal for us; trying to sustain and be better than what we did last year so we have to work harder at it."

Finally, coach McKnight summarizing culture, "ID-ing these cultural issues isn’t just one guy. It goes for everybody from the head coach to the assistants to the players to the trainers to the equipment guys to academic personnel. Every person that touches our football program and players has potential to do good and harm so they all have to be held to the same standard. Coach Herman makes sure everyone understands that."

Stay logged into Coogfans for future articles during spring ball and the rest of the off-season leading up to Fall training camp for the 2016 season.

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