Houston graduate Lou Hernandez has worked with Illinois coach Ron Zook since he became head coach at Florida nine years ago and followed him to Champaign in 2005. He has been running the UI Strength & Conditioning program ever since. He is the one person on staff allowed by NCAA rules to work with Illini football players the entire year.
However, he is often the unsung hero of any success the team has. Most Illini fans wouldn't recognize him. He is on the field for pregame exercises; otherwise he remains in the background. But in the weight room, all Illini football players know him intimately. He is ever-present, pushing them beyond their limits.
Hernandez has a mandate to build strength and maintain conditioning at all times, especially when Zook and his nine assistants are prevented from direct involvement by NCAA edict. This includes a winter conditioning program and a busy summer schedule. Speaking during spring practice, he was impressed with the improvement shown by the team this past winter.
"I am excited about the progress of the team. The big thing when you come into winter and lose seniors, now you're searching for an identity. But the great thing going into the bowl season was that these guys stayed together longer, worked together more, and it was almost like they didn't miss a beat.
"This team has come in from day 1 in the winter and had just great continuity, great unity. So that's been the best thing about this winter."
Hernandez commands the respect and total cooperation of his athletes. All eyes and ears are focused on him. All bodies are attuned to his next command.
"Once you're in this weight room and the stadium out in front of you, everything is a constant reminder of what you need to do to be the best. So as soon as that lift group comes in and that bell rings, it's time to go to work. Everybody's on the same page when it comes to working out in this weight room."
Hernandez is a primary reason for that. It is always difficult to win games, but it would be much worse if Illini athetes were not in top shape. As proof of his success, more Illini football players have topped 405 pounds in the bench press every year he's been at the school.
"That's true. We've gone from one to ten, then 11, 12, 13 and this year during the season we got up to 15 guys who had 405 bench presses or better. We lost a few of those seniors, so we've got a big task ahead of us this summer to try to get a few guys to that number or better."
As another example, two young members of the current Illinois team have obliterated the UI power clean record.
"I'll tell you about that power clean record. When we first moved into this weight room, the record was held by Arrelious Benn and Jarred Fayson at 352 pounds. Then Akeem Spence set it last summer at 377 pounds. He was on pace this winter to match that and try to beat it. He didn't get an opportunity to do it because he hurt his wrist.
"But Jay Prosch certainly did. He pulled a 382 pound power clean from the floor. He also pulled a 401 pound hang clean. So huge lifts.
"These two guys are going to be battling it out back and forth to see who's gonna own this record platform in this weight room. That's gonna be real interesting. We're expecting a lot of great things from him and Spence battling it out back and forth."
Offensive and defensive linemen must be big, but size alone is not enough, as Hernandez explains.
"A lot of guys will get the misconception they've got to go in as big as they can get. Most importantly, you've got to be able to run. We will let their bodies dictate where their body weight will be based on how they're running. If they can gain weight and continue to move well, that's number one.
"That's what we did with Corey Liuget. Liuget came in as a freshman and was 260. The strength coach in me said next year he's gonna be 310, and sure enough he was sophomore year. But he wasn't very productive at that weight and lost a step of quickness.
"His strength is his ability to move. Going into his junior year, we got him down to 290, and he played at that weight and kept all his strength numbers. Here we are today with Corey Liuget on his way to the next level.
"The thing that people might not understand is that, when it comes to speed improvement drills, quickness, lateral movement, footwork and agility, your linemen are just as important as the receivers are when it comes to the mechanics and drills of running. But first and foremost, get as big and strong as they can get. Then we tailor to their exact needs. I think we hit it right on."
Nutrition is an important factor, and the UI provides experts to teach players the types and amounts of foods to eat. Of course, some players have problems gaining weight. There are programs for them also.
"We're fortunate enough to have a great supplement budget. We load them up with shakes and bars, things they can just drink out of a can or things they can mix up in a blender. We're constantly monitoring these things."
Entering freshmen begin workouts with "Coach Lou" in June. For some, the experience is a total shock.
"We have different goals through the times of the year. Our older guys know what to expect. A lot of the younger guys have never done this kind of work load and the frequency of it. So everything is brand new to them in the beginning. For a lot of them, it's the most difficult thing they've ever done."
Little by little, even the least conditioned athlete comes around and begins to realize the value of a sound training program. Hernandez loves his work, so he is there for them, monitoring their progress and pushing them to be the best they can be.
In part two of this four-part report, Hernandez provides specifics on Illini offensive skill players.