Seeds of Success: Iowa's Strength & Conditioning

College football pundits from around the country have been asking themselves and anyone else who will listen a similar question as of late: How did Iowa turn its football program around and into one of the best in the nation? There are several reasons, but perhaps none as important as the work that Iowa's Strength and Conditioning program does with its players. In this <i>Hawkeye Nation</i> magazine sneak peak, you will get a feel as to why Iowa Football is back on the map in a big way.

They appeared as though they had just rolled out of bed; heads of hair sticking up, taking breaks to rub their eyes. They could have just as easily turned over and went back to sleep. They didn't need to be here.

Most of them recently had been presented with college degrees or were on the brink of getting one. They had achieved enough to make their parents proud academically and athletically. Mom and dad would have understood if they had passed on waking up to wind sprints and weight lifting for the last three months.

Not a chance. These guys were exactly where they wanted to be. Well, sure, they could have used a little more shuteye. But as the sound of weights crashed through the Iowa Hawkeye Football Strength and Conditioning room, these guys were dreaming while awake on an early April day.

Preparations for the NFL Draft become intense for the three and half months between the end of the college season and the pro selection process. Each year, Iowa hopefuls work out, intent on reaching a goal set in youth.

The school's football strength and conditioning guru Chris Doyle and his staff of James Dobson, Bryan Dermody and Raimond Braithwaite, direct this training. But the process takes five years (in most cases), for Head Coach Kirk Ferentz and his entire Hawkeye coaching staff to mold incoming prep stars into the NFL prospects.

"It's really a tribute to the athletes' commitment, and our football coaching staff does an excellent job developing athletes," Doyle said. "It's something that Coach Ferentz has made a commitment to from the get-go. We have developmental practice each day where we keep guys out (after the regular practice) and spend extra time on individual training."

Success has resulted from that commitment. For the 2001 and 2002 seasons, every senior that finished those years as a starter for Iowa has been in an NFL camp except one, Doyle said. The ‘one' was offensive lineman Andy Lightfoot, and he could have joined his teammates in an NFL camp were it not for his pursuit of a degree in Medicine and enrolling in medical school.

After Iowa's watershed campaign of '02, the NFL drafted five of its players and signed five other Hawkeyes to free agent deals. At one time, Doyle believed that those numbers would be tough to match this year. But after the 2004 draft had taken place, Iowa saw five more players hear their names called over the course of the NFL draft weekend.

Left tackle Robert Gallery was Iowa's first Top 5 pick since Dallas took guard John Niland with the fifth selection of the 1966 draft. Gallery went to Oakland with the number two overall pick of the draft. Green Bay's choice of Hawkeye quarterback Randy Duncan at No. 1 overall in '59 was the only other time that a player from the school was among the first five chosen.

Bob Sanders went in the second round to Indianapolis and was the 44th overall pick in the draft. Nate Kaeding went early in the third round to San Diego as the 65th overall pick in the draft. Since 1980, only four other kickers were taken earlier than Kaeding's slot at #65.

Jared Clauss was selected by the Tennessee Titans in the seventh round and Erik Jensen went to St. Louis later in the same round.

Many of Iowa's draftee's turned in solid performances at the NFL combine or at Iowa's Pro Day held in early March.

Iowa has sent an amazing 14 players to the NFL Scouting Combine over the last two seasons.

"Those numbers are high," Doyle said. "I don't know if they'll be that high every year. I think it's too early to tell what we're going to have for next year."

But it might be a mistake to bet against the Hawkeyes staying at or near this pace. When you think about seniors-to-be like Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux, Sean Considine, Pete McMahon and Jermelle Lewis, you realize that the Black and Gold will be well represented in the '05 draft. And the junior class led by linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway also packs some serious potential.

This trend should not be a surprise when one considers the attention spent at Iowa in preparing players for the next level. The staff pays strict attention to the details.

LINKING THE CHAIN

While the volume of success stories and overall exposure has increased during the last few years, the Iowa program has consistently placed players in the NFL during Ferentz's five years as head coach. Players like Matt Bowen (2000, sixth round), Kevin Kasper ('01, fourth round), Jason Baker ('01, free agent), Anthony Herron ('01, FA), LeVar Woods ('01, FA), Ladell Betts ('02, second round), Aaron Kampman ('02, fifth round) and Kahlil Hill ('02, sixth round), caught on in the NFL before the big group of '03, and in many cases, defied the odds.

Hand-me-down advice has served as a key component in Iowa's increased success with the draft.

"We've been fortunate to have guys that learn from some of the older guys," Doyle said. "You look at guys like Bowen, Woods, Kasper, Kampman; these guys taught our current guys how to approach the pre-draft period. They've applied the same principles that have allowed them to increase their value."

Player experiences also help train Doyle and his staff. They take feedback in hopes of passing along knowledge to future prospects.

"These are very intelligent people," Doyle said. "If they've been successful in the Big Ten playing football at Iowa, their feedback to us is very valuable. When they come back, you want to do a debriefing, so to speak. We bring them in and say, "Hey, what did you see? What did you feel that you were very well prepared for? What did you feel that maybe you weren't as well prepared for as you could have been?"

"It helps that what Bowen went through helped Woods and helped Kasper. And what those guys went through helped Kampman. And what Kampman went through helped (Dallas) Clark and (Bruce) Nelson and (Eric) Steinbach. If you can maintain some continuity from year to year, hopefully each year you can improve your guys' chances of improving their value. That continuity has been as much a part of our success as anything."

It would be tough to pass along this information if the athletes traveled elsewhere to train. Holding workouts for the prospects at Iowa each morning between January and April is vital. That might seem to be an obvious layout, but it's pretty unique.

"One thing that we do here at Iowa, our guys make a commitment to us for five years, and we make a commitment to them that after (their senior) season our players stay here," Doyle said. "At most schools, the guys will leave and go work out on their own, whether it's at home or with a private personal trainer. I can't speak for a lot of other schools, but it's like when they graduate their work is done. We don't consider our work to be done at that point. We consider those athletes to be our guys, and we're going to do everything that we can to help them."

Training at home can be distracting for athletes as they are often around family and friends. Going to a personal trainer or specialized training camp can throw an athlete out of routine. Iowa essentially puts its players in a comfortable, familiar setting and picks up the workouts where they left off at the end of the college season.

"I believe that that's very beneficial to them," Doyle said. "They stay in their home environment where they're not moving across the country to go work out with somebody else. Their room and board arrangements are consistent, so they know what they're eating and they know where they are eating. There's some stability there. They work out as a group so they push each other. It's a very positive atmosphere."

Said senior defensive end Howard Hodges: "There was no way I was going home. I was going to stay right here and get better with Doyle. This is where I needed to be."

"It's a great resource," Clauss said. "You stay right into your routine. You know what you need to do and you come in and do it. And it gives us a chance to push each other."

Iowa's premium setup was re-enforced when Clauss spoke with players from other schools at the combine in February.

"No one stays (at their schools)," Clauss said. "I was talking to someone down there where his strength coach wanted money or something to train the guy. I don't remember who the guy was, so I'm not going to say. (Doyle is) very unselfish. The whole strength staff helps us out. It's rare to have people come back and train. People ask you, "Oh, where did you train?" You hear, "Oh, Phoenix, Arizona, New Orleans." We train at Iowa. We've got everything we need right here."

And the results are proving that staying in Iowa City is the best course of action. Iowa's offensive linemen in 2003 were among the best performers at the combine. Derek Pagel and Ben Sobieski worked themselves into the draft during the postseason evaluations.

This season, Bob Sanders, Fred Russell and Clauss impressed scouts at pre-draft workouts to strengthen their ratings as did known commodities like Gallery and kicker Nate Kaeding.

MAKING AN IMPRESSION

The Iowa staff begins the process of forming NFL players when the athletes arrive on campus and sometimes even before that. Some recruits ask Doyle to supply them with a workout program after they've signed their national letters of intent.

However, the home stretch - the three and a half months between the end of their final college season and the draft - often proves to be invaluable.

"Nothing overrides film," Doyle said. "Film is the No. 1 evaluator. Nothing is more important than production on the football field. Secondly, an athlete can really help himself during the pre-draft period."

That block of time is dedicated to sharpening the body and mind. Both areas are considered essential in increasing a positive opinion of ones self in the minds' of the pro scouts. Iowa provides all of the resources necessary for advancement.

"We apply a lot of the same principles that are being applied in these private settings (personal trainer, speed camps), but we take a vested interest in those athletes," Doyle said. "We're filming all of their workouts. We're sitting down with them individually and going through the interview process as to how they're going to be interviewed at the NFL level, at the combine. With the commitment of the athletes, these guys improve their status."

Physically, Doyle and his staff spend five years training the athletes to peak around graduation time in the areas that mean the most to scouts - lifting, jumping, running. They pay close attention to the 40-yard dash, football's answer to baseball's radar gun.

Sanders said that he ran the 40 in around 4.6 seconds when he came to Iowa. He credited Doyle for teaching him how to run correctly and therefore reduced his time to 4.4, which means all of the difference in the world to NFL decision makers.

"They want to see numbers," Doyle said. "A lot of personnel people get excited about numbers. They can compare numbers from one year to the next. They can look back and see what Barry Sanders ran in the 40. They can see what Tony Boselli did at his combine. You can compare that to Robert Gallery. Those are hard facts."

Doyle explains his guide to running the 40 correctly as being something pretty rudimentary. He increases lower body strength with Olympic movements. This improves the ability to apply more force with each running step. The stronger you get. The harder you push. The faster you run.

Iowa football players also are taught to run efficiently.

"If we went to a school yard and watched a bunch of kids running, you're going to see kids that can be spastic and run out of control," Doyle said. "If you can improve their ability to run efficiently with good mechanics, you're going to improve their turnover rate."

Iowa's 40-times have been among the best by position during the last two years. Think about the 6-foot-7, 323-pound Gallery having run a 4.9-second 40 at the combine. The NFL scouts sure did.

With the physical tools being honed over their college careers before being touched up during the pre-draft process, the prospects are ready to be trained mentally. Doyle keeps files of notes in his office that reveal what certain NFL teams might ask players. He shares this with his guys.

"We talk about the typical questions," Doyle said. "Teams take different approaches. For example, there's one NFL team that asks you "What are your goals?" They have a specific answer that they're looking for. They want to hear that you want to be part of a Super Bowl champion. Now, it helps when a player goes into that interview knowing that that's what they want to hear. And then right out of their mouth, "I want to be part of a Super Bowl champion." Bang."

Doyle also runs mock interviews with his players to get them familiar and comfortable with the process. He offers a list of guidelines that include dressing professionally, making eye contact, shaking hands firmly, listening to full names, thanking the team officials for meeting with them, selling themselves and sitting up in their chairs.

"If you have a guy that kind of slumps in his chair, dresses sloppy and looks at the floor, they're going to have a clear perception of what they think of that athlete," Doyle said. "You can really change for the better and improve your status with how you interview."

Once the guidelines are in place, Doyle directs his guys to take an assertive approach.

"It's a job interview," Doyle said. "With Robert Gallery, we sat down and said, "Hi. I'm Joe Bugel, offensive line coach of the Washington Redskins, nice to meet you Robert." You sit them down and go through the interview process. You put him on the board and have him draw up plays and have him discuss what his role is with each play."

Iowa players also get ahead of the competition by being tutored in how to answer questions that others might think to be trivial.

"When they're asked, "What do you need to improve on?"" Doyle said. "Instead of saying, "Oh, I really need to work on my hands." It's "Every day after practice I stay out and spend an extra 10 minutes on the jugs machine." You don't want to only tell them that you're aware of your limitations. You want to send a message to them that you have a plan as to how you're correcting it. And you're doing it on a daily basis."

As hard as the Iowa staff works in preparing its athletes for success during the pre-draft season, NFL teams do things to keep the process interesting.

"They get paid to improve each year, too," Doyle said. "So every year, guys are going to come back and say, "You know what? I got an off-of-the-wall question from this team." Then, we put that in our notebook and then next year you talk about it with the players because they may see it.

"Every year there are going to be some curveballs and some twists and turns. But if they spend some time mentally preparing prior to the combine and prior to the individual interview, they're pretty well prepared for it."

Even though there might be the occasional curveball, the Iowa athletes see pitches that they can handle because of Iowa's sound training.

"They put us through everything that you need to," Clauss said. "(Doyle) diagramed it out in the bubble one day about how the combine is going to be set up. He tells you what is going to happen. The strength coach out there for the bench (press) is going to be in your face. He just knows what's going on. That helps. It just gives you a little heads up. You don't want to go into anything blind. He did a really good job of preparing guys, and we had some really good results."

Doyle admits that his players and their families make his job a lot easier. Iowa products offer strong character and stable backgrounds.

"They're looking to see how this kid was raised," he said. "They want to find out who the guy looks to for role models and who has influenced their life. If a guy uses a rock star or a rap star name, the (NFL representative) is going to look at him a little funny. They want to see how they think."

A scan of the NFL rosters shows that the Hawkeye program is making progress in placing players in the game's top league. Doyle, however, takes a cautious approach to patting himself on the back.

"You'd like to think you've made progress," he said. "But there are always going to be individual challenges with individual athletes. And that's part of our job. It is education. Coaching is teaching. You're hopefully developing more than just their physical attributes. Hopefully, it's all paying off in making them the best they can be."

This story appeared in the May issue of Hawkeye Nation magazine and is indicative of the feature based content that appears in each and every issue. If you are interested in subscribing to the magazine and or website, click on THIS LINK

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