"We're trying to go from good to great," said Balis. "There's no hand-holding, we're going."
Balis isn't joking about either the ambition, or the attitude. Starting January 18, any Dog who walked into the Holliman Center weightroom still showing satisfaction over the accomplishments of last season has been rudely reminded that calendar has flipped forward. ‘Rudely' is a bit mild, in fact.
"I almost lost my mind last week," Balis said. "It was the worst week we've had since I've been here." Huh? That can't be true. The returning portion of a winning team couldn't have slipped so far in less than the three weeks since they left the Gator Bowl with a trophy, a whole lot of Wolverine pelts, and thunderous cheers still ringing in their ears…could they?
"Oh, yeah, it was terrible. Just not the level it has to be, I just didn't see the hunger. And that's partly because you had two weeks off, so some of it is natural. But the top teams all deal with it, if we'd played in the national championship game we would have started this week. Auburn is training right now. That's the way it is at the highest level."
Which is the level Coach Dan Mullen is aiming for, naturally. So for all the delight Dogs, and Dog fans, take from the 2010 turnaround, it falls first to the strength staff to get 2011 kick-started. Literally, if it comes down to that. Balis and assistants have the players entirely at their mercy from now until spring practicing begins, and they intend to turn a toned-and-tuned team over to Mullen come the first week of March.
"We're in our second week of training," Balis said. "We usually use the first two weeks to teach all our drills, get everything ready for next week when we go to full-out competition in all our drills. The high-intensity mat drills begin, the competitive agilities, the speed school. Friday ‘get-after-their-butts' or whatever you want to call it, just nasty workout type stuff.
"So next week the competition really starts. We've been taking points and all that, now for the next four weeks we'll be in competitive, get-after-it, hard training. We have the St. Valentines deal in there, the gauntlets will be in there. Just tough, tough, tough workouts. It's getting your team's personality back, what got you to this point. You have to do it again. You have to climb that mountain again."
Mountaineering metaphor aside, Balis admitted that 2011 presents a very different coaching challenge for the strength staff. In several ways an even tougher one than before. Back in January 2009 it was the typical transition situation and a humbled team trying to please their new bosses on and off the field. Not fun for anyone, of course, but still an understood process. 2010 began with an encouraged club working that much harder to turn hope into victory; if anything, that was the ‘easy' stage as far as a strength coach is concerned.
Now, however… "It's new territory," said Balis. "For everybody, all of us coaches and players. Because when you first got here you're dealing with changing the culture and changing the mindset. Everybody was kind of mad and upset, the coaches had got fired and we have this new thing going. Last year, you had all those guys back with the K.J. Wright's and Pernell McPhee's, and you're riding some momentum. Now, you've got some real success and you've lost your big Dogs. You've still got talent but you've lost your big Dogs, so now how do you deal with that? With young guys who have not done a thing?"
By the way, Balis really means the bit about this being ‘new territory' for himself, Mullen, and other staffers. A previous stops most of these coaches have not gone through the sort of total turnaround State needed, and earned, the first two seasons. But since they're professionals it oughtn't be a tough transition. More serious is replacing what those big Dogs did in the locker room. Balis doesn't confine his praise to the seniors of '10 either, saying '09 seniors such as Jamar Chaney and Marcus Washington accepted the challenge and set a team tone.
They're all gone, along with most MSU memories of the hard 2008 times. So, Balis said, "It starts over now. And these kids came into the situation of ‘OK, there's success here and this is pretty cool'. We're back to square-one now, know what I mean?"
Well, allowing that square-one is suddenly a much nicer address than two Januarys ago since Bulldog football has seen success. But as Balis noted that comes with a risk, too, as younger players might accept it as a right and not a hard-won privilege. So, the strength staff is giving everyone a stiff reality check this off-season.
"Coach their butts off!" Balis described it. "Get after their butts like you've never seen. Attack! And you get your strength coaches to coach like their hair is on fire. You get your leaders to be relentless. Marcus Green, Charles Mitchell, Chris Relf, Addison Lawrence, Quentin Saulsberry, they have to be relentless and get after these guys." Because, it is those guys Balis wants to be relentless getting after the rest of the squad. Simply, it is called leadership.
"There's direction. If a young guy does something that's not right an older guy is on him, I'm not. The players will threaten to throw a guy out of the weightroom, not me. The players make sure the exercises are done right. The players are encouraging one another to train hard. If someone is soft or isn't giving the effort we want the players are jumping him. That to me is ultimately leadership."
"I think the older guys can handle it. They come up to me and know what we want now. They can see it, they can feel it. They also know that they've got to start all over again from scratch, but they know the expectations and what we need."
At the same time Balis has made his own adjustments to this third off-season regimen while including those aforementioned fundamental drills. "You always tweak things. We've changed some things we're doing in the weightroom slightly, with our tempo and how we present things. We've evolved to more football-specific competition drills. We're doing a lot of the same stuff, we're not re-inventing the wheel here. It's still competitive agilities and competitive speed school. We'll still do mat drills. But we're adding some things that are more athletic-based and movement-based."
Such as, those chutes linemen use to maintain stance in instruction drills? Balis is using them in agility drills now so that workouts are done in a ‘football' position. Bungee cords are added in other workouts for the extra resistance in explosive-movement drills. "And we're doing a new chain hold, taking big chains and putting weight plates on that they have to hold up at the end of workouts," Balis said. Note, after workouts; just because scripted drills end, players aren't excused.
"Just whatever it takes to have the mindset of, ‘the workout is done, we've still got more!' There's always more to give and not just give more but at a high level."
What also keeps the level high is competition with recorded winners…and losers. It starts naturally with individual competition such as within positions as Balis pits linemen, the ‘big' skills, and the skills against each other in their own groups. Yet there are also defined teams that win or lose as, well, teams. And starting this spring Balis is letting teams be drafted from across all classes. "We've never done that, but we want leadership throughout the entire team.
"We've gone from eight teams to ten. It's about nine guys to team because we have a lot of walk-ons. I think we're over 97 guys right now."
Oh, and think the competition is confined to the weightroom or track? Not at all. Mullen makes almost everything a contest in this club and score is being kept in a whole lot of aspects.
"Things like community service, guys going to other sporting events, they get points for that," Balis said. "We're really pushing academics." Not just their own, too. This week all Bulldogs were to report to Starkville's Armstrong Middle School to interact with students there at breakfast time. "You think OK, you'll have issues with guys being late," said Bailis. "No one is late, everyone shows up, everybody's talking, laughing with these young kids making an impact. It was very powerful." Yes, even things that don't involve swear or strain matter in Mullen's program.
"We want to make a big push on character of our team and team closeness," Balis said. "We want to become the complete student-athlete, the total package so to speak, not just football-football-football. We want you to be a champion in all phases of your life."
Speaking of phases… The seven week off-season schedule peaks just as spring practices begin, with a week of testing for speed and maximum repetitions to be recorded on the Standard of Excellence Board. Then as the varsity get down to a week of practices prior to their semester vacation, Balis will oversee pro day for the older Dogs.
"Then you get spring break. Everyone comes back and you have three more weeks of spring ball where you continue training, not quite like in-season or off-season but in the middle. It's so physical in practices you have to take that into consideration, and spring ball is so critical to evaluate what you've got. Then we have a two-week phase in April where we do what we call combine type testing, we do a lot of 40s and really teach guys how to do those tests. May everyone has finals and has a break, they get away from us for a while before we get after it again in June."
Of spring practice interest is the updated health of the returning players and redshirts. A few true freshmen offensive linemen had minor fall procedures done, per Mullen, to have them fully ready to compete for depth chart status this spring. "Everybody is progressing," Balis said. "Some of those guys are not quite ready yet but for the most part we're doing good, we didn't have very many surgeries." There were two of obvious interest though. Balis said tight end Marcus Green (knee) will need six full months to come back from the ACL injury of September, and wideout Chad Bumphis will do some very limited spring work after his November collarbone break.
"They do everything but it's progression-based. I'm 100% I'm doing everything all out, those guys are 65-70% now, doing everything but not 100%." Though their situations are different, based on inexperience more than injury, the four winter transfers new to the team also have their own grading scale. "It was hard for Redmond, Harris, Prescott, and Trapp," Balis said of last week. "So they came on their own in the first week and they're still a million years behind but at least they have an idea how to do some things."
Then again Balis demands Dogs do what they can do at 100% effort. The only difference this third spring is, with the foundation set, adjusting drills to more suit what actually happens on the field. So this off-season offensive linemen have added punching drills; linebackers are doing more quick hands work; and defensive backs extra sled work to presumably improve their hitting power.
"You're never going to mimic the game, but you can try to get as close to that as you can within a controlled training environment," said Balis.
"We're still working our butts off in here getting big and strong, that will never change. That's what we hang our hat on, things like effort, toughness, strength, size. Like you said, Mississippi State will always be a big and physical team and we'll never lose that. But we also want to enhance our athleticism. We want to be explosive off the ball, we want to be able to change direction quickly. We want our offensive line to have strong punches and be able to stand in the positions we want. We want our linebackers and d-linemen to be able to explode off the ball. So we're really emphasizing those things as well."
There is also the overriding emphasis seen on signs posted around player venues, telling the Bulldogs this is their year to go from good to great. That's even with the understanding that new leadership must be developed and younger players forced to pay the same sort of price as the two previous squads did. Balis might even find himself pushing harder here in year-three than before, he admitted, and letting the temper show if necessary.
"It's not even anger, it's just that you have a vision, a level of how you want it. Even though we're just starting over again and we had a somewhat successful season, we want us to be the most hungry team that's put on this earth. That's my expectation, that's Coach Mullen's expectation, we should be out-of-control hungry, not satisfied at all.
"So when I say ‘somewhat successful' that's not a slap. I'm very proud of our team, we all are of that accomplishment. But you can never be satisfied. For us, even if we won the national championship that's success…but it's over. You're not measured by what you did last year, it's all new now. Because if you go back you lose your edge, you lose the hunger, the drive. Once you start thinking like that you're going to get beat because all the other guy is thinking about is whipping your butt."