Balis Driving Dogs To Strong Summer Finish

Officially, the Mississippi State preseason is still three weeks away. Realistically? These 2011 Bulldogs have been preparing for most of six months. Which means the coach in charge for about 80% of this stretch, Matt Balis, is best able to comment on preparedness for upcoming camp.

Balis, after all, has had the Mississippi State squad in his care since varsity Dogs returned in January, save only for the spring practices and brief spring break. Now with just a couple of weeks' work remaining on the summer schedule Balis is pushing all Bulldogs—varsity, redshirts, and rookies—towards the off-season finish line.

A line that arrives on August 1 when all eligible and available bodies formally report (really, re-report as practically everyone has been here since early June) for the start of camp. The first practice is scheduled for August 4 with 29 work-dates allowed before their September 1 kickoff against Memphis in the Liberty Bowl.

Thursday, Balis took time for a question-and-answer session with media about the summer situation in general. He was joined by one of his team leaders, center/guard Quentin Saulsberry, who himself came straight from his morning shift as an intern office with the Starkville Police Department. In working gear, no less. A story on his unique summer job will appear next week.

Balis' talk began with the obligatory ‘so how is everyone looking?' query.

"They're going good. I really like the direction right now. We're ‘peaking' right now, so our strength-gain is where they need to be, our conditioning times for the most part are where they need to be. This is a really neat time because you see the team really doing things that they've not done before.

"Every once in a while we've got to challenge them hard with one of our hard Friday days. When they come over that challenge, we get stronger as a team. That's our team-building day. So they're going good."

Q: In spring the emphasis is strength over condition; what is the balance now? "In June it is kind of a combo, more strength. You're going to go a little bit heavier weight, maybe you're not going to run as much. We do a little bit more speed development work in June. July, it's more conditioning-based now. We take away one of our lift days and put in another run. You have to run more because that's what we're getting ready to do, in two-a-days you're running every single day.

"So that is kind of our focus. We still want to move a lot of weight in July, but it's not as much volume because you're running so much more. So it's a balance and keeping the legs fresh."

Q: Who are some guys that have shown improvement? "The key thing to me is your leadership. To me the first thing you've got to have is great leadership. Quentin Saulsberry has been phenomenal, he's really, really incredible, one of the best guys I've been around. A leader, hard worker, holds people accountable, loves the Bulldogs, wants to go out a winner, wants to go out on top. Chris Relf has done phenomenal from a leadership standpoint with the whole offense. His work ethic, his goals he has for his body, what he needs to do, he's done a great job.

"Marcus Green, a guy that didn't play much last year, he's had a great summer, a great off-season. He has done a great job. Charles Mitchell, you can never say too many great things about him. He's kind of the leader of that defense right now, working as hard as he ever has but also holding people accountable, making sure people are doing what they're supposed to be doing at the highest level they can. Those guys right there, that's your leadership that have done a great job."

Q: How far has this team come since your first summer (2009)? "Well, every team is different. That's a hard question. The first summer, that was Jamar Chaney and the boys. That was their team. So I felt they did a great job for where they were at the time. It was a little bit older team, they were actually a little bit more mature. Last year's team was very mature.

"This is a younger team so it's a challenge. Every year is a challenge. Coach Mullen made a comment the 2010 team died right when we won the Gator Bowl, it's finished. The 2011 team started. So every team to me is different. When you talk about the older guys that have been here since that first summer, they've grown tremendously. As you would think three years in. But, you still have young guys that just got here or haven't been here very long, they have to learn what it's about.

"So I think where we've grown the most is where you can take a guy who just got here in June; say, a freshman, and put him with a guy who has been here three years. That (older) guy can train him, mold him, and take him under their wing. That's the key to the program."

Q: Has anybody been physically limited this summer? "Knock on wood, we're gonna be good."

Q: Are there things you make sure a guy who has been hurt before is protected? "We have what we call a ‘weak link' program. So a Marcus Green does some extra exercises for his knee and his groin, his hip. But the main thing is communication. Our athletic training staff does a great job, they're in charge. They re-hab and make sure he's getting up to speed.

"Our job as a strength and conditioning staff is to make sure he's strong and in shape. Now, he has to communicate with us; ‘hey my knee may have a little tendinitis'. Whatever it is, instead of running outside he may run in the pool one day; he may take a little pressure off that knee. It's just communication. He's had a couple of rough injuries so it's been a long haul for him. But he's on track. That's how you do it, the training staff and the strength staff have to work together."

Q: You mentioned mixing kids in. With class schedules and conflicts how do you group guys for workouts? "It's just really who is available. We have a certain number of guys, we'd rather not have more than 30 to 34 guys at one time in the weightroom. So if a Zach Jackson is in there, a freshman that just got here, and Marcus Green is there, I'm putting those two guys together. I've got a guy that's been here three years and a guy that just got here, what better way to learn how to train than that?

"Now our 1:00 group doesn't have as many young guys so it's more older guys with older guy. A three- or two-year guy with a one-year guy. And that 3:15 group is about half-and-half, so that's a really neat group to watch."

Q: Do you pair them big-big, small-small? "Typically. Sometimes you have a guy like Brandon Wilson—who is doing a great job too by the way. He can go either way, with a skill guy because he's a linebacker; that's a ‘big skill' we call them. Or he can go with James Carmon, too. But typically yes, it's lineman with lineman, skill with skill.

"But the key thing is great worker and not-as-good of a worker, not-as-experienced a worker. You have to do that."

Q: Do they know they are being paired that way? "Yes."

Q: When players sign in February how quickly do you get a workout plan package them? "The day after. Yeah, that's sent out immediately. Because it's imperative that they do their best. You know, I can tell who the guys are that took the packet and threw it on the couch or it was on the coffee table for three months. You can tell who the guys are that read it.

"We give them a DVD and everything is on that as well. But the thing is, in high school so many guys don't have to train as hard because they're so much more talented. But if they knew how much better they would be…being stronger and better shape they'd come here so much more ready. Even your hardest-working guys in high school can't match the intensity of the college setting and the SEC. I mean, it's the highest level. You just can't match it."

Q: Is it possible to overstate how helpful the rules change allowing freshmen to report in June has been? "Oh, yeah. It's huge. It's absolutely huge. I can remember when freshmen were getting in in August. I remember at Utah half those freshmen weren't even at practice, they were in the ‘pit' with us because they couldn't do anything. I mean, it just blows me away!

"So yeah, coming in June you get the legs in shape, you get the mind, you get the heart, the lungs; the body's ability to recover. Learning how to eat, learning how to hydrate, learning how to to go class, it's huge."

Q: Who are some of the redshirts who had that mountain to climb? Like a Blaine Clausell? "He's done a heck of a job. He got here in January (2010) so he's had more of an edge. He's almost going into his second year. It's amazing that he hasn't played yet but really you feel he's been here a while, put on good size. He's just got to get tougher and become a great football player now. He's gotten stronger bigger, and faster, and is a great worker, he's just got to become a great player."

Q: Have any of the new freshmen stood out or surprised you? "Well, you never know because they haven't put pads on yet. But I really like this freshman class works. I like, let's see, guys that stick out… Preston Smith has come ready to work hard. Just got here, you have no idea what he's going to do with pads on but he definitely looks like he's ready to work. Kendrick Market has a great work ethic, Taveze Calhoun has a great work ethic, Zach Jackson and Dee Arrington are two guys that are 6-1, 205 guys that can run and have no problem working hard.

"They're just so young, and you don't know. But I like the way those guys are working."

Q: What is the transition like for Brandon Maye? "I think because he's so much older it's good and bad. Good in the sense that he's older and mature and he's seen a lot of things so he can kind of fall in, it's not going to shock him too much. Bad in the sense that he's set in his ways and set in his habits with the old system. But our leadership here, he trains with Saulsberry every day and you have no choice but fall in with Quentin Saulsberry.'

Q: Looking at the updated roster, most linemen gained five pounds or stayed steady. Have they hit the target weights you wanted? "We're getting there. I feel pretty good about everybody's weight. They do a good job with weight here, I think we really try to school them up on how to eat, what to eat, and the importance of not being too heavy. Because to me, with big guys, that's the hardest thing. They can put ten, 15 pounds on so quick, and in our league you have to be quick and fast and agile. So I think we have buy-in in that sense with guys not being too heavy.

"Even our skill and big skill guys we have to constantly watch because the key thing in this league is speed. You have to be fast. You have to be big and strong also, but you've got to be fast first. Yeah, we've had really good buy-in with that."

Q: What will you try to accomplish in the next two weeks before the transition to camp? "Right now we're peaking again with strength, and with conditioning. Conditioning especially. Week-six is your heaviest hang-clean deal. Next week (seven) is where you peak the lower-body; week-eight is where you kind of peak your upper body. So as you come out of week-eight now you have about a week to ‘gather yourself and get ready for two-a-days. So your last big leg day is two weeks before two-a-days start."

Q: What are some of the unorthodox summer things you've done just to get out of the weightroom? "First off, in June we changed it up and went lower-body on Monday and upper-body on Tuesday; we went lower/upper, lower/upper, just that switch. Then we did some different things with our speed work this year. We used a speed hill, we did some hill training, we had some weighted vests. We did some over-speed with different things. We had a sand pit put in, that was different.

"Then we'll go and do team building things. We went away last weekend as a team and different things. And tomorrow our ‘protect the house' is different. We hang our hat on certain things in the weightroom that you have to do, you have to run the gassers and the conditioning and all that. But we also like to do some different things. We hit the (punching) bag a little bit for a different kind of cardio, with different punch sequences. We'll lock horns with each other, like Saulsberry will lock horns with one of our strength coaches just for a different way of doing cardio. So we do different things that way."

Q: What is ‘protect our house' for those who don't see it? "We have to protect our stadium so guys will actually run the stadiums. Our big thing there is, we don't lose at home. We put so much into our training and what we have to do to protect the house, that that is just our mindset. Tomorrow when we do that as a team, that is the deal. We take care of business at home."

Q: You said back in January the 2011 theme was ‘from good to great'. Have the players bought into that? "Oh, yeah. Because of him (pointing at Saulsberry). Because if your older guys don't, you don't have a chance. But if Q and Mitchell and Relf and (Wade) Bonner and Marcus, Sean Ferguson, if they're preaching that then everybody is eventually going to get there. They might not all be there, I'm not going to sit here and tell you everyone is. But it's going in the right direction."

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