Pollard, Bulldogs Begin Pre-Spring Program

Coach Ben Pollard apologizes for the raspy tone of talk. "My voice is recovering today," he confesses. Specifically, from his first day of hands-on work as Mississippi State's strength coach. And if this is the result of one date on the job… "After the first three week's I'm probably going to be voice-less! Because we're going to be teaching the entire time."

Pollard's particularly brand of teaching began January 16 with the first phase of Bulldog off-season strength training running through late February and the start of 2007 spring practices. If the voice is entirely gone by then, well, this new member of Coach Sylvester Croom's staff will find a way to get the message across and the word done. This literally is what he lives and works for.

"I had a wonderful day, starting at 5:45 with our first team run," he smiles. "Then I had a group at 8:00, a group at 9:30, 11:00, 1:00, and 2:30. So all day long I coached." And even Wednesday afternoon, technically a free day for the Dogs, Pollard was still coaching a dozen brand-new spring walk-ons and showing them the ropes so they won't be lost upon joining the rest of the team.

That's the busy pace Pollard will keep up in the roughly five weeks he has to prepare the Bulldogs for the physical demands of spring camp. He himself was on campus all last week, setting up schedules for both staff and players alike within the context of both the spring session and the spring school semester. Starting yesterday, coach met Dogs on the track and everybody got down to the job.

A very intense one, too. "It's four days of lifting," Pollard describes the pre-camp plan. "Monday we lift at 5:45, then Tuesday I bring them back to lift in the afternoon. Wednesday is their off-day, Thursday we run in the morning and I bring them back in to lift in the afternoon. Then Friday we lift." If this sounds as if Pollard is tilting his early-semester towards weights over running, that's correct. "My emphasis is going to be on strength levels," he explained.

"In winter what I'm most concerned with is maximizing strength levels. We're going to try to get some body fat off some guys, we have two days a week of team conditioning and agility drills so they're getting a certain level of conditioning. But preparing for spring ball is totally different than preparing for a season, conditioning is important but not nearly at a premium like it is getting ready for a season."

Only a day into his exposure to the Bulldogs, and they to him, Pollard prefers not to make any sweeping judgment on the state of State. Conditioning after the holiday break wasn't great, he said, and that's entirely normal for a team that has not worn pads since late November. "When you don't play in a bowl and have a lot of time off there's a little rust to be knocked off. We were rusty. But we're OK.

"I've been doing this long enough to have a realistic expectation. I don't know if my guys at Texas A&M would have been any different." Pollard only left the Aggies on December 28, after their post-season bowl game. He arrived in Starkville on January 6…not a day too soon to his mind.

"We coaches like to be regimented, somewhat obsessive-compulsive. I'm not happy sitting around. There's that time in May (three weeks) you're thankful to have, but it's the time in winter you don't particularly love." Now he's back to doing what he loves every week-day with the Dogs, shuttling groups through starting literally before dawn. Some schools try to organize drills by positions but that wasn't practical for State this semester.

"It's strictly by time-slot because we had some problems with schedules, but our main lifting groups are at 11:00, 1:00, and 2:30 so we can be finished by 4:00 and a lot of them can go to study hall. And there's a team meeting at 4:00 on Mondays, and later in the semester a ‘Football 101' they're a part of."

With this stage of the work underway Pollard will have players as strong as possible before they pull on the pads. He also intends to wait as long as possible before testing just how strong that is, individually.

"We will ‘max' the last week prior to spring football, so I can determine where the strength levels are. I like to ‘max' on the squat, the bench press, and the clean from the hang position. I feel safer that way. We'll do some cleans form the floor later in the summer to prepare for the season. We'll also test vertical jumps to have an idea of where a guy's power output is. If I had one test to do with athletes that would probably be it because if a guy can jump he usually can run and do other things, he can be a good lifter if he's explosive.

"Following spring football we'll do the speed tests—40s, 20-yard shuttle, L-drill, we'll time those kinds of things."

Five pre-spring weeks might seem an eternity for those heaving the iron or running the track. For Mississippi State it's actually an accelerated schedule, with 2007 camp moved up two weeks earlier than normal so that it can end March 31, as part of Super Bulldog Weekend. Yet this change in program-plan is sheer serendipity for the new strength coach. He'd rather have at least as much or even more weeks to work after practices than before.

"Ideally you'd almost like to be done with spring football by spring break if you could!" he says. "Let the guys have a week to recover and then get back to work because you have about three weeks off in May. Which is good, bodies and minds need some time to recover. But six-seven weeks (after camp) is pretty normal. And the earlier you do it if you have a serious injury a guy can have surgery and still recover in time for the fall season. Plus, there is a certain amount of re-conditioning you have to do after spring ball. So I think it will work out fine."

Pollard talked about taking the Mississippi State job.

"It's not just about a job, it's about a unique challenge. Sometimes professionally you have to say ‘can I make a difference? Can I make a difference as a strength coach here, be a part of this staff?' I looked at it like a unique opportunity. And I want to make a difference. There is a ‘spiritual' element to this that some people will never understand, because I don't know that I fully understand it. But I feel some sort of call to do this. Because it's not a professional move, I was not going to get fired and there was no reason to leave, I had a really group of fifth-year seniors and that team will legitimately have a chance to contend for a Big XII championship. There was just something different."

Pollard doesn't underestimate the challenge, but he sees the opportunity as well. He is taking over a roster that was already in competitive physical shape and beginning to put the mental aspects together, even with the setbacks and letdowns of the 2006 season. Yes, it would be easier getting boys back to work after a shorter break and with more physical retention from a post-season trip. "There's a lot less rust that builds up in two weeks-off than there is in six weeks off," he agrees. "The rich get richer when you to go to a bowl game."

But vigorous workouts will knock that rust off soon enough as Pollard works the team towards their strength-testing dates in February. Interestingly, though, he adds that his job is as much to do with mindsets as with physiques. He lists his primary task as developing team cohesiveness in the weightroom that should carry over to the practice grounds and ultimately the playing field.

"When you talk about college athletics it's not always the best group of athletes that wins; it's the best group of athletes that works together that wins. So developing a trust level, a team unity is absolutely critical. And in that is our discipline, doing things right, doing them well, being reliable. Those are really important parts we're trying to stress. The strength stuff will come with effort. If a guy is in here every single day where he's supposed to be and working hard, he's going to get stronger.

"There's no magic to it, it's all about effort. What I want to see more than anything is great effort. As long as a guy is working as hard as he can we'll be in great shape." And if day-one is any indication, the Bulldogs are about to be working very, very hard.

"So yesterday was a great day," says Pollard. "It was a start."

[This is the first of a two-part interview with Coach Pollard. Paul Jones' interview will be posted Thursday morning.-Editor]

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