Pollard Likes Football Spring Strength Work

How has a taste of success changed the Mississippi State mindset? Ask Coach Ben Pollard, who had some unexpected but welcome Monday visitors to the weightroom. "We actually had four guys come in and work out today," the strength coach said. "Which is four guys more than any time in all of May of last year! So I figure we're ahead of the game."

A ‘game' inside the game, as it were. Because whether it was the quartet on campus--Tim Bailey, Tyson Lee, Cortez McCraney, and Jamayel Smith--or the bulk of the 2008 Mississippi State roster still enjoying this May school break at home, all of them were supposed to be working out starting May 12.

"Today is day-one in the program we sent them home with to do," said Pollard. It was also the first day Pollard has been back in his new office for a couple of weeks, with lots of stuff still to place and re-place. Including the script given every Bulldog before they left campus following final exams, of the three-week regimen required before they come back for first semester summer school. It's nothing exotic, Pollard stresses, just simple work to get ready to, well, really work.

"The three-week program is pretty basic. We want them to be moving in a way that keeps them ready to train. We didn't try to over-do the intensity part, so when they walk in we can raise the intensity without fear of somebody getting hurt in week-one. If they've been doing what we ask they'll be OK.

"There are three lifts per week and three conditioning sessions. Not overconditioning but if they do it they'll be ready. If you don't then we get concerned you'll pull a hamstring or do something that will set us back, and we don't have enough time to be set-back. Seven weeks is what we've got to train before camp. And if you miss time, then you have to double that much time when you get back."

The varying lifts are some type of clean-movement, depending on the player; the squat, which isn't as glamorous but far more helpful in football development; and lunges, just put into the program. Between them, and combined with conditioning work, this plan will keep State players from losing what they gained in spring semester work without risking burnout before they reassemble on June 2.

Monday-Wednesday-Friday are the lifting days; the other three are running days with the emphasis on half-gassers. "That's across the field and back, and that's our conditioning test," Pollard explained. "And I think we've built them up to 18 in one workout; the run test is 16. Again, the first week we do three sets of four with rest built in between; the second week three sets of five; and the third week three sets of six. So it's fairly gradual. And it's what we were already doing, so if you're faithful then as unpleasant as it might be it'll be a lot easier when we get back."

Pollard says that even a limited regimen of gassers and squats would still keep a player ahead of the game. This slightly more varied script helps stave off the inevitable temptation of boredom for college boys just released from school for a few fast May weeks. So the coach is reasonably confident his players were doing this version of ‘home' work Monday as scheduled. "And I promise, we don't assume!" Pollard adds. Of course slackers will be shown-up the hard way ultimately. "And we've had this wonderful weather; you can count on it being hot June 2! If they haven't been out running, that's another issue.

"We're going to take it in the right manner and at the right pace. But once we hit it then we don't have a chance to slow it back down. We'll probably do a lot more training in June, we're almost likely to over-train them because they get a 9-10 day break during the discretionary break of finals and 4th of July. Then the last three weeks we crank up the intensity."

Intense is an apt description of the past spring. Instead of relaxing and enjoying the afterglow of a 8-5 season, four SEC wins, and fourth-quarter victories in both the Egg and Liberty Bowls, Coach Sylvester Croom put his varsity and redshirts right back to work barely two weeks into the New Year. As the '08 calendar fell, Pollard had the players for five weeks before spring camp, and four more after it. No wonder coach and players alike left campus in a hurry right after finals. Nor was Pollard offended.

"I think we were all ready for a break. Because it's a different scenario when you go to a bowl game, then have 17 days off before we started again. And we were pretty much grinding during spring ball, they had some days off during those weeks but then I had them for four-straight weeks and we went every day but the final Friday before finals. So we got after it pretty good.

"And had I had them for two more weeks we'd have been close to season-ready again, I felt we were doing really well. That would have been ready too early! But it was a situation where I thought we really recovered well from spring ball. Even the guys that came out of spring ball and had to have surgery were ahead of the curve. Probably the only guy we have a question mark about coming back in June is Derek Pegues, because of his wrist surgery he'll be a little bit limited in some things we can do with him early. That's not much down-time because they did the surgery right before finals."

Then again injuries are part of the spring-game too and Pollard plans for these in the overall program. "And if there is one guy who can afford to miss a little bit of weight training and still be OK it'd probably be Derek. And we have machines and weights to work around it, rubber bands, ways to train. I don't think it will keep him from running and getting in conditioning."

Pollard is cautious about how much in the way of testing numbers he gives out. Not from any sense of secrecy, though, but because he would rather not risk players getting caught-up in competing with each other for the biggest lift or best 40-yard dash time. The point isn't who is top Dog in any category but that the entire team is getting stronger, tougher, and faster. Still, the coach does offer some object examples of progress in all areas.

Take the squat, where the whole team ‘maxed' prior to spring practices at the end of the heaviest lifting period. Then the final week of the semester Pollard and staff told the boys to show their stuff. "We let them do doubles and triples on squats and we had close to a dozen guys squat more in April. Some were they were coming off injuries, but also they were just getting better.

"Robert Elliot, who we really pushed to work hard on squat days, I was totally impressed. Craig Jenkins did the best squat I've ever seen him do that last week. Jasper O'Quinn squatted 300 before spring ball and 365 after, and he's never been completely healthy. He came in post-surgery and the knee was never quite right and had another surgery. But he's at the point if we go through summer injury-free I think we'll see even a better player on the field."

As far as an unofficial ‘strongman' of the team, that turned out as Pollard would have predicted. After testing redshirt freshman J. C. Brignone for a while "we just stopped him on the squat," the coach said. "He's a guy if he walked in here today he could squat 600 pounds. His strength level is just fine. One of the things he struggled with a little was his shoulder, it's something we'll address in summer."

Something else to address team-wise is the fight against fat. Which, Pollard says, this team has done very well at already.

"We were by-far the leanest we've been. LaMarcus Williams lost about 24 pounds. Our heaviest guy is down to 316, that's Craig Jenkins. Kyle Love is under 310, part of that was he hadn't trained as much with the toe surgery. It'll be interesting to see how he comes back, what he looks like. Jessie Bowman was at 315. That's pretty positive for us that we have a chance not to have a player over 310 and if we do things right maybe even 305. And that's saying a lot around here."

It wasn't just the big Dogs shedding flab or getting stronger. "Aubrey Bell dropped about 12 pounds in April," Pollard said. "Co-Eric Riley is so much stronger because he'd never been in a weight-training program, he's got a great deal of potential." By contrast, Robert Elliot's goal as a redshirt was putting on playing weight. It's almost impossible to see but Pollard affirms the running back was "right at 200 pounds" when he ended the semester. "That's about 10-12 since he stepped on campus. He's not going to lose any speed, either. all the weight he puts on is going to be lean body weight with his motor. He's high-energy and doesn't stop moving very much."

As far as speed, the seniors of 2008 got their chance to run for NFL scouts last month and Pollard liked the times recorded by professional observers. "Aubrey ran in the 4.5s, Co-Eric ran in the 4.5s, Jamayel Smith ran in the high 4.4s. Jamar Chaney ran in the 4.5s. Considering the length of time we had post-spring ball I was really pleased with how we ran. Pegues had class that day and did not run, but Keith Fitzhugh ran a high 4.4 and 4.5-flat kind of time which we expect of him.

"There was no disappointment in anybody that ran in that group, and it was ten days out of spring ball. So you've got to feel we're moving in the right direction. And maybe it's that they were listening better and saw the older guys run, they were a lot more receptive to what is going on."

The fastest full-field Bulldog didn't run as he's only a true freshman. The strength coach didn't have to put a watch on O'Neal Wilder though as the wideout was doing spring double-duty with football and track, on the relay team. "When he ran his 45-split, I knew we were going to be OK. All he needs is time exclusively in here. He's a great kid and is going to do whatever you ask him.

"And this summer will be important to him, to get some muscle on him that's a little more lean. He's still a kid and even though he's pretty slender he still has potential, and with a kid that fast good things will happen. He's not afraid to come in here wand work, we actually backed him off because he was doing too much."

It will take a good arm to get the ball to a full-speed Wilder or the other deep threats State expects to field this fall. And while strength-training is rarely a subject of interest related to college quarterbacks, in the case of Wes Carroll it was all the talk this time around. That right (throwing) shoulder repaired in January 2007 after an all-star game injury never was full-strength even as Carroll succeeded to the starting job and succeeded on the field. What he did in January and February made a difference. "I think you guys saw in spring he threw the ball better than any time in the fall," Pollard said.

"He's up to about 192 and I'd love to see him gain five or eight more pounds before we go into camp. Now I'm not saying he'll hold that in camp, but go in in that 200 pound range so when he does lose he's still got a foundation. But it will be night-and-day, and I'm being careful. We didn't want the quarterback getting hurt before spring ball! But in April when he said could he try more I'm like yeah, let's do more. And Tyson Lee is the same way. Tyson has very good lower-body strength."

Pollard also saw gains in strength and quickness for the linebackers, a group State is counting on to help make up for graduation losses at defensive end with more aggressive schemes. That certainly inspired the linebackers, but the coach said they are also a pretty self-motivated bunch now. "Dominic Douglas, Jamar Chaney are great workers, K.J. Wright just keeps getting better and better even if he doesn't say two words! He's handled his weight and 230 pounds is a good weight for him, and he's faster since he got here. That's a combination of speed training plus him getting stronger, so if he continues to get stronger you'll see that more and more. That young linebacker group is pretty good."

From the standpoint of strength and speed numbers, it was a good spring semester at Mississippi State. Yet Pollard also saw something more intangible at work this time around, and not unexpected by the coaches. The clues were that players' focus and attitude in April was actually better than it was before March practicing.

"You wouldn't expect it to be that way. But I think we were still hashing-out some issue in early spring." Issues? No, nothing dangerous or destructive, but entirely natural. The team that assembled to resume work in mid-January was coming off a breakthrough year and feeling good about itself…but there were key emotional pieces missing. Such as Royce Blackledge, and Titus Brown, and a handful of other tone-setters on and off the field.

"You hear coaches say this all the time that ‘this is a totally different football team'," Pollard explains. "You say, well, you only lost so many seniors. But it's a totally different makeup when certain guys walk away and other guys have to step into roles. In some ways you're starting from scratch, so I think we had some spots that needed to be ironed-out. So at the end there was a lot more compliance and a lot more focus."

Because, the coach adds, players like Dominic Douglas, Mike Gates, Carroll and Lee, and Anthony Dixon took on a new level of responsibility that their teammates needed to see.

"Your leaders have to be established. You have to know who to depend on, who is going to step up, who is going to do that. You earn your reputation in summer. If a guy doesn't lead in here and doesn't do the things he needs to, guys don't just line up right behind him on the field either."

Going into summer there seems sufficient leadership developing for the next stage of Mississippi State's pre-pre-season program. Pollard said the healthy varsity will all be on campus at at work on June 2, and even a couple of true freshman will probably join them a month earlier than required (most rookies are held off to July for grade certifications). "I don't know who it will be," Pollard said. But if the earliest arrivals follow the example set last summer by early-enrollee LaMarcus Williams, they can earn freshman playing time as he did.

And Pollard has seen signs already (i.e., those four May days volunteers) that this 2008 roster isn't ready to call the job done after one successful season. Sure, there are more entertaining ways to spend the coming summer months than lifting and running. But nothing is more fun than winning, and doing it the way these Bulldogs have.

"I think they have an attitude, because of how tough spring football is, how tough fall camp is, and how intense practice is, they know they can handle whatever."

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