"It takes a long time to get to know them but I just felt the excitement of it, that they wanted to get going," Balis said in a Wednesday morning interview at the Holliman Center's weightroom. Sure, Balis said, every team has a certain level of excitement about a new coaching staff and in particular the coach who is about to put them through the off-season regimen. Yet there was an attitude evident in these Dogs that bode better for these spring things.
"I thought that their hearts were in the right place. That they wanted to do well and impress and show off what they could do. I was impressed with some of our older players, some of the leaders that we have."
Which, fans might find to their surprise, was Balis' primary and over-riding goal going into this first State session. He looked for leaders and happily it showed up soon. This, he now says, is the main reason so much has been accomplished in two months.
"I think we've got a lot done. We've had great buy-in from the players, especially from the older players. You know, we told the guys that the key is going to be the senior leadership and the senior buy-in. because everyone is going to follow the seniors, typically the great teams have great senior leadership. So that's been I would say the first thing, just the buy-in and how hard everyone is trying.
"I think everyone is definitely trying their best, it's just a matter of pushing the bar higher and higher to achieve new heights. To achieve new places they haven't gone before. That we have to keep doing, but in terms of them believing they're trying yard. The fight everybody has been showing is great. Does everybody fight as hard as the top guys, no, but in terms of the team the fight has continually improved."
Another encouraging sign Balis soon saw was that he didn't have to start anything from scratch. The 2009 spring semester roster he inherited proved to have a firm foundation. Literally in one vital sense, too. "What I'm really finding is how strong some of our players are," Balis says. "This is one of the strongest teams I've ever been around, lower-body strength wise. Really strong. Their lower bodies are really impressive."
Which has given Balis that much more freedom to focus on further development of the MSU mentality. Because, he reminds, at this level of the game building up the body is a much a matter of mind and heart as any combination of muscles. He called his first few weeks in the new system learning how to ‘attack' the off-season program. And he definitely means attack.
"Because we ask them to do something really hard every day. But that's really football. Every day is a challenge and that's how we try to structure these workouts. So that you feel when you get done with training that man, I've really accomplished something today. Certain days are a lot harder than others, certain days aren't as hard. But we try to do something every day that is challenging."
Something different every day, that is, starting with Monday's emphasis on ‘explosive' types of upper-body lifting; followed later in the evening by ‘speed school' competitions and some conditioning drills thrown in. Tuesday the focus is on the lower body with heavy weights and lots of squats, maybe the most important single lift in prepping a player for modern football work.
Wednesday brings the now-infamous ‘mat' drills session. "That's discipline and mental toughness-conditioning type day," Balis said. "Thursday we go back to an explosive workout with upper-body, and agility, change-of-direction, a competitive day. That's been real good for us. And Friday is a really hard lower-body day, not as heavy in weight but just mentally tough day with higher reps and going to fatigue or failure in certain things."
So it is a full five-day schedule, and in some cases the strength staff may work a weekend if certain players need the extra efforts. Naturally though fan and media want to know more about two weekdays in particular; most of all the ‘mat' drills. And when the coach says it is more about discipline than sheer strength, he means it. Because these are not individual exertions, instead mat drills are a lot closer to real football intensity than anything involving iron.
"It's not just the conditioning but the discipline of everyone doing it the same and the right way," Balis explains. "There is a lot to be said about getting down in a football stance and jumping out at the same time and moving in the direction the coaches want you to move, at the same time. Those are the main things of the mat drills. The conditioning of it is hard but you can condition any way; the mat workout is designed to put accountability on the players. Especially the seniors."
Technically, these are drills done down on the deck with movements in all quadrants…mimicking the madness that occurs when the ball is snapped and a player might have to move in a lot of different angles in very short time, and not just alone but in tandem with teammates. "Seat-rolls, two-point seat rolls, four-point wave, one-on-one escape drill, there are mats for everything," Balis says. "They're on all-fours going back-and-forth, or on twos hitting the deck and popping up, moving this way or forward or back. The escape drill, they stay on all fours and basically wrestle each other and try to get to a line before the other guy can hold him in a timed deal.
"So it's real, real competitive, you can imagine!" Though a fair one, as Balis matches bigs with bigs, littles with littles. And offensive linemen go against cohorts, as do defensive linemen. True, these are teammates who will have to work that way on game day. But as Balis smiles, "Nothing brings out the best work in someone than competition!" Along that line, who would the coach pick if he had to make a friendly wager on winning these matches?
"That's a good question," he muses. "(Cornerback) Marcus Washington has done a great job in terms of the littles, and (offensive tackle) Derek Sherrod is a big who's done a heck of a job."
But then everyone involved had best do a heck of a job, or all heck might await slackers afterwards. No, not from the coach, but teammates. See, Balis organizes mat drills by classes; seniors go first, then juniors, and so on. Why? "So that if a younger kid messes up in the drill somehow it makes the seniors have to go again," Balis said. "So it forces the younger kids to do it right so the older guys don't keep going over and over and over again. It's a built-in accountability."
If this sounds tough, penalizing one group for letdowns in another, well…is that not what happens on a SEC Saturday? As in, an entire team might pay the price for failures in one area, even by one player. Thus the emphasis on accountability today, when the scoreboard isn't running, to make it a permanent team and individual trait. In fact Balis says mat drills day really is like game day.
"When you come out of the locker room ready to attack a mat drill it's like you're about to go in a game situation, that kind of intensity and mindset. And that's how we want to do it."
The accompanying theme to accountability is, again, competition. This is best demonstrated in speed school, where the Bulldogs are not just trained how to move faster and quicker but made to prove it in mano-a-mano matches. "Basically, it's a race," Balis said.
Again, for the speculative fun of it, which hoss—or Dog—would the coach place his hopes on in the all-out race. Again, it's a good question. "We have a lot of fast guys. Again Marcus Washington is up there, Charles Mitchell, Wade Bonner. Those are three pretty fast people."
Speaking of fast, spring camp is coming up quickly for the Bulldogs. Balis a little over a week left to work the players before the semester break, and when the players return for resumption of classes it is just the day before March 24 and practices. During camp the strength coach will scale back accordingly.
"We'll go down to two days and some guys will go three," he said. "You have to watch out for their legs because they're going to be doing so much more on the field. You continue to train but the volume is lower and you play with the intensity of how heavy you're going depending on what practices are doing."
After the April 18 Maroon-White game, there will be only a couple of working weeks before exams and semester's end. Balis thinks he might be able to slip in some speed work that last week before turning everyone loose. "May is their time," he says. Time they'd best enjoy, too, because Balis is already booking grueling June and July sessions…the latter more focused of course in practice preparations and introducing new freshmen to the duties of a new Dog.
But that's all still to come. For now, he is in the enjoyable—for Balis certainly and by reports even for the Bulldogs—position of having the most involvement with Mississippi State players from the entire coaching staff. And so far it's all been good.
"Oh yes, I'm very pleased. It's been a great off-season."