"And there is more continuity in the program, that's the key," Balis says. "Because it's all about effort. When you have coaches that back you and stress those things, it's not just me and my staff; it is everybody. And that is when it becomes really powerful."
Certainly the spring-semester Bulldogs got off to a pretty powerful start under the direction of Dan Mullen's staff. When hired as head coach one of the foremost priorities was obtaining the services of the man Mullen calls "the best strength coach in the country." While Balis might shy away from such a title, spring practices and scrimmages had observers commenting on how good these Bulldogs looked after a couple months in his S&C system.
Now it's time for the next phase, and all involved should be rested and ready. "Everybody is excited, we've had a long month-off in May," Bails says. If pressed, the coach might say a little too long of a month; while the recovery time had to do bodies and minds good the inevitable risk of rust has Balis maybe a bit antsy about what shape the June 1 roster will show.
"But what we do is meet with the guys and talk to them about making sure you're staying in shape and following the May program we give them so when they come back we're not having to start over," he says "We're where we were and can continue to build on what we did. That's the hope." Actually in several cases Balis doesn't have to hope, he knows. Not everybody left town after the spring semester.
"We've had some kids stick around here in May, some very committed kids. Jamar Chaney, Derek Sherrod, Tyson Lee, Brandon McRae, Kyle Love came back early and I'm proud of him for that, LaMarcus Williams, Andrew Ellard. I can't say enough about them and others. It's very important for our program, especially those older guys. Those are the guys you're going to win with or lose with."
Funny he should bring up winning and losing. Because a hallmark of spring S&C and something different for MSU players was the degree of competition encouraged by the new coaching staff. Lifting, sprinting, agilities, mat drills; score was kept for everybody in everything with a winner to celebrate and a loser to, well, to try not to come up shorter or slower again. That theme will continue but in a different sort of key for summer work, Balis says.
"We'll compete in agility, in the weightroom in different things, those are the two main areas. We have an effort-based system here as well where we'll compete and the hardest working guys will be recognized. So we make that competitive. We might do some things in conditioning that are competitive, not as much planned. But the big thing in summer is competition within your position group. As opposed to winter when it's team-based, now it's going to be position group-based."
Which shows the shift in overall emphasis from spring programs. Starting Monday just about everything the Bulldogs do will have a direct bearing on how they play the game. Or as Balis calls it, doing things "football-specific" to help them prepare.
"We have to train the right energy system, train for conditioning, train for speed and train for agility. But we have to do football-specific as well. You can't just go into two-a-days not having done any type of football movement, you have to do things a football player is going to do. So it's important for our strength coaches to work with positions and do what they do. That's how I think you train. Specificity of training is doing what they do and that's a big part of the summer."
Big enough that Balis plans for some sort of position-specific drills every day of the work week. No, not lining up and running plays, that sort of instruction isn't allowed in summer; for that matter position coaches cannot have any involvement with personnel these two months. What the players can do on their own is organize informal on-field drills from playbooks and do what they do in supervised practices. And a good way to tune-up for such things is a vigorous session with the S&C staff where workouts emphasize "some kind of football specific movement every day," Balis says. So what if it is done with, say, a tennis ball? Reacting to a speeding fuzzy yellow ball is a fine way to prepare for quick and decisive moves on the football field if done rightly.
"We do certain drills on different days," Balis says, "It's not all running around."
As reported here in March, and in the spring edition of D.B. magazine, the spring program was organized around alternating days of upper- and lower-body strength work with competitive drills and conditioning interspersed. Balis says the four-day split of body work will continue though sheer strength yields a bit to toning everything up for the hot months. For instance, the infamous mat drills are out for summer.
"We'll have conditioning stations as well. Because I think you need both, compete but condition. And that's where those energy systems come into play. And Thursday-Friday are our longer conditioning days, where we conditioning them pretty hard and also do some strong-man, some lactate thresholds, some sled pushing and pulling, tire flipping, that kind of things. We like to do that on Friday because that's our hard day. You do that so you have the two days of recovery." And, while the coach wouldn't say so, because a well-worn young man might want to conserve energy over the weekend instead of other extracurricular activities.
Especially when he knows com Monday he'll be running, a lot. "The first half of summer, Mondays will be spent on speed and acceleration, trying to get the guys running at top-end speed as fast as we can," says Balis. "We take that and turn it into speed and endurance in July. We want to hold that speed and condition. So June we've trained it almost like track and in July try to condition that kind of speed."
About that recurring phrase ‘energy systems.' It may sound like part of the college of engineering but really means priming a player for the realities of modern competition.
"You have different energy systems that a football player uses. In other words, football is four-to-six seconds of all-out effort; in between the huddle is about 25 seconds of rest. Well in order to train that recovery at the highest level you have to do some kind of anaerobic conditioning. That's where you transfer the recovery in between plays.
"That's why we just take a day and train for speed, we'll take a day and just train for agility, take a day and just train for their anaerobic conditioning. Now in that agility training you're getting that anaerobic conditioning as well which is what we're trying to target with football. Every athlete needs that anaerobic base to be able to recover between plays so they can continue to go. There's no worse feeling than not being able to play at your highest level and try to beat a guy because you're not in good enough shape. There's nothing worse than that. And the challenge of the summer is to be able to do that."
Balis has organized four daily working times; one in the morning, two in the afternoon, and another in the afternoon specifically for a handful of newest Bulldogs. As of now Mississippi State hopes to have as many as five true freshmen enrolling for June (not including the two who were on campus in spring) if all are NCAA-certified in time. They are defensive lineman Josh Boyd, receiver Chad Bumphis, defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, tight end Johnathan McKenzie, and quarterback Tyler Russell. Early arrival, even just a month's head-start, gives these kids that much greater opportunity to play as true fall frosh.
But Balis is not tossing the kids into the workout pool with veterans just yet.
"Any time you're coming from high school, you know, they'll say they've trained hard but you can never mimic the intensity of college. We have to teach them how to do the movements, teach them the tempo, there's so much they have to learn before they can start to train with the guys. That's why it's huge if they are here in June."
Ideally the summer crew could drill entirely by their position groups, furthering their unit and individual progress. Unfortunately schedules don't allow such neat groupings. "We've tried, we have a lot of linemen together and skill positions together but it's tough with the responsibilities of classes." Meanwhile Balis adds that there will be one team workout a week in June, and three per week in July.
Naturally Balis and Mullen have set a number of specific individual goals for the summer. Everyone has a target body weight (yes including Anthony Dixon) along with specified conditioning test mark to make prior to August camp. Those goals have been made clear in meetings with every Bulldog, as well as posted on a weightroom window for all to see…and score. Yet the strength coach has less-tangible but equally-vital targets in mind, beginning with a healthy reporting squad.
Then, "Attitude, we want everyone's attitude to be positive and extremely coachable. Leadership, our seniors have got to step up and become great leaders for us and make sure the team is headed in the right direction."
Gone are the days when a strength coach was content just to have players capable of squatting and sprinting before he turned them over to the field coaches. In fact, and in a significant sign of how the profession has changed, Balis is regarded just as much a coach in this regime as anyone calling a play or recruiting a player. And the Bulldogs understand this, or they'd better learn fast. Maybe, as Balis says, he doesn't make a difference in how a game is directed.
"But by stressing the importance of what we do and backing us, which they do, that is why Coach Mullen is such a great guy to work for." Besides, for the next couple of months Balis and his aides are the only coaches the Bulldogs will answer to. The football strength staff now numbers six with the hiring of James Townsend, formerly of Virginia but originally from Brandon, Miss., and a successful strength and powerlifting coach at Northwest Rankin.
"I like help, the more great people you have around the better," Balis says. "I'm excited about our staff and we're going to have six strength coaches working with our team. That's going to make us a lot better. As far as the (position) coaches not being around I kind of like that. They back you and promote what you're doing."
Also, that month-off gave Balis and other new-to-MSU aides time to complete all moves. After a fifth change of address in eight years, Balis and family are ready to settle down for a nice long stay. Because Mississippi State looks like a good fit for all involved. "Now my son is three-years old and doesn't know what's going on, but he's a Mississippi State Bulldog and he's loving it!" Which is only reasonable, because based on winter and spring results and the summer outlook, Bulldog football is going to love having this coach around.