Wednesday morning Balis found some time, during the lunch hour, for writers from websites Dawgs' Bite and Bulldawg Junction to discuss this second preseason of the Mullen era. It wasn't easy, either, as Balis explained.
"It's very busy. We have full-blow, the whole team working out in groups. We run four regular groups a day plus a couple of days we have team runs. That's basically five groups for at least an hour apiece. Plus we have a few guys staying here to train for the (NFL) combine, so that is another couple of hours four times a week."
Q: Do you like having those combine guys around the younger players? "I like them staying here just because of the appreciation of what we do, I think that's pretty cool. It's a dream for most guys to play at the next level so we're honored to work with them and train them."
Q: How important is it to you, that you and your staff are the only coaches who can see the players every day? "I think it's a tremendous responsibility, and I'm honored to do it. I think when you have that responsibility with young people there is a certain level you have to live up to every day. And I love it. Part of that also is getting the right assistants as well, we've tried to build our strength staff to have the right kind of guys that are going to push and motivate and care about kids and bring out the best in them. The position we have as a strength staff, there's a lot of responsibility that comes with that but we all appreciate and love it. And we take it seriously, not just the strength but also developing a young guy to be a champion every day, in everything he does. How he eats, how he takes care of his body, how he goes to class. All of that."
Q: In year-one you started from scratch getting guys to understand the way you want to do things. How does it change going into year-two? "Well, year-two is different because they've already gone through the shock of the tempo. The tempo is set, they all know what to expect that way. Now it is just refining, becoming more detailed, getting better at what already do, a few new things here and there but really taking it to a new level in details, the intensity, being more football-specific, leadership. Those kinds of things you try to go to the next level with, because you've already put in all that time teaching it and they kind of know what to expect. Now it's how much better can we get at what we already do instead of just surviving it." Q: You mean it's a more efficient process now? "Yes. We're speaking the same language now, it's not so different."
Q: With new players like the spring junior college transfers is it easier working them in because you have guys who can help, or is it harder because they are two years behind? "That's always harder, because they haven't done it. It is easier because you have other players that can help them, but for them to jump in and try to be at the level everyone else is is really impossible. Unless they come from somewhere they've been training, or they are genetic freaks. Pernell McPhee was ridiculous, he was able to step right in because he was so genetically gifted and is a very hard worker. That's not the common thing in my experience."
"There are always freaks. You look at Anthony Dixon. But whether it is body fat, strength, speed, shaving a tenth of a second off something, yeah, they can always get better. Anthony, I love him like a son, he's one of those guys that loves football, he loves to compete, loves to do what it takes to be the best. So it's very easy to work with guys like that. He just saw him become more mature, take his body to another level in how he trained and conditioned."
Q: Were you surprised he reported to the Senior Bowl camp at 245? "Oh, he's been here, so I knew what he weighed! He knows we have to continue to monitor his weight. But he's in great shape, it's a different 245. He has 11% body fat, just a huge improvement."
Q: How do you get the veterans who've been through this a year from taking it for granted, to work for that higher level? "It's just on your coaches making it very demanding. That, and trying not to be predictable. Being shocking in certain ways. In training if you do the same thing every time your body can easily adjust to that, so you have to provide variety. Not just in how hard you're going but in exercises, rep schemes, change that up."
Q: Last year you explained how you alternate speed work, agility work, anaerobic work. Is that the same scheme? "This winter is speed but we're going to try to combine speed with some football agility drills so that falls under the umbrella of anaerobic. Mat drill is a much more anaerobic, lactate-threshold day. Then Thursday is more performance speed competition, which is anaerobic. And our ‘Protect Our House" is our old-school cardiovascular all the way. We're doing more of that."
Q: How many times will you run ‘Protect Our House' at the stadium? "We're trying to make up for our losses. We need to win every home game. So it will be anywhere from as many home games as we have to how many losses we had at home, in that neighborhood. You've got to go by feel and see how they're responding to it."
"That's the thing with training. You write out a plan but it kind of changes."
Q: Last year you talked about breaking through that wall. Were you satisfied with the way the guys bought into pushing through? "Oh yeah, very much so. Jamar Chaney, Anthony, Marcus Washington, those guys were really influential in getting us going. Tyson Lee. Great buy-in. And that's always the key, the team has got to be player-led. So K.J. Wright did a great job with that, Chris White. Pernell McPhee, Derek Sherrod. If your best players are your hardest workers then you've got a chance. But if they're not buying-in or they're struggling you're fighting a long, long haul. So that to me is the key."
Q: With Coach Mullen's philosophy of moving back the spring game, that gives you a bigger window leading into spring football. Do you like that? "Yeah. You've got eight weeks straight. The only thing that's tough is because we didn't make a bowl game there is a lot of lag time. But we have these eight weeks so we have enough time to get everybody ready. We don't stress conditioning as much as training and the mental aspect of our program. Summer is much more the time we're running more. We run some now. But we're in better shape as a team now anyway, even with the six week layoff, we're going to get in better shape faster than we did before. "We still obviously want to go to a bowl game and only have to have a couple of weeks off, so we can maintain our fitness level. But we're right there."
Q: Were you satisfied with how the team came back this semester? "Some guys. Some I wasn't!"
Q: How long did it take to know? "A couple of days. Sometimes right away, you know."
Q: And you made it clear to them you weren't happy? You're grinning! "Well, it's just the way it is. If you didn't do it that way then you're basically not doing your job. As a strength and conditioning staff you're hired to make sure that the players number-one don't get injured; number-two are in shape, number-three are strong. If they're not in shape they can get injured, if they're not strong they can get injured. So if you have the approach of you're trying to make a great player, that's why we're doing this, you can't do that on your own. So we have to enforce it."
Q: The last couple of years Mississippi State has been fortunate not to have a lot of injuries (Balis taps a wooden desktop), how much of that is strength and conditioning and how much pure luck? "You have to train your guys to help prevent injuries. I think a lot of it is luck, too. I mean, how do you prevent ACL tears? I've asked doctors all over the place and there is no set way to do it. You have to train, you have to protect the integrity of your joints. There is a lot of research out there on muscle pulls, I think those are more preventable. Not always, you're always going to have some. But joints, backs, shoulders, knees, those kinds of things…it's such a vicious sport collision-wise. You do your best."
"I think how you help that, first off is train the neck, protecting the spine is a big thing. Concussions, treating great technique in how to play a football position. When you get tired and start to play high those injuries can occur. Being in shape to be able to practice for a long period of time and not get tired; you know, when you get tired is a lot of time when guys get rolled. So that helps."
"But there are so many great strength coaches out there that get judged on injuries. I don't think it's fair because it's just part of the game. You're always going to have them, just try to limit them is the key."
Q: Will any varsity players be held out of pre-spring with injuries and surgeries? "We have some guys that had post-season surgery that we've modified in certain things. Hopefully they're doing a good job going to rehab and treatments, getting themselves back. You still have to train, we have a lot of machines in here that are laterals so if you can't go with your right arm you can move your left arm. If your knee is bugging you then we do a little more single-leg press. If you can't run then we have the pit."
Q: Coach Mullen emphasized competition in workouts, is that still the focus this year and has it changed? "I think it always is. Coach loves competition, it brings out the best in anybody and he specifically wants competitive things."
"We've changed up certain drills. And we've changed up our draft, we have some assistant coaches on top of regular captains. We want to promote more leadership, more of a competitive spirit so guys that aren't finishing first but aren't finishing last, kind of middle-of-the-road guys, we're addressing them more. Because sometimes guys get satisfied; I didn't lose but I didn't win. Well how are we pushing them to become winners? That's the next phase now in how we do that, not just to address winners and losers but middle-of-the-road guys."
Q: What are some ways to do that? "During the speed school you're going to have winners, the top guys, and have the top losers. Then there's those middle guys, we're going to take them and have them compete as well and create another line so that they're not just sitting back. We're forcing those guys to step up."
"That's the difference I think in your team, is can you get those guys to produce. Because every team has its top guys and guys that don't contribute; bring the guys that are in the middle up higher. That's the goal."
Q: We noticed, mat drills don't begin for six more days? "That's because Coach wants the (assistant) coaches involved, they're still recruiting. Plus you want to let the guys get their feet under them before you start doing that. So you give them a couple of weeks of training and make sure they're ready for that level of intensity workout. You don't want to do that week-one."
Q: Has speed school started? "Nothing really competitive team-wise. Now in the weightroom we've started competing, but nothing outside yet. We're still getting everybody back up in shape, getting their muscles back running and moving explosively. That takes a couple of weeks."
Q: During recruiting visit weekends do you tell prospective players what to expect here and what will be expected if they sign-on? "Yeah, we're pretty honest. We have a demonstration where we show what some of the exercises are, let them see what they are going to do. We basically say flat-out there are no secrets in being great, it's about work ethic. Obviously they're all blessed players and athletes or they wouldn't be here. Our job is to maximize what they already have."
Q: You mentioned Wright and White, who are some other veterans who can be the leaders you want in workouts? "Derek Sherrod, Charles Mitchell, Chris Relf are probably the top guys right now that I see kind of moving in that direction. We need a lot more, a lot more."
Q: Your comments make it seem these players are almost coaches themselves? "It's player-led. Great teams have players that take over, run through the line, you hear them yelling out the same coaching cues. That's when your team gets really powerful, when people respect the players enough that they listen to their own teammates. That's when you have a serious team. That's what we're trying to get to here."
"I think they know what the expectations of our strength staff are. But it's never about us, it's always about them. Getting them to play at the highest level, be prepared, see growth in them. Strength coaches, that's our job. We're going to have to put in the hours and work hard, that's a given. We're blessed to be here. It's all about them, the players, and what they have to do to reach their goals."