Johnson whips them into shape

The Buckeyes may not have any more games for a while, but that doesn't mean there's time to rest. Winter conditioning is taking place, and Dave Biddle talked about that and more with S&C coach Al Johnson.

As you watch your Fiesta Bowl tape for the 10th, or 11th time, it becomes glaringly obvious that, as a team, Ohio State was in better shape than Miami.

In the overtime sessions, you could pick out several Hurricanes grasping for air after each play. But the Buckeyes still looked fresh.

Matt Wilhelm and Cie Grant - just to name two - actually appeared to have more of a "burst" in double-overtime than they did in the first quarter. Maybe it just seemed that way because Miami was slowing down, but the Bucks definitely were the team in better condition.

And no one was happier about that than OSU strength and conditioning coach Al Johnson.

Johnson had taken some flack earlier in the year when some of OSU's offensive linemen looked like they had stopped by McDonald's more often than the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. But in their most important game in several years, the Buckeyes got the job done and Johnson's program was a big reason why.

"It's much easier to motivate these guys now," Johnson said. "The interesting thing going into the Miami game - I have seen Miami play about 10 times in person over the years - is that I was telling our guys that their linemen were going to be the most athletic linemen they had ever seen. I told our guys that their conditioning and their eating habits were going to play a big role in the outcome of the Fiesta Bowl and they took that to heart. When you are playing for the national championship, there's that extra motivation."

Johnson thinks that OSU's players will continue to have a high level of motivation during their off-season workouts. They want to repeat as champs and understand that everyone will be gunning for them in 2003.

"Oh, no doubt. Everything is really good in terms of focus and attention and motivation right now," Johnson said. "You had the opportunity to be part of something very special and now you know you can't sneak up on anyone. Everyone knows who you are and you have to work even harder to get prepared for hopefully another championship season. It's easier to sell to the guys right now, 'We're on the top of the heap right now, but in 200 and some days, it's the opening kickoff. You know now that you're the defending national champions and once that opening kickoff takes place, you have to re-earn respect and everyone will be coming for you. If you didn't get their A game before, you'll get their A+ game this time.' I think our players understand all of that and that's why they'll do whatever they need to do to get ready for the 2003 season."

But isn't Johnson concerned that some of his players might get complacent after reaching the pinnacle of the sport?

"No, I don't think so. The biggest thing is that you have to be careful not to get lured into complacency. Accountability is big. We have to continue - as we have done in the two years we've been here - to hold the players accountable. I think they would be the first people to notice, 'Hey, they aren't pushing us as hard,' so we have to continue holding them responsible for their conditioning and weight training."

The Buckeyes are currently in their third week of winter conditioning (they work out four times per week/two hours per session). Johnson explained the differences of winter, summer and fall workouts.

"Right now, the biggest emphasis is working on our weaknesses, so to speak. If we've got guys that need to gain weight, lose weight, improve flexibility, improve strength, speed and things like that. Skill development such as agility and position-specific quickness are paramount. Summer is a little different because you're putting a lot more emphasis on the conditioning aspect of it. When you're in season, you are trying to maintain and stay healthy and prevent injuries. But right now, it's almost like you're starting all over and developing for tomorrow. We sit down with all the players and make individual goals as far as where you want to be eight weeks from now and we really focus and hone in on their weaknesses to make them better. And as everyone knows, if they get better, then we will get better," Johnson said.

After the departure of OSU's long-time strength coach Dave Kennedy to the University of Pittsburgh, Johnson was hired away from West Virginia in the summer of 2001. Many fans were sorry to see Kennedy go. He had built up quite a reputation. But is there a Buckeye fan out there that would trade Johnson for Kennedy now (insert Presidential jokes here)? Probably not. Kennedy built his reputation on getting players ready for the NFL more than anything else. Johnson doesn't care about stuff like that. He just wants the Buckeyes to win.

"I want to see our players make it to the next level no doubt, but my job is to help this football team get better," he said.

What is the biggest change Johnson has noticed within the program during his nearly two years in Columbus?

"I would say attitude. I think probably the No.1 change I've seen from day one to right now is that the focus and attitude is better. And leadership as well. The leadership we had from the 13 seniors last year was just awesome and they did it as a group effort. But attitude is the biggest change. Kids believing in what we're doing and what we're trying to get done in all aspects of the entire program," Johnson said.

Despite winning the national title, there were still some OSU players who should have been in better shape. Take a player like Adrien Clarke for example. He trimmed down to around 375-pounds for the Fiesta Bowl, but that isn't exactly his ideal weight. Johnson is encouraged that the Bucks were able to be so successful in 2002 even though they still have some work to do as far as weight-loss.

"What's really neat about what we're doing here and what we've already accomplished is that we know we haven't totally arrived," Johnson said. "We know we can get better. We make up individual goals for each and every player and the target group we're talking about - let's say offensive linemen - we'll sit down and make body weight goals. We'll make weekly goals that will take us all the way into spring football. Meanwhile, what we'll also do, we'll set up and have individual one-on-one meetings with a nutritionist that works with the athletic department and part-time with the football program. We will sit down and make nutrition goals and we urge them to make the right choices. And then when they go to training table - during the winter we have them two nights, Tuesday and Thursday - we take those guys and say, 'These are the right choices, these are the wrong choices. This is too much, this is not enough,' and just try and educate them."

But other than those two times per week, the coaches aren't around. What stops the players from ordering pizza every night? Or heading out for burgers?

"Ultimately, it's the athlete's responsibility. We can lead them to the Slim Fast, but we can't make them drink it," Johnson quipped.

Earlier this month, Johnson was named the 2002 National Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year. The award is presented annually by the Professional Football Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society and is voted on by the NFL's strength and conditioning coaches.

Obviously, he is doing something right. The national title was evidence of that, but to be given a national award by his peers just furthers the notion.

Hopefully, like all of Jim Tressel's other assistants, Johnson will stay at OSU for a long time.


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