Ole Miss Strength & Conditioning Coach Don Decker is normally an upbeat person when it comes to talking about his offseason program, so it's not unusual to find him in a good mood.
But this year, with August practice starting Saturday and his offseason hay in the barn, he's got a little extra twinkle in his eye.
"I am very proud what my staff (Jason Wilfawn, Jr. Soli, Matt Turner, Kevin Woods, Colby Landers and John Simmons) and our players have accomplished this offseason," said Decker Wednesday as the coaching staff anxiously awaits the start of the "real" season. "We got a lot done. I am not inclined to point out individual players, because I would be leaving someone out.
"In my opinion, every single player who was here this summer deserves recognition. We did not have one player who did not meet or exceed our expectations this summer. That's very rare."
The vibe all summer has been how hard the offseason has been. Decker does not refute that, but he maintains it was a necessity.
"In getting feedback from the veteran players, they maintain it was the hardest summer they have ever been through," Decker continued, "but we did not make it that way because we were 4-8 last year. We don't operate that way. The offseason and summer workouts were not designed to send a statement or as punishment. We sat down as a staff in the spring after evaluating the first offseason before spring ball and then spring ball, and based on what Coach (Houston) Nutt and the assistants wanted accomplished in the summer, we devised a plan based on those factors and what we thought as a strength staff.
"Obviously, the standard things – to get bigger, faster and stronger – were included, as they are in every offseason and summer, but what we really wanted to concentrate on were some intangibles, some team goals. I'm talking about leadership, chemistry, unity, paying the price, doing the extra things – basically making a commitment. Consequently, it wasn't our goal to make this a hard summer just for the sake of making it hard. We wanted to give them the best plan possible. We put a plan in place to achieve getting bigger, stronger and faster; doing everything we can from a prehab standpoint to help prevent injuries; and to push our guys mentally to help develop those other qualities."
The bottom line was that Decker and his staff wanted the usual buffet from the summer, but they wanted to see the Rebels become what they call "unbreakable."
"We wanted to lead them in the direction of being hard-nosed and asking ‘what's next?' instead of ‘how many more are we going to do?' The kids respected that approach and complied with it," Don explained. "The players knew we weren't demanding extra just to make a point. The plan was in place to achieve something tangible.
"Newby is a big time athlete who plays the game all out all the time," Brian Snow, Scout.com's national basketball recruiting analyst, said.
"At the end of the summer, the leaders on the team were coming up to us telling us they would have never gotten to where they are had we not raised the bar, pushed them and demanded more. They began to realize they could go further and they could do more. They started believing they could have that unbreakable spirit. It is easy and simple to look at lift numbers and say we did or didn't have a good summer, but we wanted to develop more than that. It was as much about attitude and the mental side of being a great team as it was physical. The players – to the man – responded with ‘what's next?' and that's a good feeling for me and my staff."
A productive summer did not just magically appear, as Decker explains.
"We had a good winter offseason before spring training, we had a good offseason session after spring training and, most importantly, the players did a real good job of not losing anything they had developed during their discretionary time, the time off they had after spring finals," Decker noted. "Last year, we did not handle our discretionary time well at all. When they came back from that time last year, we spent the whole summer getting some of those guys back to where they were when they left school, and some of them even longer.
"Our challenge to them this year was to handle those two or three weeks in May, the time when they are back home and nobody is looking over their shoulders, better. What was really encouraging was that some of the guys who didn't handle it well last year, stepped up, spoke up and said ‘I made that mistake last year – don't do that to yourself this year.' That made a big impact on the rest of the guys. They handled their business this year during the discretionary time and came back at the same levels they left in May. I can't think of a guy who is not ahead of where they were in May and that wasn't the case last year."
Overall, Decker could not have been more pleased, from several angles.
"The numbers prove we got better physically, but just as important is that the unity, togetherness, chemistry and attitude are dramatically better than a year ago," Don continued. "What I liked was they didn't give in to fatigue. They didn't take the easy way out. We would throw something at them unexpectedly and that's when whatever is deep down inside is going to come out.
"None of them ever said ‘this is unfair' or grumbled at all. They just lined up and did it, and that was the opposite of last year. The summer was another successful step in the journey of where we want to go. Now, we are facing camp and what they did in the summer does not guarantee anything. What summer does is give you an opportunity to produce on the field. They have laid the foundation. Now, go out and build on that foundation in practice."
Again, Decker pointed out that his naming names would ultimately lead to leaving out players worthy of mention, so he limited his individual tidbits to some who had definable needs and somewhat drastic results.
"Defensive Ends Carlos Thompson and Gerald Rivers badly needed to get in the 250-pound range, and they have done that," he noted. "Tight End Ferbia Allen is another who needed to get in that range, and he has. When we say they are 250, we don't mean 250 one day and 242 the next. We mean they are 250 on a consistent basis and are more likely to stay there.
"Safety Damien Jackson is another guy we wanted to put some size on. Our goal was 215 pounds and that's where he is now. Defensive End Wayne Dorsey is another who needed some size and strength. He's now at 270 and had an excellent offseason. He's a much more confident athlete now. I believe he thinks differently now that he understands what this league is all about and how important this (weight) room is to him."
Another player Decker pointed out without hesitation was OL Patrick Junen.
"Patrick's case was a little different for a freshman. Because he played last year and did not redshirt, Patrick didn't go through the in-season weight program like the redshirt players did, so he essentially missed a 14-week training session," Decker explained. "But since then, he has done a great job. We wanted him to be 320 pounds and that's where he is now. He's very raw in the weight room, so his numbers go up almost every time he is in here. He's a 5-4-3 guy now, meaning 500 squat, 400 bench, 300 power clean. That doesn't guarantee being a great player, but it gives him a chance to be physically."
One of the team leaders, LT Bradley Sowell, also turned Decker's head this summer.
"Bradley didn't rest on his preseason accolades. He came in here all summer ready to get stronger. His movement has always been good, but he wanted to gain strength and he put in the effort to do that," Decker assessed. "He did not get caught up in his press clippings.
"(RG) Matt Hall is another one who did not take any reps off. He earned a starting job in spring and has done everything he could do to enhance his ability since then. He's now in the 6-9 range and around 350 pounds, with very little body fat. He is one of our most powerful athletes and he has also worked very hard on his movement. He has really improved his feet dramatically. Also on the OL, Bobby Massie and A.J. Hawkins have really focused on rededicating themselves and have, as a result, become much better team players."
CB Marcus Temple missed spring training with a sports hernia, but he came back in the summer with a vengeance.
"Marcus had an unbelievable summer coming off an injury. You never know when a kid is coming off an injury how they will respond, but Marcus was not tentative at all," stated Decker. "Defensive End Jason Jones also had a tremendous summer, not only physically but how he has stepped up as a leader. Sowell, Brandon Bolden, Kentrell Lockett, H.R. Greer, D.T. Shackelford and some others are natural leaders, but Jason has always been kind of quiet. Having some success last year gave him some confidence and now he's leading.
"(LB) Mike Marry had an outstanding summer from a strength standpoint. His gains have been significant. His body is really starting to click in and he's now 250 pounds and looks great. He's a really strong kid who does things by the book every day and goes above and beyond the call of duty. Mike is another kid who has gained a lot of confidence and has gained a bit of a swagger due to his summer success."
Summer workouts are also a time to learn. The strength coaches learn more about the players and the players learn more about themselves. RB Jeff Scott is a prime example.
"Jeff had a goal of gaining to 180 pounds. He worked hard to do that, but we found out that was not his ideal weight. What makes him special is his speed and explosiveness. At 180-181, it affected his movement a little, so we backed him down, at this stage in his career, to 175. He's now a little bigger than last year, stronger than last year and just as fast and explosive as he was last year," Decker added. "Sometimes it works that way. We are looking for a player's ideal weight, not just to pile on weight. Jeff may be able to hold 180 when he gets older, but right now 175 is his ideal and sometimes it takes a summer session to learn that. We work on movement a lot and feel we have a good feel for what maximizes speed. With Jeff, right now, 175-177 pounds is where he needs to be. Speed is what makes Jeff special and we don't want to sacrifice that for a few pounds of bulk.
"We figured out the same thing with (QB) Barry Brunetti. He doesn't need to be over 215 pounds. That's important. What we promise recruits is that we will help them reach their goals and dreams and help them maximize their ability and sometimes that means losing weight, gaining weight, establishing an ideal, working on flexibility, speed – our job is not a one-size-fits-all task. Every player has individual needs and it's our job to address those effectively."
A lot of eyes will be on redshirt freshmen DTs Carlton Martin and Bryon Bennett, who will be depended on this year to play a lot in the trenches on the defensive side of the ball.
"Martin and Bennett have had solid summers. Bryon is around 295 pounds now and Carlton is 292, up for both. It's been fun and interesting in watching them mature, mentally and physically," Don said. "They are a work in progress, but we have seen them take some very important steps in the right direction. We need them to grow up because none of our DTs have much playing time in the SEC, most have none at all.
"Carlton is genetically strong, extremely strong. Carlton, Matt Hall and Uriah Grant could be the three strongest players on our team, but that's just part of the process. They have lined themselves up to give themselves a chance to excel. Now they have to go out and do it on Saturday. They have been going through a maturing process, which is a grind, a hardening of them, and they have responded well."
Another player of immense interest is DE Kentrell Lockett, granted a sixth year by the NCAA and coming off a severe knee injury.
"The trainers have been handling the rehab of Kentrell's knee and all his lower body training. We have been handling his upper body and his strength levels are a little above where they were when he was injured. He did get cleared to run with us during our last run and did very well. He's about 255-260 pounds now and looks good to us," Decker said. "The trainers did a great job with his rehab. He looks just like he used to look to us. He's been through a lot, but Kentrell has great mental fortitude and is a guy who can overcome any apprehension about his knee that may be lingering. He's such a good leader and I feel really good about him."
Fullback H.R. Greer also got some substantial praise from Decker.
"There are so many guys I could mention, as I said. Actually, I could mention them all. (FB) E.J. Epperson did a great job and looks really good. Every offensive lineman has helped their cause with improvement and so on. (LB) Joel Kight jumps out at me as well. He's a leader too," he said. "I feel I do need to mention H.R. though. He is an excellent leader. He pushes everyone and helps solidify this team. He's a guy who says ‘not on my watch.' He never settles for less. There are not enough adjectives to describe what he brings to the table."
What does all this mean? As Decker said, it's a foundation and a great starting point. The rest has to be proven on Saturday.
But that extra twinkle in Decker's eye leads one to believe the offseason could be a springboard to something better, maybe much better.
Tomorrow: Decker talks about the summer the freshman and newcomers had.