Michael Szerszen conducts a symphony of Tennessee Volunteers with quick bursts of his whistle that pierce the April air. Watching over his players, the associate director of strength and conditioning surveys the burly orchestra playing out in front of him, with players bending, stretching and sprinting in sync under his direction during practice warm-ups.
Szerszen's not new to Tennessee, but he has taken on a more prominent role within the football program this spring as the coach who oversees Butch Jones strength and conditioning department. The fourth-year Vols associate director of strength coach has inherited more responsibility after Butch Jones and former director of strength and conditioning Dave Lawson parted ways, which is why he's all business as soon as the clock strikes Period 1 during spring practice three days a week.
The workload has changed. His work habits haven't.
"It's all about these kids and putting them in the best position to be successful," Szerszen told InsideTennessee. "It is just being very detailed in every aspect of the program and then looking at every kid, looking at their needs, looking at their injuries and just being extremely smart and detailed with what we're doing with it."
Injuries have been pushed to the forefront of the team in recent weeks, with as many as 16 Vols currently missing spring practice. The recovery process of those players provides a delicate balance between rehabilitating the injury while also continuing to strengthen the body for the collisions that will come when the injured player is cleared to practice fully once again.
How the Vols deal with that dichotomy proves just how effective Szerszen's system works.
"No. 1, we have a great relationship and great communication with our training staff," he told IT. "We always know where our kids are at, and then if they do have an injury, we're going to train the parts that aren't injured, but we're also going to train around the parts that are injured. We get them on a very detailed plan. We have those guys come in 4-5 times a week, and everything is very detailed. We see every rep, every set that they're doing and they can see their progress. That's the biggest way to motivate them is to show them results and see their improvement."
The rehab process works in concert with both the nutrition department and training staff, each of which carries its own special set of responsibilities to help injured players recover. The three units, along with an intern, also meet up throughout the course of the season to discuss and plan the Vols' extensive sports science department, which involves everything from sleep monitoring systems to virtual reality. Szerszen is even able to monitor how fast his players run during practice with a Catapult GPS system worn under the pads, which has clocked players like freshman cornerback Marquill Osborne sprint over 20 mph.
"It's all of us sitting down and it's all about putting our athletes in the best position to be successful and just looking at the numbers, seeing how much they ran and how fast they ran, how much exertion was put out," he said. "Now, that gives us a great idea. That sets up the blueprint for the week and getting them ready to maximize their potential on Saturdays."
The former director of strength and conditioning at Cincinnati and Eastern Michigan is also using the spring to help players like safety Rashaan Gaulden, who is in the process of adding weight to his frame. Szerszen doesn't just tell his players what to do — he tells them why they should do it.
With a focus on education that he believes will breed both interest and accountability with his players, the new football overseer in the weight room is flourishing.
"We have a general blueprint. The basics have stood the test of time," Szerszen said. "We're going to do the basics, but the biggest thing is education — education on how we're training, why we're training and then the nutrition. We tell our guys they're a high-performance engine and we're going to see everything they do in the weight room, but if they don't fuel that engine, we'll never be able to maximize their performance. That's the biggest thing."