Off-Season Talk: Mike Linn

In our continuing series of interviews during the football off-season, BRO interviews UCLA strength and conditioning coach Mike Linn, who provides us a rundown on his S & C off-season program, and how many of the individual players are doing...

Since the end of the bowl game I know there are things that, as a staff, you wanted to get done with the players. Outline some of those things and at this point, how is it progressing?

‘'We go into every year with some common goals and the big thing this year, we knew that we were going to be young going into next year … a lot of underclassmen, a lot of guys who got a lot of playing time and maybe physically weren't ready for that playing time but were playing out of necessity. So, now it's really time for those guys to, you know, grow into their bodies, gain some weight, gain good weight, and really learn how to use that new body out there on the field.

‘'Really, the key to any strength and conditioning is gain muscle mass and lower 40-yard dash times and increase vertical jump. If you can do those three in unison then you're doing something right. So, that's the goal, really, going into this off-season, is take a lot of those guys who played early for us, who maybe played with kind of a high school-type frame, and put them into a college football frame and get them comfortable with their body and to be able to perform.''

Vertical jump, what is that telling you about a football player?

‘'Vertical jump with football, it's a great question, because a lot of people, they can see the application of it to basketball and the relevance. With football, it's power output. You can measure how powerful an athlete is by just having them do a no-step vertical jump, just bend their knees and explode up. How much force they can generate in a short period of time to get up and touch an object? There's nothing better than a 270-, 275-pound defense end that get up and jump up into the high 30s. That's a good athlete. And that's, really, at the NFL combine, people have fault with some of the tests that are done, there's a lot of back-and-forth deliberating on what's a good test, what's not a good test, but vertical jump is a pretty good indicator of athleticism and power.''

The explosion, football explosion …

‘'Exactly. You can make arguments about the bench press – how relevant is it to have an athlete to lay under a bar and press 225 pounds for max reps, does that really apply to a good football player? But vertical jump is one of the better indicators.''

Are guys, generally, deficient in that area when they get here? I can see that maybe not much of an emphasis for football players.

‘'You would be surprised. And, it's interesting for me because I was doing this back in the 1990s and then I left and then I came back, so I'm of those people you can ask, if someone were to ask me about the difference between the generation of players, I can see it. The big difference is that kids are coming out of high school and they've been going to, you know, a Velocity Sports Performance or a personal trainer. Their parents have been investing money outside of what they're doing at the high school level to get them trained and ready to go, and there are so many high school combines now.

‘'At these high school combines they're doing 40-yard dash and bench and vertical jump, so these kids really do come in and they have a good really good understanding of performance indicators and what's good and what's not good. The challenging thing for us at the college level, for all college strength coaches, a lot of times we get kids that come in have inflated numbers and the inflated egos that go with it and so when we first bring them in and we test them, they don't test like they did in high school and they wonder why. There's a lot of theories as to why, but our job now is to now take those numbers and improve them year over year.''

Those numbers are just as dubious as some heights and weights?

‘'What we do here at UCLA, is we have what we call a performance index, and we test an athlete's body fat, we test their vertical jump, their standing broad jump, their functional movement screening, which is a measurement of flexibility of muscle balance. We test their power clean, a three-rep power clean, three-rep back squat, three-rep bench press, 40-yard dash, pro agility and then a medicine ball chest pass. So, it's 10 tests that we do with our athletes and with that information we can really pinpoint what areas of improvement each individual needs, what we need to address with each individual athlete. And we've actually got it down to where we've got, by position, what expectations are for an All-American status, the cream of the crop, you know, that one athlete that's just a super athlete, all of the way down to what maybe a high school athlete should be.

‘'Those numbers are pretty much dead on. The kids coming out of high school, they usually test out at that high school bench mark for each of the tests and then as they go through their careers here, if we do the right things, they get to that senior level and they're really at high numbers, maybe at All-American status numbers.

‘'Now, the one thing, that doesn't necessarily always translate to being an All-American on the football field, as you know. We're just trying to give them the physical tools to succeed. A lot of times it's what's in between their ears and their passion for the game that really dictates their success on the field.''

Well, something is going well. Just in the past two months, 2 ½ months, since the end of the season, really, some guys just look … different.

‘'I think that's the case. We always give credit to the kids, just because we've got such a great group of young men. You know, they run through the wall. We tell them what to do and they do it. It's a testament to their work ethic, to them wanting to be good, because that's half the battle.

‘'You have to want to be good. We're telling them all the time, we're only with you, at the most two hours a day is all we can be with you. There's an eight hour rule in the off-season, so we can't be with them more than eight hours a week. It's that rest of the time where their commitment level shows, in terms of are they eating the things that we tell them to eat? We have a sports nutritionist that we work with and she lays out the meal plan, are they following the meal plan? Are they getting as much rest as we tell them to get? Are they hydrating their bodies as much as we tell them to hydrate? On their off days are they doing the things that we want them to do in terms of rest and recovery?

‘'That's, you know, that's the buy-in. If they buy-in to the program lock stock and barrel, they're going to show great success and look different and it's not going to take a long time. It doesn't take a long time, especially with a team that's this young, where you get guys who still kind of have that baby fat on them, are still kind of built like a high school player, really, we always say the 80-20 rule … 80 percent of an athlete's development really happens in the first 20 percent of their college careers. What's really hard is taking that senior, taking that Brigham Harwell, in his senior year, and getting him to drop 5 percent body fat or to lower a tenth from his 40-time. That's hard. It's not hard to take a high school kid who has never really been involved in such a detailed program.''

Your next round of testing is coming up …

‘'We test again in March. We test twice a year. We test in March after the off-season, at the end of the off-season, and then we test in the summer at the conclusion of the preseason training we do in the summertime. It's two big testing events and it's a week-long process, to get all 10 of those tests done on 90-plus football players is a chore in itself, but that's when we do it.''

Do you look forward to those tests? I mean, that's when guys really know …

‘'Yeah, we do. Right now, it's interesting, we're closing in on about three week left and right now you can sense the intensity level and it picking up because we're getting closer to training at testing numbers and heavier weight and there's just that sense of intensity in the room that has picked up.

‘'We have these brass bells that are hanging throughout the room and whenever an athlete hits a training PR, in other words a personal record for them at that number of reps, the most weight they've ever done at that number of reps, the coach knows it. We've got a sheet and the coach will see that and rings the bell and everybody will come up to that platform to watch that athlete make that attempt and, I mean, it will get filmed. It gets filmed and put on the weekly highlight reel. We have TVs out there, and it gets played all throughout the weight room the next week. The kids really get fired up about that.

‘'Another thing we've got going, in the back of the room over there, we've got our championship platform, which is a staged area where, when we go to test, if an athlete breaks an all-time position record they're going to perform it on that platform. There's a big sense of excitement with guys getting ready to test and that's good. Again, that's a cultural thing of, like, competing, knowing that all eyes are on you and wanting to have that pressure of everyone watching you.''

Who are your superstars at this point?

‘'We've got some guys in positions that we need. David Carter is doing a great job for us and really I think, in terms of the weight room, is filling in right where Brigham and Brian Price left off in terms of just being just a really strong guy, and looks the part. Jeff Baca is an unbelievably strong offensive lineman. Kai Maiava. Ryan Taylor, who played some guard and center for us last year, is going to end up testing and being one of the strongest kids we have on the team. Micah Kia is doing a nice job coming back from his knee and is getting stronger and will be one of the best bench presses we've got.

‘'In the position that I know the fans are just clamoring for those big nasties, those strong, tough, mean guys, we're making some serious headway with our older guys on the interior line.''

Micah said he was close to starting to integrate more legs to his workouts. Has he started that?

‘'Yeah, he started this week. He started doing more leg stuff. We have three phases of progression that we do with our injured athletes and really the first two phases we work real closely with the athletic trainers and they really handle the rehabilitation of the leg, so the first phase we basically work around the injured leg and train all of the other body parts and try to keep him as strong as possible. And then the second phase we start to integrate some double leg movements, again working closely with the training staff. And then, really, the third phase that's he's in now, now he's back training with his teammates, and his volume and load on the bar is a little bit different as we progress him and prove out that his knee can handle it and get him closer and closer to playing.''

Getting back to some of the younger guys … You're looking for Mikes and Wills, linebackers everywhere. Are those guys physically ready to step into those roles now? Look at the linebackers, even some of the defensive lineman …

‘'Yeah, I think they are. Again, leading into the interview, that was the big thing - was OK, we're going to be young and we had some guys that played out of necessity last year and then we've got some positions that you mentioned, the linebacker … who is going to be that guy in the middle. Are they going to be a physical presence in the middle? Because, you know with the type of defense that we run, that middle linebacker has got to be smart – they're basically the quarterback of the defense – but they also have to look the part and they have to bring it.

‘'They have to have lead in their pencil and they have to be able to run fast from sideline to sideline on top of it. Patrick Larimore is doing a great job. I don't know if you've seen him, but he's built like a brick poop house. Todd Golper, the same thing. Golper is actually a couple of years younger than Larimore, but he's developing nicely. Isaiah Bowens is going to be a real special player for us because he's kind of the complete deal – you know, he's a big guy and fast and powerful.

‘'The defensive line, outside of David Carter, we've got Datone Jones who played a lot of snaps and he's just getting bigger and stronger and is going to be that much better for it next year. Damien Holmes, you know, he has to be ready to step up, physically ready to step up. He's a guy who has gained 15 pounds so far, kept his quickness and stuff.

‘'If I went down the list of guys, like you're saying, the objective versus the subjective, objectively looking at numbers you can ask me about anybody and I can tell you how much weight they've gained since we started and then obviously the testing, the proof will be in the pudding with our testing numbers. But we've got guys who have put on 10 or 15 pounds and the good thing is you can't tell.

‘'Like an Akeem Ayers, Akeem Ayers right now weighs 255 for us, but if you look at Akeem Ayers on the hoof, he looks like a very put together guy and in shape, but he looks like maybe, you would guess, high 220s or 230. So when a guy is that dense, in terms of muscular, that's a good thing, especially when you have a 255 pound guy that moves around like he's 220. Again, that's the Holy Grail that we're trying to achieve with these guys.''

I heard Keenan Graham also is up to, like, 240 or something like that. This is a guy who was eating through a straw for a while last season …

‘'Yeah, Keenan is doing a great job. He started out, gosh, when he first got here he was 228 and he is now … on Friday he weighed in at 244. And that's muscle. It's not like he is putting it around the midsection. It's not like when you and I gain 16, when you and I gain 16 it's not going in the right spots.

‘'To be young and train the way they can train – we feed our guys after, that's part of another big thing that we did a couple of years ago when I first got back, is overhaul the training table with the help of Becci Twombley, our nutritionist, where every guy has a got a customized meal plan.

‘'Through that body fat analysis – we put them in a Bod Pod that we have upstairs and with that information we can determine what their resting metabolic rate is and what their body fat percentage is, and with those numbers we come up with a custom meal plan so a Keenan Graham gets done with training, he goes up to the training table and he knows exactly how many calories he needs to eat that entire day and specifically that breakfast and then he knows how many calories need to come from carbohydrates, how many calories need to come from proteins. It's customized for him, so the weight that we're putting on him, it has to be good weight for him to be able to play at this level.''

I just saw Ricky Marvray

‘'Ricky, he's a great kid. He's a good example of the type of mindset of some of the kids we bring in now. He's a competitive guy and he makes no apologies about the fact that he is ultra competitive in every single thing that he does and Ricky is not necessarily in this to be the most popular guy amongst his teammates. He wants to win and he wants to have that starting spot and he wants to be successful. That's a good thing. You get a lot of guys like that you turn your program around.''

Who are some of the other guys who jump off the page since the end of the season?

‘'You know, I know one of the big ones that your readers are going to all clamor about is Nik Abele – the kids call him Ox or Cyborg … he's a very strong kid and I think has a great future ahead of him. When he first got here he was 257 and he's now 274, so 17 pounds, and the problem with a Nik Abele is everyone wants him to be 320 pounds tomorrow.

‘'Gaining weight a lot of times is just the same as losing weight. They say two pounds a week is the most ideal, the problem is I think we all live in kind of a ‘'Biggest Loser'' culture, where everybody sees the ‘'Biggest Loser'' people losing 30 pounds a week and it's ‘Can't you get a guy to gain 30 pounds?' No, you can't do that. Really, about a pound or two pounds a week is the most muscle that you can probably gain. It's slow and steady. Nik Abele, playing spring ball, we hope to get up into the 280s and then, you know, he has his work cut out for him this summer because we run a little more in the summer, so it's a little bit harder to gain weight in the summer. But hopefully, we can get him to fall where he's close to a 290 guy and rely on his athleticism and he'll be the big 300 pounder soon enough.

‘'Akeem Ayers is doing a great job. Jeff Baca is doing a great job. Jeff Baca is going to end up being, when it's all said and done, one of the strongest offensive linemen we've ever had, at least since I've been here back in the '90s and then now. Nate Chandler, Nate has been moved to the defensive line, so Nate is up into the 290s and can still move. He's a great athlete, so everybody is excited to see how he does – you take a guy who is that size and has that athleticism and see how he does on the defensive line. But he's an unbelievable competitor in the weight room … does a great job.

‘'Nick Crissman, I can't speak fully to the medical side of things, but there are no limitations on Nick anymore and Nick says he's feeling great. He's throwing the ball great so it should be interesting going into the spring seeing how he's doing, being healthy.

‘'Brett Downey is another guy, probably I'm paying the price a little bit for the Brett Downey process, but Brett is a guy who came into the program at 280 pounds and is now 305 and was built a lot like Nik Abele when he first got into the program … a tall, kind of gangly skinny guy. In staff meetings, it's like, ‘Well, you did it for Downey ...' But, really, it took Downey about a year and a half, two years, but Brett has done a great job and he's now officially in the 300-pound club as the offensive line likes to say. He has his all-you-can-eat card.

‘'Justin Edison, he's a young guy on the defensive line that knows he has to step up and get stronger and get bigger and he's done a great job doing that. He's close to 290 now and is finally getting his legs underneath him in terms of the weight room strength wise.

‘'Joe Fauria, the transfer tight end, he's going to be a special player, just because he's, again, a lot like Nate Chandler and just a hyper competitive guy in the weight room. Many occasions this offseason he left workouts getting physically sick just because he pushed himself to it, to that point where he would get sick. A lot of the workouts this year we had a trash can next to his platform because he would get sick and that was kind of a rallying thing for the players, the players loved it. The workout didn't officially get started until Big Joe got sick. He's going to be a good one.

‘'Cory Harkey, tight end, he trains with Joe. He's always on the same rack as Big Joe so those guys are competing against each other.

‘'Mike Harris, he looks like the prototypical left tackle now, in terms of a 6-foot-7, 325 pound monster.

‘'Running backs, I think the running backs have all taken it as a motivational tool that we've got these running backs coming in and no one is shying away from the competition. They know that the competition starts now because they know that, for the most part, it's really hard for a recruit to work as hard as these guys working on campus. They know they already have an edge on those guys because they're here and they're competing and they're being pushed on a daily basis, even when maybe they wake up and don't feel like being pushed, so they're all doing a great job … Milton Knox, Jonathan Franklin, Christian Ramirez, Derrick Coleman, all doing a great job.

‘'Sheldon Price is a guy who, probably even moreso than Nik Abele, because all of Bruin Nation lived with Sheldon Price on the edge whenever there was a sweep or a play coming to the outside. But he's doing a good job. He's gained some weight. He's running track right now for us, so that puts the challenge on him even more to do the right things and to eat well and all that, but he's now into the mid 170s and when he first started with us he was in the low 160s, and he has a ways to go even with that.

‘'Marlon Pollard, I think he's going to end up competing in the defensive backfield for us, and he came in at 158 and he's now up to 175, another kid who needs to gain weight.

‘'Morrell Presley has done a great job. He's up to 223. They moved him back to tight end.

‘'Sean Westgate, another guy, he's that tweener guy and he knows it. He could be a safety but probably should be in the box, but maybe is too small to be in the box … he's up to 212 and at one point he was in the 190s. He's battling to gain the weight as well.''

With Chandler, when you're trying to get him ready for that position change, you're almost remaking his whole body. How do you even start that? I mean, he was strong at the line as a blocker, but also asked to be out there running pass routes. Now, he's going to be in there with 300 pounders getting into him from every angle …

‘'In terms of the demands of the position? Well, tight end, he had to have that being strong at the point of attack, because he was such a presence for us as a blocking tight end, so he had a little bit of that going for him, he had that mindset as well.

‘'Footwork is different he has to be probably be more lateral quickness and first step quickness is more important than top-end speed. So that's really what, as an interior defensive lineman, what we try to spend the most time on, that first-step quickness, lateral agility, being strong at the point of attack, being able to shed blockers, being able to read the backfield and, really, the difference between an offensive player and a defensive player comes down to reaction versus anticipating.

‘'An offensive player has the advantage of going up to the line of scrimmage knowing what the demands are going to be placed on his body, he knows, hey, you know what, I have to slip by this guy and I have to run five yards down the middle and cut it across the middle in front of linebackers and make a catch in that area, and be able to take a hit on, where a defensive player lines up and is not really quite sure what is going to get thrown at him. Is a guard going to get into his legs? So, there are some differences.

Throw the body composition into that, as well …

‘'He's going to have to be a big guy, but on top of it he's going to have to have great cardio and be a very fit big guy. That's another difference between an interior defensive lineman and an offensive lineman. An offensive lineman doesn't necessarily have to be quite as fit – it's painful for me to say that, being a former offensive lineman. But a defensive lineman needs to be able to stay on the field and react and there's a lot of stuff thrown at him; pass rush he has to get the quarterback and then get up and do it all over again, got to be able to get around that guy.''

What do you have him doing to be able to do all that?

‘'During the offseason, in the winter, we're doing drills at night, the drills we do at night are agility drills, where they're going to work through all sorts of demands, as far as first-step quickness and lateral quickness and reaction. He gets that work at night.

‘'In the mornings we're lifting the guys and doing some speed development stuff, first step quickness type work. As we get in after spring ball, our summer program is really getting really position specific with guys. Right now he's trying to put the weight on to be able to play the position, trying to learn the position, and then in the summer time it's going to be taking Nate Chandler and saying, OK, you're 295 now, let's get you in the best shape possible, lets really learn how to use that body and the demands that come from being a defensive lineman.''

Ultimately, what does he look like the first day of fall camp?

‘'In a perfect world, he's every bit of that 295 pounds that he's carrying right now, he's got an even lower body fat percentage than he'll have this testing period and he'll be able to play all day and play with a high motor and high energy, be able to take guys on but also get around guys.

‘'That's the trick. Usually you have guys that are good at taking on a double team or you have guys that are good at getting around a guy. But if you have a guy that can do both, that's really the key for playing defensive line.''

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