All about feeding the Trojans

From her family's Idaho dairy farm to feeding the Trojans football team, Andrea Vanderwoude has always been about getting the nutrition right because it matters.

For a sports nutritionist, there aren't really that many moments in the spotlight.

But for Andrea Vanderwoude, USC's first-year football team dietitian, the bright focus came her way this week.

It was the weigh-in for today's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., (NFL Network, 11:30 a.m.) when two of her star pupils set the twitter world afire. Zach Banner went first, tilting the scales at 361 pounds, 16 heavier than he was at the start of August practice after he'd dropped more than 40 from the end of his junior season. But that was 20 pounds lighter than the 381 Zach weighed for the Rose Bowl less than four weeks ago.

Not to be outdone, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu pushed the needle to 350, 30 pounds heavier than he was listed officially on the USC roster this season but a mere 10 higher than he'd said he weighed on his July arrival from Utah.

Laughing, Andrea admitted "I've gotten a lot of comments from people," on the pair's day on the scales the way the Trojan alums dominated weigh-in day when the NFL scouts got their first up-close-and-personal look at the top prospects before the NFL Combine.

That wasn't all they dominated. The twitter-verse went wild. "Biggest human being I've ever seen," was the standard line for those encountering Zach in person for the first time after he measured just under 6-foot-9 in his bare feet.

"Am I not doing my job?" was a question Andrea said she asked herself after Zach dropped 20 quick pounds when he went into post-season pre-Combine training. But there's a difference. They're no longer student-athletes on campus with finals and friends and getting two meals a day courtesy of USC. They're in a totally controlled environment.

"We don't have control like that," Andrea says. "You can only control so much."

There's another big difference. Now it's their job. The more they lose, or gain, depending on the circumstances, it's not just pounds that people are counting, "They're losing money," Andrea says if they don't. And that can be the ultimate motivator.

For Andrea, the scales aren't the ultimate decider when she works with the USC players. And for "bigger human beings" like Zach and Stevie, "it's much easier for their weight to fluctuate as much as 10 to 12 pounds in a day," she says, depending on their hydration or lack of it.

"The number isn't the thing," Andrea says of her discussions with individual players. "Do you feel heavy, sluggish?" she'll ask. "Are you stronger, more explosive?" Those are the key questions she'll ask in consultation with the position coaches, trainer Russ Romano and strength and conditioning boss Ivan Lewis.

The way they finished up, especially for Stevie T. who just kept getting better and better and more dominant, that extra weight didn't seem to be holding them back. Although Zach's jersey did seem to be struggling to contain his added mass.

But that's why she's here, Andrea says. "It's an amazing program to be a part of," after her first full year at USC after an internship starting the previous August. "Every day you learn something new. And I've learned an awful lot."

One thing Andrea learned is she didn't "want them to see me as the food police. My job is to be here to help them, to support them, not to pull food off their plates." Or for the ones who need to put on weight, to put the food on their plates.

Sure, she'll do individual plans for the players who need them or want them and go over their body-mass indexes with them. She'll work on their recovery diet or their strength goals. And she'll work with them on food shopping.

"A lot of them have never shopped for their own food," she says of what they do in the off-season, "it was always their mother doing that."

Andrea started learning her craft as a youngster growing up on the family dairy farm some 40 minutes outside Boise. "A small farm," Andrea says of the 600 milking cows and 800 total in their operation. "You learned to value the animals and to feed them what they need."

Not exactly transferable to a sports team but an inspiration to Andrea to get her degree in nutrition at the University of Idaho, where she walked on to the volleyball team as a freshman and then played club volleyball the rest of her undergrad days in order to concentrate on her studies. By the time she finished up, she knew she wanted to specialize in sports nutrition and moved on to the University of Colorado -- Colorado Springs. That specialized program is located at one of two U.S. Olympic Training Centers and helped prepare her to win one of 10 national sports nutrition internships.

"Alabama, Auburn, Wisconsin, Florida, Washington, a lot of the SEC schools had them," she said, "and USC." After a year here, when her predecessor Mike Minnis returned to the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, she moved up.

She'll tell you that the pre-game meal is far more important than the post-game meal that USC feeds the players. The post-game meal changed in the middle of the 2015 season. No more boxed lunches but a big buffet that gives the players far more choices.

"But the pre-game meal doesn't change from game to game," she says, other than this. If it's an early kickoff, "we'll include more breakfast foods." The standard fare is "steak, pasta, vegetables, salad, a sandwich bar and soup," she says.

Her biggest challenge? "Building trust," Andrea says. "When you step into a new role, it takes time."

Biggest challenge for the players? "Time is their biggest challenge," she says.

And eating right takes a bit of that. Which is why she's here, to take some of that burden off them.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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