A conversation with Chris Carlisle

There are many reasons for the success of the USC football program these days but one of the biggest factors is Trojan strength and conditioning coach Chris Carlisle. WeAreSC sat down with Carlisle to get an update on the winter workouts and some new additions to his program this year. Click below for the interview:

At some point during the Orange Bowl the result became clear in your mind and you knew we were going to win. What was that feeling like for you?

Tremendous, tremendous satisfaction. You think back to when we were 6-6 and some people didn't believe in this or see the potential. The relief is immeasurable but, like they say, a win lasts for five minutes because as soon as we got on the bus we were already talking about upcoming training and the beginning of winter workouts. We enjoyed the win though. I enjoyed dancing with my wife, I'm certainly not a dancer, but we were on the dance floor until 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. I told my wife "we've got to enjoy these moments because they are so hard to get". Coach Carroll had said if anybody went home early that night they were big sissies so I was not going to be a big sissy.

When are the national media and other coaches going to notice? This was the third bowl game in a row that the experts said the Trojans were going to get overpowered yet it never quite works out that way during the game.

Yeah, those sushi-eaters are going to get beat again (laughing). I hope they keep thinking that. I want everybody to believe that we play in a weak conference and that we're a weak team. Keep thinking our guys are not physical. Here's the thing, if we ever play a game in a weight room we might have trouble, we might, but as long as we play on grass and there is movement involved then I'm going to believe in our kids at all times and in every game.

How do so many programs fall into that trap of developing weight lifters while it seems we're doing things a little bit different?

I think we're doing a lot of things different but it's not traditional so other people are not buying into it. The University of Nebraska football program in the 70's and 80's, even into the 90's, were a team that really utilized the weight room as a source of power with the type of athlete they had and it paid off with the games they won and the national championships. That was great at the time because nobody else was doing it. Now everybody is lifting and a lot of people, a lot of strength coaches, are still focused in on the notion that in order to be a good football team you have to be strong. I do agree with that, I think strength is important, but I don't sacrifice strength for movement. I believe the weight room is a facilitator of movement, it's like Machiavelli who said "the end justifies the means", the weight room is not the end, it is the means to the end. The end is movement. If you look at the weight room as the facilitator, not the end of what you are trying to do, that's where you start to do things different.

I was talking with a coach at another school and he was high on his players, as he should be, and he was talking about a linebacker he has who hand-cleaned 407 pounds and squatted over 600. I said "that's great, what does he vertical jump?" and he said "30 inches". In my mind I'm saying "there you go, you've developed a great weight lifter". You can't get from Point A to Point B and then from Point B to Point C, which is what football is all about, without having that explosive ability. A lot of guys can go from Point A to Point B but how well you change direction to go to Point C is what really shows your athleticism. We've got someone like Winston Justice, he didn't power-clean 400 pounds because we don't power-clean with straps, we come off the floor, but he power-cleaned 353 and he squatted over 600 and he benched 475. On top of that he had a vertical of 35 inches and that's only a preliminary mark, we test these kids in those events after spring ball so we're going to find out what he can really do for a guy who is 290-295 pounds.

Any new elements in your training program this year?

I always change a couple things just to try and stay ahead of the game and this year we started implementing more hip rotation and flexibility drills in order to help our speed and pad level. I wanted to make sure our kids were able to lower their pad level because we're not as big as some teams and leverage becomes such a key part of the game in those match-ups. If we can get our pads underneath their pads then we can go about bringing that power that we've developed through our movements. Another thing is shoulder rehabilitation. We had some guys with some stingers and some problems during the year and I watched our trainer Russ Romano to see what he does to rehab injuries. I try to take those methods and put them in to our program, not as rehabilitation but as a pre-emptive measure. If something works to get you back it must work to get you better in that area in the first place. We've been doing work with these rubber bands, they have different levels of thickness and elasticity to offer various levels of resistance. They do a great job to work the area around the rear deltoid and the rotator cuff, it's not a huge change from what we were doing before but hopefully it will be enough to help keep people away from injuries or at least help lead to faster recoveries. When Darnell Bing went down last year he was only out for one week instead of six weeks, I think the work that was done in here and by the trainers helped him get healthy enough to play at a high level. Once the season was over he was able to have surgery to get it right. That's football, it's a rough sport and guys are going to get banged up but hopefully we can help with what we do.

Let's talk about your new assistant strength coach Brian Bailey.

This is a man with tremendous intelligence and a terrific background at the University of Nebraska. There are 35 master strength coaches around the country and he is one of them. I'm not one of them. To be a master strength coach you need tenure in the business but you also need to have contributions to the profession. I haven't been tenured enough but hopefully when I get enough time in my work will be enough to get me in because it would be an honor to be a master strength coach. To bring in someone like Brian shows where USC is. We may lose good people but we don't stop. Coach Carroll lost some good coaches on his staff but we're going to replace them and keep going. Brian is an example of how we're going to go to the best programs and bring those people in. The great thing is that those people want to come here and be with us because they believe that we do something that is special and different and they want to be part of it. I've known Brian for a long time, he was a friend before he got here, and I think he's just going to be a great addition. He's so good with rehabilitation work, the physical therapy end of things, he works in the training room and it basically gives us another physical therapist on site. Most recovery is based in stages, two weeks of this, two weeks of this, two weeks of that and you're cured. Well, if we can break that trend and cut that time down we can get that player back on the field sooner. You can't risk re-injury, the key is being able to get them back at full strength, and Brian will help us to do that. He's one of those guys who will probably be getting his own strength job soon so let's just enjoy him while he is here and understand that when he leaves we'll just bring another special person in.

What was the mindset of the players when they came back to work?

You worry about arrogance, ignorance and ambivalence. Do they think they are too good that they don't have to work? Do they understand why they still need to work as hard as before? Do they care? Well, that question got answered the first day of workouts when 40 kids put their hand on the ground at 6:00am and said "let's go". They've been going hard for eight weeks now and it's just a sign that these kids are not coddled, they're not spoiled, they are hungry for the next win. That's the exciting thing, I've been in other places where we won and it was like pulling teeth to get anybody to work after that. With this team, they set the tone, they know where the bar is set and they hit that level every day.

Talk about some of the players who are taking a leadership role in workouts.

Ryan Kalil is doing a great job in terms of leadership. Winston Justice, you talk about being physical, he was very good when he came in but he's better now and that's saying something because he was pretty darn special early in his career. This is a guy who has been given a second opportunity and is taking full advantage of it. By seeing what it's like on the outside and to understand how this is it and he's got to get it done now, he really trained hard in the time he was away and he came back in tremendous fashion. You're starting to see Winston move into that leadership position too. At quarterback Matty is always there and now you have John David and Rocky pushing for that next spot. John David has done the work this off-season and it shows. You see it in his demeanor, in his relationship with his teammates. Rocky has just got sheer athletic ability.

Reggie is just doing everything right and is ripped right now at 201 pounds. You've also got the addition of Michael Coleman, boy let me tell you about those two kids. Coleman and Kevin Ellison have come in here ready to work. When you look at those kids working with the rest of the team you can't tell the difference, usually it's pretty easy to look out there and say "oh, there's the freshmen". Kevin Ellison told me that before his senior year the most he ever benched was 320 and he just did 365 so after seven weeks of training with us he increased his bench by 45 pounds. Michael had never put 405 on the squat before but he did that and then we put 425 on there and he went through that like it was nothing. Here's a guy who is 220 pounds so he's getting close to being as strong as we need him to be. Brandon Hancock is back at full speed and (Carlisle knocks on wood) he's healthy so that's good. David Kirtman is also hitting on every cylinder right now. Dwayne Jarrett is at 205 these days as opposed to 190 when he came in so he's bigger and stronger and ready to be more physical. Stevie Smith has been tremendous. Chris Barrett is a big man and he's finally healthy.

On the defensive side you're starting to see the emergence of Sedrick Ellis as being a leader upfront. He's a big bull-strong kid and he may be the strongest we have in terms of putting weight on the bar. He's not the type who is looking for someone to sub in for him, he wants to be out there on every play. Dallas Sartz and Collin Ashton are both doing a great job and with Keith Rivers and Thomas Williams that may be the deepest group of athletes we have. Oscar Lua squatted 500 pounds, that's after two ACL surgeries, and he was looking to try for more. He hadn't been able to do anything the past two years because of the injuries so I told him "congratulations, you had a 500% gain and you're now strong enough and ready for spring ball football". It's a great thing to see for such a tremendous young man who is finally healthy and ready to show the coaches that he can play this game. He has a quicker burst about him these days and he's just a big, strong guy who can run. Terrell Thomas is healthy and at 200 pounds. You've got Bing, Pinkard and Ware at safety, you've got the Tings working hard and doing everything right. These are guys you can depend on every day.


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