Q & A with Trojan strength coach Chris Carlisle

There are few things as important to the success of the Trojans as the efforts of the strength and conditioning program, led by head strength coach Chris Carlisle. WeAreSC.com had a chance to sit down with Carlisle in his weight room office in the basement of Heritage Hall which he says is appropriate because the basement is the foundation of the building much like the conditioning program is the foundation for the football program. Click below for a transcript of that interview:

What results are you looking to see from the weight room work when the players hit the field on Monday?

What am I looking to see? I've seen what I needed to see. When we finished our work on August 2nd I had seen what I needed to see to know that these kids were prepared to go play football for Coach Carroll. Before every transition, what we call a transition like the time between the fall program through the winter before we go to spring ball, we talk and Coach Carroll tells me "I need these kids to be able to do this, I thought this kid could do this but he needs to do this, we need to make a transition with this kid". It's so that we know what we want to do, we don't just go in and cookie cutter everybody. Everybody has unique needs "he's got to get bigger or this guy has to get smaller, he's got to get quicker", we work on that basis with the coaches so that they can tell me what they need. We go ahead and design a program so that when we come into the summer after spring ball the coaches sit down with us again and they say "this guy needs this, this guy needs that" and so we are able to train our program around specifically getting these guys ready to play for Coach Carroll and his staff in the upcoming season.

How can a workout program differ from player to player?

Look at the quarterbacks, take a look at Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer. Carson, physically, is a pretty well finished product right now. Matt Leinart came in as a skinny kid and now he's better than he was a year ago. With Matt there will be more refining this off-season and next summer, after that we've got the kid to where he needs to be physically and then it just becomes reps and snaps and throwing the ball to the receivers. With Carson, you don't want to turn your quarterbacks into linebackers, just like you don't want to turn your linebackers into offensive linemen. Kids can keep on getting bigger and bigger but there's got to come a point where you look at a quarterback and say "he's done". At that point you start training him specifically for what he needs, his specific movements or skills, for instance a QB will do a lot more rotator cuff work than an average athlete would because they're putting a lot of strain on the muscle around that. If you come to one of our workouts you're gonna say they look like they're all doing the same thing but if you look at the numbers, if you look at the workouts you're gonna see that some kids are over here, some are over there and you've got to do that with these kids, you can't train em all alike. They all have different needs, they all have specific needs and that's what we need to train them for.

What makes your program work?

I think when you look at the success we've had in the weight room over the past two years it can be traced to three key factors. Number one goes back to Coach Carroll because he understands and he believes in what I'm doing. He took a huge risk when he hired me because I'd just been diagnosed with Hodkin's Disease and we didn't know how that would go but he believed in me and things have worked out there. The other thing with Coach Carroll is that he lets these kids understand how important what I do is to the success of this football team. You've been around Coach Carroll and seen how infectious his enthusiasm is, when he says to these kids "Hey, we've got to get in there and train" well then they get in here and train. That brings me to my second point which is my staff. I, without a doubt, have the best staff in the country. These guys and girls that I've got, we have four full-time on staff, they're all going to be head strength coaches someday at a Division 1 college. I've always thought that was a heck of a sign of your ability as a head coach was how many of your assistants went on to become head coaches on their own. Jamie Yanchar's been here 10 or 11 years and understands a lot of the traditions. Aaron Ausmus, who I brought with me from Tennessee, was an All-American shot putter. Charr Gahagan came in 2nd in a national powerlifting competition in July and he only lost by five pounds, he's near to setting records in the squat and the deadlift, the guy's just a phenomenal strength coach. I just hired Aaron's wife, who's been Coach Carroll's assistant as long as we've been here but Andrea was an All-American shot putter herself. I've put together a staff that allows us to get done the work that needs to get done, it's not one guy who does it, it's the whole staff. Finally, it's these athletes. The third point is the athletes, they're the ones who do it. I can put all the numbers on the board, I can talk all the philosophy I want, I can talk about how things move but if the athlete does not believe in what we're doing and doesn't do what we ask them to do then my program is very average. There's no miracles out there, there's no miracles in numbers, it's all effort, intensity and focus. These kids come in and when the whistle blows they're ready to go. It's been that way for the past two years, we just don't have people miss our workouts. People talk about discpline and punishment, I don't have to worry about punishment, the kids don't miss. The summer program is all voluntary and that doesn't bother me at all because these kids come anyway. I've got kids who want to train right up until we go to camp and I've got to pull em back a bit because you've got to have time to rest. We put em through a hard 11 weeks getting prepared for the season and then we give them a week off. Those three things really, Coach Carroll is the main part of this, my staff I couldn't do anything without my staff and the athletes. Without the athletes giving themselves to the program and committing themselves to it I can't get it done because, I'll tell you, we wear some ass out in here. You will notice the difference between the freshmen we had on the field today and then what you see on Monday when the varsity players show up. You're gonna see there's a big difference between the freshmen and the varsity guys and you're gonna see there's a big difference in the varsity guys from where they were last year.

What are the major philosophies of your program?

What I'm trying to do is coordinate three major joints; the ankle, the knee and the hip. The coordination of these three joints are your moving joints. Think about it, when you run, when you jump, when you change direction, it all deals with coordination. You look at children and the way they grow, they become uncoordinated but then at some point in their 11th or 12 grade year they start to get that coordination. You remember that kid who couldn't run in junior high who all of a sudden became the starting tailback and what was the difference? It wasn't a magic potion, it was because he became coordinated. The three joints became coordinated and that's what we've got to do in this training program, in my philosophy, is to train these three joints to work in concert with the rest of the body. So everything we do is centered on coordination of moving joints, the main movers of the body, the ankle, knee and hip. Our program reflects that and those kinds of trainings. The next thing we really focus hard on is the core training, the abdominal and lower back. We spend a lot of time on that because if you don't have a great core you can't do anything else. If you think about a quarterback throwing the ball he doesn't throw with his arm, he throws with his core, his lower back and abdominals. A lot of people think sit-ups are a great thing to do but sit-ups are not specific to movements that you do on a football field. The only time you do a movement that is in the sit-up position is when you're in the huddle. If I do a whole bunch of crunches I'm working to get in the huddle real well and that's not a very important thing. When we work the core we work three dimension, we work angles, we work up, we work down. We work with med balls, we work with a new thing called core boards which is a core stabilization. We work a lot of propreoception which is balance. If you stand up on one foot you will feel a twitching in your ankle, those are secondary receptors, secondary muscles that you don't usually use. If you're standing still with both feet on the ground you don't feel the twitching because you're primary receptors are talking to each other and everything's fine. Do you play football like that? No, you play football one foot at a time. When you pick up that foot, boom, now you've got to have that one leg moving and talking. So what we've got to do is body awareness, body position and the whole system's got to talk to each other. Now if you stand on one foot and shut your eyes then you've taken one of your propreoceptors away, your vision. If Kareem Kelly's running down the field and he's looking back for the football is he concentrating on that foot? No, he's taken his vision and he's looking at the ball here. Now, this foot's got to land square so when he catches that ball he can turn and use his sub 4.4 speed in a straight direction. That's something that we've been training with all our athletes is so we can turn our body position from one foot to another. That's what we train; the three joints, core and body awareness.

How much weight training is involved in your program?

We squat because you've got to have the base and everything, it's very important, but it's probably the slowest movement we do in the weight room. Everything else is maximum velocity because you have to train the way you play. We don't train slow in the weight room. We work on three premises and they're up on my board right now; How to, How fast, How much. When these freshmen come in we teach them how to lift. We teach them how to lift properly because we reduce the chance of injury when we get great technique. If you watch our coaching staff, this is all reflected on the football field. Maybe it goes back to me being a football coach but you have to teach the athletes how to do something first. Then we worry about how fast that ball moves because we've got to get at playing speed. Then we worry about how much, how much will come out of how to and how fast, how much just happens. We tie that all together with great technique, the coordination of the three joints and core development. Then you've got a football player, not a weightlifter. There's a huge difference, we've got a lot of kids coming out of high school who are weightlifters but this is not weightlifting. We lift weights but we train with a specific movement in mind. Everything we do in here can actually be taken back to the football field and re-enacted on the field. There are some people who say there's no cross over between the weight room and actually doing the skill, and there's some truth in that, but if you don't work on the movements in here you're not going to get great outcome on the field. You can jump all day and jump all day and your vertical jump may go up a little bit because you're jumping but when I come in here and I train exclusive movements and I train plyometrics and then we go out and test vertical jump, now we have great improvement. Rather than an inch improvement, we'll have a two inch improvement. You get a guy like Omar Nazel who weighs 250 now, he played at 225 last year, his vertical jump is now 37". People say there's no crossover, I say there's a great amount of crossover when you have a kid like Nazel who is 6-5, was 225, now is 250 and his body fat is down. We take body fat every four weeks, we know where his body is and now he's made a transition to where he's got a 37" vertical jump. When he walks out there now he's gonna be a factor. He was a lanky kid, now he's a football player. That's what we do in this program, Omar is a great example of what hard work and focus can bring about.

What makes Troy Polamalu so special with what he can do on the field?

Polamalu. There's few of them, they're few and far between. In everyday life he's very quiet, a very reserved young man, powerful, just a different type of intensity about him but when the lights go on and they put the Cardinal and Gold on, hey, it's just something deep inside. There's not an exercise I can do that can make a guy turn into that. He's got a great family, he just had it in him, that personal drive, his commitment to his faith, everything is just phenomenal. He's the kind of guy that if you're a father you hope your daughter would meet a guy like him. I don't know if you can go out and find another Troy. They're just there and you go "Oh my gosh, this guy is so special". I wasn't here when Junior Seau was here but was he the same kind of guy, just that special kind of guy. Troy is always the first one ready to go and the last one looking to leave, he's always looking for the edge, always looking to do more. That's the thing with him and some other kids, I've got to pull them back. Grant Mattos is another great example. I've got to pull these kids back from doing more. Matt Cassel, Kenechi Udeze, I've got to tell them "hey, your body needs rest".

Are there other examples of individual players who have made great gains?

I could talk about 65 different kids right now, kids who have made great personal gains. Jacob Rogers has not bench pressed since he was a junior in high school because of injuries and different things that he had problems with making the transition from high school to college. He increased, it's not a great bench press by any means and it's not one of the highs, but it's 405 and he just started benching this past spring. Now I'm not a big proponent that a great bench has anything to do with being a great football player. At no time during a football play do you get leverage from behind and get to press somebody in slow motion. So don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that since now he benches 405 he's now a football player, far from that, but what it does show is that the kid is stronger than he's ever been and he's able to go out and play the game even now with everybody else. He was at a huge disadvantage before and now he's physically better. He power cleans 330 pounds, understand how much that is, that's a huge amount of weight for a kid who is 6'6". To pull it off the floor to his shoulders in a controlled fashion, in an explosive fashion, is a phenomenal lift. DeShaun Hill probably had the greatest gain of anybody over the summer. He not only increased his speed, he lowered his body fat and he also increased his strength test in the bench, power clean and squat by a combined total of 148 pounds. You might ask what kind of a gain is that? Well, consider that we just tested them right before spring ball. He was able to increase by 148 lbs. which is a phenomenal number for a defensive back while still making him faster, while still making him leaner. The kid is ready to play football and be a good, solid player out there. The kind of physical changes, of course, for Kenechi Udeze from 350 to 268 pounds. Van Brown, he's a kid who was about 250 when he started with us in the spring and he's about 267 now. His body fat is down, his strength is up, he did a great job. Mike Patterson came in last summer at 308 lbs. and is at 268 now so he's lost 40 pounds. He'll be at around 272 when we begin the season because we leaned him out pretty heavy during the summer. It's a phenomenal change that he's going through now because Mike's great gift is his quickness and speed and at 308 he didn't have it and now he's able to do it. Again, it's not magic. Jacob, DeShaun, Kenechi and Michael, they came in and did it. You can't half-ass this, those kids put in the time, put in the whole time they needed. Every time the bell rang they were here. They responded, they're great kids to be around, they're a great nucleus of this program.

How about the guys at running back?

Malaefou, he's finally coming into the season healthy because he understands that more is not better, that less is more sometimes because it allows your body to recover and your not always working with fatigued or overtrained muscles. If the creek don't rise and the dam don't break, if Malaefou stays healthy, he's going to have a great year and be an integral part of this team because of his experiences and because he's a great leader, all these kids look up to him. Justin Fargas, he came in at 190 pounds. Coach Davis remembers him at Michigan, he was a stick man out there. He weighs 215 pounds now. He didn't train with the skill kids this year, he trained with the linemen because he wanted that mentality around him. I think that kind of commitment right there is great when you would have a workout group with Zach Wilson, Derek Graf and Jake Rogers on one rack, Lee Webb, Bernard Riley and Justin Fargas on one rack and then Lenny Vandermade and Eric Torres on another rack. These guys saw Justin commiting himself to the program, it wasn't "hey I'm this special running back, I'm a teacup", he stayed in there and it became a game of one-upsmanship with the guys pushing each other all spring and summer. I think he's ready and he's a great talent, when you put him back there with Sultan, who rushed for 1,100 yards, and you put Malaefou with his great talent and you've got Darryl Poston who has something different about him too, that's a special group. Darryl's got that zig-zag, that vision and he's done a great job. He's in the 190's right now with his weight and he's the kind of kid with his frame that we don't want him to get much bigger. He may not get any heavier, we don't want a linebacker out there, we want a great talented tailback that can move and has great feet. If you have a pitcher and he has a fastball and that's all he has well then people are going to be able to pick up on that fastball and they'll start to hit it but if you throw in a curveball and you have a knuckler like Poston and then you add a slider in Malaefou, now all of a sudden you've got four pitches working for you. It's a whole different pitcher than we had out there last year. You've also got Sunny Byrd back at fullback and you've got Chad Pierson who is healthy. We had to revise his program because of his past history but he took his bench from 375 to 425 in a matter of seven weeks. Chad didn't resign himself and say "well, I can't train the way everybody else trains so I'm not gonna work as hard", instead he said "what can I do?" and we found different ways for him to get better. He's healthy now and he's gonna be a great asset to the program. Then you start to look ahead, well Chad and Sunny are both seniors, Justin, Sultan and Malaefou are all seniors and so we've got a lot of young kids who are gonna be filling places next year but running back is a spot you can fill with young people. We're gonna have a bunch of fifth year seniors on the offensive line and if I'm a young back I like that because I've got a bunch of insurance policies.

Are any of the freshmen making an early impact? There are a lot of stories about the weight room prowess of a Winston Justice.

Winston Justice, with kids like that we worry about how to before we worry about how much. He's a very powerful young man but let's not try to hang Tony Boselli or Anthony Munoz on him just yet. In my opinion, and this is just my opinion, an offensive lineman is a tenured position in that you've got to be in the trenches and you've got to learn how to play the game. To me, the OL, DB and QB are all tenured positions in that the longer they play, the more snaps they get under them, the better they are. At QB, the more snaps you get, the more balls you throw, the better you become. The more times you see coverages, the more time you see stunts it is going to make you feel better about the offense and you're going to be a better quarterback. Hershel Dennis could come in and be the starting running back because at running back if you've got the skill, if you've got the ability, you can do it. You see a lot of freshmen starting at RB at major colleges where you think "Wow, how's he starting there?". It's because he's an athlete but if you're not already a great running back you're not going to become a great running back. If you don't have the vision to run it doesn't matter how much you work, you're not going to get there. Other positions, Mike Williams could go out there and start, Dominique Byrd could go out there and start, Oscar Lua, Dallas Sartz, Van Brown could step out there and start because those are pure athletic, go-get-em types of positions. But for the offensive linemen, let's not hang too much on Winston, we've got a great group of kids who made it through a season and got 12 games under their belt last year. For some of them it was the first experience they had, it wasn't Coach Uperesa and it's not going to be Coach Davis, it's 12 games under Coach Chow's system with Coach Carroll being the leader of the program. It's another year in here, physically they're better, physically they're more mature, mentally they're more mature. They're going to go out there for the first game and they're going to be better than they were the last time they stepped out on the field. It's just a tenured position, the more snaps you get, the better you're going to be and so you don't see many phenoms come out here on the OL. With a Reggie Williams at Washington last year, was that coaching? That guy's a stud. You don't see a lot of freshmen offensive linemen in the country just roll it on out there like that and start. Look at McKinney last year at Miami, he was a junior college kid so he wasn't a freshman but there's a kid who learned how to play the dang position. That's the thing I worry about, I think a lot of people put pressure on these kids to be great already. They're high school kids, they're gonna go through a baptism of fire here. They're gonna work harder now then they ever have, during the summer when kids were training we spent 30 to 45 minutes outside warming up before we even came into the weight room. We're talking about doing our agilities, our plyometrics, I like getting em fresh to do that specific movement stuff and then we went out after they were done lifting and did our conditioning when they were tired. They would get done with the warm-ups and the freshmen were saying "what, we've got to go work out now?". The older kids were just saying "let's go, saddle it up". The young guys say "Geez, I thought I worked out hard before but never like this" and so when you start putting that kind of focus into it and that kind of emphasis into it then all of a sudden these kids don't know anything but to work. The freshmen it takes them a little while to understand, having somebody yelling at you all day long and coaching you up on everything you do. I've been a high school coach also, it's a whole different game on this level. It's all about doing things right, being accountable. These kids are living away from home for the first time, their heads are spinning, they got the media asking em all kind of questions, that didn't happen happen much in Little Bit, California so it's a huge transition for these kids.

What makes you proud of this program?

I'm fortunate to be here, there's so much to be thankful for with this program. You hear it all the time right now, every team in the country is saying they're on the rise, heading in the right direction but I've been in college football for 18 years. I've won national championships as both an assistant coach and as a strength coach so I've been around, I've seen good football players and I think we're taking positive steps every day to make this a top program. My training program for the fall is done and I'm looking ahead to next spring and next fall, the football coaches job is now to take what we did in the weight room and take it to the stadium and do what they do best.

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