The 70 Commodores who are expected to greet Coach Johnson when spring practice opens March 15 have been busy getting stronger individually and closer as a team under the direction of head strength coach John Sisk and his conditioning staff.
As spring drills near, the results have been positive, according to both Johnson and Sisk.
"For us to succeed, our guys have to get better every day. It's just as important this time of year during the conditioning period than during the middle of the season," Johnson said. "Our players understand what they need to do and they're working extremely hard. As a group, they keep showing our staff a desire to get better. And as a head coach, that's what you're hoping for."
Last year, the Commodores opened spring practice in mid-February, earlier than any other team in the Southeastern Conference. The early start allowed just four weeks of team conditioning. This winter, with the Commodores starting their spring drills in mid-March, Sisk said the squad has benefitted from three additional weeks of work.
"As far as conditioning is concerned, we've had a great offseason. Everybody has stepped forward and put a lot into the conditioning effort," Sisk said. "One of our main objectives is to build the team concept in our strength program, really work to create team unity and team leaders. Of course, we want to get bigger, stronger and more explosive. We're getting that done, but we're also becoming more of a team.
Among those benefitting the most from the intense conditioning are several freshmen that saw game action last year. "Those guys need this time the most because they didn't get the strength work that our redshirts did last year simply because they were playing. I see a big difference in that group of guys," Sisk said.
As much as added quickness and strength helps, Johnson knows that improvement will be measured on the field.
"Though I'm pleased with the offseason progress, we'll know a lot more when we get on the field. Our guys are doing well with the running and the conditioning, but you have to get the pads on to really know where you are," Johnson said.
When Johnson opens spring drills, several positions will be up for grabs. On offense, several starters must be replaced, including All-SEC tackle Justin Geisinger, guard Brian Kovolisky, receiver Brandon Smith, tailbacks Norval McKenzie and Kwane Doster, and fullback Matthew Tant. The squad also lost several defensive starters, including end Jovan Haye, tackles Matt Clay and Robert Dinwiddie, and cornerbacks Bill Alford and Dominique Morris.
"We have a pretty good mixture of players coming back, but we also have some spots where we need to develop new players. We'll be looking for those younger guys to step up and make their presence felt," Johnson said.