ND’s Strength Coach is Huge, Powerful. Why Aren’t Their Players?

Ken Fowler of the Notre Dame/SMC Observer asks a pretty good question. To paraphrase:

Why were Notre Dame’s offensive and defensive linemen effectively abused against top competition in 2006?

And while Ken seems to point the finger towards Notre Dame’s strength and conditioning program, I’m gonna point the finger at, you guessed it, Tyrone Willingham. Those of you with weak stomachs or low tolerance for the bludgeoning of dead horses may want to go away now.

Anyone who’s ever played any competitive sports in their lifetime knows that while the end of a season can be a sad affair, it can also be a bit of a relief. The season is long and it’s hard. By the end, muscles ache, injuries nag, and minds are gassed. It’s time for some R&R. But that R&R is one hell of a siren, and when it’s time to tear yourself away from that fun and push yourself back into a strength and conditioning regimen, while also dealing with classes, the weather, and all those nagging injuries and aching muscles that still don’t seem to have gone away, really pushing yourself can be a bitch.

Sure, the S&C staff at Notre Dame can require or at least “ensure” that players attend their sessions. They can even use metrics to determine if a guy is pushing his weight, but that’s just setting a minimum, and what the players need to do is reach a maximum of potential. And only one thing motivates a tired, busy guy with his head in his books and his eyes on the coeds: fear.

And so it all comes back to Willingham, or, more specifically, Willingham’s inept recruiting “efforts.” Because only one thing causes a 290 lbs., 20 year old, D1 football player to fear anything: Losing their place on the roster. And due to the fact that Willingham recruited barely enough players to field an 8-man squad for a local rec team, those players who do have top positions on the roster have (had?) nobody and nothing to fear. Thus, the fear doesn’t exist to encourage these players to throw another 5 or 10 lbs. on bar for the next set. The fear isn’t whispering in the players’ ears to encourage them to really push thru that final wind sprint. And so the players don’t improve year-to-year as much as they should. They might meet the minimums as set by the coaching staff, but they don’t reach the maximums.

Wait, you exclaim. What about Brady Quinn? Didn’t he just set some sort of record for the bench press segment of the NFL combines? Yes, but he’s a unique breed. It’s not every day you come across someone like him, even among elite D1 football players. Stories of his dedication in the weight room border on the absurd. Stories of his dedication to his diet (an unbelievably important, but highly neglected, component of any S&C program), cross the border. The “regular” elite D1 players probably need more of an external push than a Brady Quinn.

All is not lost. Weis and company recognized that the roster was a bit thin, and made endurance training a focus-point for previous off-season conditioning. The results of which were obvious in the 2006 Georgia Tech game where, ultimately, it was the offense’s ability to keep the ball and sustain a long drive or two at the end of the game that won the contest. The Irish squad was clearly very well conditioned in that sense, but the necessary gains in strength and explosiveness have just not been there, meaning both the offensive and defensive lines are being knocked back by more powerful forces. Still, with the influx of top-line offensive line recruits in the last 2 years, it would seem that the more senior guys (what’s left of them), will feel a little more fear this off-season.

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