STARKVILLE — Life as a Mississippi State football player begins immediately after the ink dries on the National Letter of Intent.
Soon after, each new member of the team — still nearly four months from high school graduation — receives a package from MSU strength coach Matt Balis.
Inside is a detailed, 12-week workout plan and instructional DVD to help the players prepare their bodies for the most intense strength and conditioning program they”ve experienced.
Most signees aren”t involved in spring sports when they receive the regimen, so following Balis” plan is key in making the summer and fall a lot less harder than it has to be, especially if players plan on seeing the field as freshmen.
As countless as the motivations might seem — players could work out when they”d normally train with their high school team — Balis said only a small number of incoming freshmen take advantage of the pre-summer workout materials.
“They say, ”Coach, I”m following it,” but you can tell when they get here,” Balis said. “In my 10 years at the college level, I”d say probably point zero, zero one percent of guys actually do it.”
Depending on the recruit and his school, Balis and his staff must assess the development of each freshman. Typically, players from large schools that have the resources to employ a full-time strength coach show the results when they get to campus.
A player”s past workout demands are just as pivotal to helping him transition to college.
Elite athletes, especially in lower classifications, are rarely matched on the field, so the need to train at a high level to dominate is rarely felt, Balis said.
“The top programs do, and they build their team like we do in college (in the offseason),” Balis said. “You can tell what kind of program a player comes from and what kind of strength training they do. You can see it in their technique, their strength levels and when they play the game. There”s a curve for freshmen, and it takes a while. The guys who don”t have that experience, it takes even longer.”
The players who take longer to navigate the freshman learning curve typically are the ones who redshirt. Becoming stronger and faster is just part of the equation, though, as a player”s progression through the playbook and his ability to develop toughness are gauged in the preseason. The extra elements are strengthened in the weight room, too, Balis said.
Workout tempo prepares freshmen for practice tempo, and the intensity they”ll use in weight training carries over to the field.
“We have to get them to play confident and to play fast,” Balis said. “Some kids are ready to do that, and most are not.”
Wide receiver Chad Bumphis, who played as a freshman last season, was one of a handful of players in MSU coach Dan Mullen”s first recruiting class that came into the program prepared to contribute.
Bumphis processed the playbook quickly and displayed good strength, Balis said.
In the case of Gabe Jackson, who has started at guard this season, strength development was targeted to his back. Jackson had great natural strength, but most of it was in his arms and chest. The balancing process was crucial in Jackson being able to contribute this season as a redshirt freshman, though if depth was an issue last year he probably could have played based on his strength, Balis said.
Therein lies a dilemma for Mullen: when to promote redshirts to the game field.
As injuries mount through the season, and depending on the team”s level of success, coaches must stick to the long-term agenda, Mullen said.
“You”re tempted to (lift redshirts), but you also got to look at development,” he said. “Just because they have the potential doesn”t mean they”re ready to step on the field and do it on Saturdays. That”s the thing we always evaluate.
“We have a talented group of freshmen,” Mullen added, “and they”re all progressing how we want them to. Being bowl eligible is gonna help the development of young players in this program.”
Redshirt players” in-season workout program differs greatly from those who play on Saturdays and travel with the team. Freshmen lift three times a week, while the active roster members lift twice. Freshmen workouts also are far more involved and intense than those of other players, who have game-planning throughout the week and wear and tear from game day.
The developmental program lasts 14 weeks and mirrors what the entire team will go through in the offseason. Friday workouts are designed to be the most difficult, serving as a replacement for game day.
The goal is to have players caught up by the time the team enters the winter and spring.
“It”s a lot of shock,” redshirt freshman safety Dennis Thames said. “None of us had ever really trained like that before we got here. We”re going hard, running hard, and lifting hard.”
As strength coaches can monitor every aspect of a player”s workouts and practices, keeping up with each player”s diet is a never-ending challenge.
Freshmen are put on unlimited meal plans allowing them full access to the university dining hall, where they have a breakfast club and are literally coached in how to eat like an athlete.
“You can talk nutrition on a daily basis,” Balis said. “You got to eat lunch, breakfast, dinner — three squares a day — and each meal has to have proteins and carbs. Then you have to eat two snacks. They”ll look at you like, ”Huh? What? Really?””
Balis concedes getting players to follow their diets and to get proper rest is tough because of their school schedules and the limited amount of contact they have with the players away from the facility. It”s an issue strength coaches battle throughout a player”s time in the program.
“Their time is so limited, so if they”re going to cut something out they”re going to try and sleep more,” Balis said. “If they”re running late at night they”re going to not eat as much, or they won”t like what they have in the dining hall and end up choosing something that”s not healthy for them, so we struggle a lot with nutrition. We handle it well, but we could always be better.”