Kick, bounce, kick, bounce: I'm bouncing like the world's least attractive can-can dancer, heaving my legs over the edge of hurdles with a grace and elegance one could only properly describe as "blogger-ish."
Twenty minutes into my two-day experiment in football training, and we haven't touched a weight, a ball, a tackling dummy, or any other prop you'd throw arbitrarily into a football movie scene. Instead, this is more like a track workout with medicine ball cameos, a collection of springy movements, agility drills, and other tweaky, bouncing motions designed to simulate the actual kinetics of a football player in mid-step.
At D1 Sports Training in Franklin, Tenn., athletes go to market to purchase one good: speed. The vast indoor facility is 70-percent FieldTurf football field and 30-percent weights/other torture instruments, a telling budgeting of space. Players don't come here to become earthmovers. They come to learn to be violently explosive athletes in every phase of their chosen game.
If the players training with me are learning explosiveness, I'm being tutored to gently fizzle. However, there's a spark of thought in my brain that's lolling around as I run figure-eight drills with the speed and elegance of a drugged orangutan: What if this, more than anything else, explains in part the notion that one college football conference could be perceived as innately "faster" than another?
Fortunately, outgoing strength coach Mark Sutton sums up what I'm mulling over in my head in a post-workout interview. He says what I'm thinking; I sit there and wait for my body to start spitting out ligaments and tendons like a smoking Buick spitting parts on an off-ramp.
"In terms of players we see for the combine, the best-conditioned and prepared athletes by conference come in this order: the SEC, the Big 12, the Pac-10 is just a little bit under that, and then the Big Ten brings up the rear."
The big Aussie casually framed one of the only rational explanations for the persistent and partially inaccurate perception of the SEC speed myth/Big Ten Sloth Legend: The emphasis on speed training, explosive Olympic-style movements in the weight room, and a noticeable bleedover between the disciplines of track and field and football.
The shift is not limited to the SEC, either.
"Miami's only lifting twice a week now — the rest of the week they're running," Sutton says. "Twice a week — that's it. Their skill players all run track in the offseason."
If the 1990s were dominated by the weight-heavy Nebraska model of player development, the current decade has seen the evolution of the cult of fast-twitch training. Places such as D1 Sports Training serve a market, and the clients they see — high school athletes looking to prepare for the rigors of college football, college players prepping for the combine, and NFL players looking to polish up — clamor for speed in every phase of the game.
"There's no benefit for a football player past the 3-4-5 level, really," says strength coach Will Santi. Santi himself comes from the generation of football players who could double as Finnish World's Strongest Man contestants, players who pushed themselves to the far edge of muscle failure. Sandi's numbers refer to the holy trinity of the 300-pound hang clean, 400-pound bench press and 500-pound squat.
"Is it really going to make a difference if a guy can squat 600 pounds or 700 on the field? Movement and explosiveness are what count on the field, and once you've hit a certain point, is it really going to matter whether he squats 800 or 850 pounds?"
Santi, who as a nose tackle squatted 900 pounds and tossed up iron with Cornhusker-esque gusto, now plies a very different trade: teaching players core stability, refining their agility and speed, and yes, working on strength, but mostly through explosive movements designed to blend raw power with quick-twitch burst.
It reflects both a change in philosophy and a change in the market for football prep in many quarters, bringing us to the question: Can one teach speed? And if so, are certain programs doing a better job of this than others?
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