Collins (MS) High School center Josh McNeil, one of the top offensive linemen in the nation, talked…
An Interview with MSU Strength Coach Jim Nowell
How will this offseason be different from last year's offseason workout? "We are so excited about the upcoming offseason. A lot of last year's offseason was spent teaching. You can't just jump into it. You have to teach them technique. The reason for that is the little things are sometimes the most important things. Sometimes, people try to put the cart before the horse because they want to get there so fast. If players don't know how to lift heavy weight, then you are setting yourselves up for injuries. When technique breaks down, we are taking weight off the bar. There were about 10,000 weight injuries surveyed last year. They found the top three reasons for injuries were; number one, handling too much weight; second, breakdown in technique; and third, poor coaching. Like I told my staff, we control all three of those things. We don't want to get our players hurt in the weight room. Obviously, when you are training on the edge and you are pushing them while lifting heavy weight, you run that risk. To offset that, we will have one coach for every three athletes. That has made a big difference." How do the players compare to when you first got here. If you can, give me examples of a couple of guys? "I measure our in-season program by the injuries that we have that can be prevented; injuries like hamstring pulls, quad strains, things of that nature. When you look back, we didn't have a lot of injuries. "I also measure how strong we are during the season and after the season. An example of that is Jerious Norwood. Jerious, during the Wednesday workout after the Ole Miss game, the last game of the season, did 315 pounds on the incline bench. He couldn't do 315 before the season started! The list goes on and on. Chris McNeil told me that he couldn't believe he was as strong as he was that late in the season." How were they able to stay so strong? "It all starts with an attitude. It begins by believing that you are going to be a champion, that you are going to be the best in the SEC. Then, you start doing the things that winners do; getting up every day, not missing workouts, having a positive attitude, going to classes. Before you know it, you are walking that way, talking that way, acting that way and playing that way. It's like we are climbing a ladder. Every day, we are going up another rung. Pretty soon, we, hopefully, will be near the top of the SEC, as we continue doing those things." Obviously, your guys have gotten stronger, but are they to the point where they can compete with the SEC teams like Florida, LSU, Auburn, Tennessee and the other so-called upper echelon of the SEC? "From a strength point, from a work ethic point; we are a lot stronger, more flexible, faster, have better agility, but when you are on the field, it all comes down to playing hard and having athleticism. Some people just have great athletics. Let's say my players aren't quite as good as someone else's players, but they are stronger than them. Now, we've closed that gap a little bit. And they play harder, so we've closed the gap a little more. But if our guys are the toughest, hardest working guys in the Southeastern Conference, then we are dead even with them. An example of that is the Florida game. Do you think we had better athletes than them? No. They may have been better at just about every position than us. I don't know how many guys that we have that would have started for them. But on that particular day, our guys were a lot tougher, more physical and played harder. I try to get people to understand that you have to play to the echo of the whistle every single play and do the little things, such as pay attention to detail. Attention to detail is something that we are going to work on during this offseason." Will Mississippi State ever get to the level of the top programs in the SEC as far as strength and athleticism? "I would like to say we will do it this year or next year, but I don't know. We are trying to. We are trying to recruit the best players in the country. We are going into areas all over the nation. This past year, we sold people on Sylvester Croom and our coaches, and the university, the Peoples' University. But we've also made the commitment to have the nicest facilities. We are going to have the Palmeiro Center, which will have a 100-yard football field. Including the endzone, it will be 120 yards. We are also going to have a 350-seat banquet hall on the end of it. We'll have a state-of-the-art weight facility, players' lounge and equipment room. There is also talk about a new academic center." Do you have the necessary weight equipment to get them to an even basis with those teams? "We have that now. When I got here, we got the equipment and weights that we needed. We don't have the fancy machines, but, to me, you don't need those things. You need the free weights. You can get them stronger with sticks and rocks, but from a recruiting standpoint, there has to be what I call a wow factor. When you walk into our existing facility you don't go wow. You might walk in it and go wow if you haven't gone anywhere else. But when you walk into Florida's, Auburn's, Alabama's, you will go, 'wow, this is awesome.' But we are adding the wow factor as we speak." When will the addition to the Shira Field House be ready for you and the other staff members to start working in it? "The people working on the building say February 22nd. That is their goal. Our goal for them turning it over to us is around the first of March 1st. I know we will be completely in it lifting weights by the time our summer workouts begin." What is a typical day like for you and your staff during the offseason? "Our workouts begin at 6 a.m. However, most of our staff will be up before 5 and we will be in the office by 5:30 a.m. I tell my guys that we will be in here 30 minutes before kickoff so that we can discuss things that we are going to do that day. After a couple of weeks, we may not have to discuss anything, but you never know. I want things to go perfect. I'm also a realist and know things aren't going to go perfect, but in my mind, I know where every cone will be set up and where every coach will run his drill." What time and when are all the sessions? "Our sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday are lifting weights. The workouts last approximately one hour and fifteen minutes. The first one starts at 6 a.m. I love it when I walk in and see 40 or 45 heavy hitters in that 6 a.m. group. I love that because, to me, that says that they are ready to get better. The other sessions are 11:15 and 1:15. We will have, on an average, 30 to 35 in each group. There will be 11 or 12 staff members, so there should be about 3 athletes to a coach. Sometimes, our interns might have a class, but I can train 6 because I'm been doing it so long. On Tuesday and Thursday we have a team run. That happens every day until spring ball begins. Then we will modify it based on our spring practice." What do you try to achieve in the month of January? "In the month of January our repetitions will be higher and the amount of weight will be a little lighter. The kids have been on Christmas break and may not have done as much as others did with their workouts. Therefore, they may not report back in the shape that we would like for them to be in. So, we will start them out with less weight, more reps and less time to rest in between sets. I call that workout tempo. Our tempo will be fast with a higher volume. The first couple of weeks will be sets of 10, sets of 12 reps. When they get finished, they won't have much recovery time, because we are trying to get them in shape and ready to go. That will take us through the month of January." Which is more important, upper or lower body strength? "I think total body strength is most important. You don't play one play with your chest and triceps and the next play with your legs, quads, hamstrings and hips. It is a total body summation of power. When we tackle somebody, I want to see the ankle joint, knee joint and the hips extended. I want us to exert every ounce of power that we have in our body into our opponent. We want to be efficient by exerting our power through out legs into the midsection, then into our upper body so that we can put all that force into our opponent. If I have a strong upper and lower body, but my core midsection is weak, then how can I efficiently transfer that power through the entire body. Because of that, our total body has to be a machine. That's why you sometimes see a small guy who doesn't look like he can do what he can on the football field. Then, you see him on the field and he is so explosive. That's what we are trying to build in our players, a complete player." How do you build that explosiveness in your players? "We start our workouts by doing explosive lifts because our central nervous system is still sharp. Then, we are going to do strength-building lifts second. We do strength building lower body next, then strength building upper body lifts. After that, we do supplement lifts. Doing it that way, we are able to train the total body three times a week." Have you run into a kid who just can't get stronger no matter how hard he works? "I have, but it's rare. It doesn't mean those type kids don't work. Strength comes a lot faster for some than others. On our first state champion in high school, on the back of our shirt it had Chris Spencer, Manager. Someone stopped me and asked if that was the Chris Spencer that squatted 716.5. I told them yes. When I first got him, he could only squat 405. He was 300 pounds and squatting 405 pounds. That's not a bad squat, but for my guys we had kids who weighed in the 147 to 148 weight class squatting over 405. I never told Chris that he wouldn't be able to lift for me, but in my mind I didn't. I never saw what he did coming. I always train my kids like they are going to be All-World and hope that it happens." In recruiting, there is a lot of talk about trying to get that 4 or 5 star guy instead of the 2 or 3. Do you feel you can add a star to a 2 or 3 star guy by making him tougher and stronger? "Without a doubt, without a doubt. But to be honest with you, we don't put a lot of importance on the stars a guy has. We are looking for character, first of all. We recruit character first, work ethic second, and then ability. We want kids that are the most talented, but if they don't have character - which is who they are when nobody is looking - and they don't have a work ethic, then they aren't going to be the type player that we can win with. As an example, let's say you take a guy that has tons of ability, but he doesn't work hard. You can't count on him to do things that a champion does. What good does he do for your team? You are going to spend all of your time chasing him down, begging and pleading with him to try and do the right things. "David Stewart was probably a two-star coming out of high school, but he is a five-star plus in my book. He is a warrior. I wish we had a whole team of guys like him. We would be champions if we did, because he will fight you to the death. He never complains. I know he doesn't feel like working out every day or practicing every day, but you never hear him complain. He is the perfect type guy that I like to be around. David is 6-6, 315 pounds and vertical jumped 31 and a half inches the other day. That is something some of our defensive backs can't do. But you want to know the thing that is most important about him? Go back and watch our films. He plays to the echo of the whistle and he does it every play. He graded 92% against Ole Miss and we played horribly that day. We didn't execute, didn't play hard. It was one of the most disappointing games that I have ever been a part of, but David did his job. We certainly had a winning effort from him." Are you able to judge a recruit's ability to gain strength just by seeing them at camps or recruiting visits? If so, are you more interested in the upper or lower body strength? "Between the ages of 13 and 18 there is a big window of opportunity where kids' bodies change very rapidly. The kids that I had at Madison Central - Cody Upton and Chris Spencer - were extremely strong kids because I got them during that window of opportunity. To answer your question, it is still hard to know how strong they will be because you can't just look at them and know." You mentioned Jerious Norwood earlier. A lot of folks on my webpage ask about him. How much has he improved since you started working with him? "Jerious weighs 205. When I got here last year, he was 190 or 188. Jerious is a complete player, a warrior. He made the Dean's List, which was the first time he has ever done that. We are trying to improve them in all aspects of their lives. I tell you, he is a great guy, a great worker. I could be around him 24 hours a day. I love Jerious Norwood. I'm 100% committed to helping Jerious be the best player that he can be. I would like to see him get up to 215, but I don't know if his body structure can carry that much weight. He has to become more flexible. His hip flexibility is not where it needs to be. We are going to stretch him like a pretzel every day. He will continue to work hard and continue to put on muscle mass. I want him to become one of those big backs that can run over you or still outrun you." Has there been a lineman that has really stood out to you? "Andrew Powell has really impressed me. Andrew has gotten a lot stronger and a lot tougher. On the first day last summer, he fell out and was throwing up. I had a few choice words for him at the time, but he impressed me because I liked the fact that he was able to push himself all the way to the edge where he lost it. A lot of our kids won't allow themselves to go that far. They will stop and say they can't do it. " You've coached at LSU and West Virginia. How does working at Mississippi State and working for Coach Croom compare to those two places? "I love it here. It is the best place that I have ever been. And I love working for Sylvester Croom. There is not enough time to tell you why I like working for him. He is just so genuine. Some people don't know that, but all you have to do is hear him one time and you see that." What is the bottom line thing you are trying to do for the Mississippi State football program? "I want everything that we do to transfer to the playing field. Our program has two criteria; improve on-the-field performance and prevent injuries. If it doesn't do either one of those things, then I don't want to waste our kids' time or our staff's time. I want to know that this will help us get better, this is going to help us get better in the fourth quarter, it will help us to be disciplined enough to know the snap count when we are tired when we have to make that final drive to win the football game." Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at email@example.com.
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