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Developing the college football student-athlete, Part 1

After acquiring talent, development is the next stage in peak performance

FSU v Miami X

This is part 1 of a 2 part series on developing the college football student-athlete. I often use the terms that were started by Bill Connelly to describe the three-pronged process of a college football program: acquisition, development, and deployment. Acquisition would be recruiting (and that damn Transfer Portal). Development would be what we’re going to learn today- it’s power, movement, and psychology as well as sport specific skills. Deployment is the strategy used on game day.

A coach is supposed to be a teacher and mentor. As we’re all aware, in the cut-throat world of Division I College Football, mentorship is often transactional rather than transformational. The ‘free labor’ is used rather than developed. The greater good is forgotten during the quest for fame and fortune. It’s unfortunate. The idea of what a coach is supposed to be has fallen to the side, even at the youth levels (see: Friday Night Tykes or read about AAU baseball pitch counts).

If acquisition of talent (read more about acquiring the “best” players here) didn’t matter Bud Elliot wouldn’t have spent so much time on the Blue Chip Ratio, 247 Sports and other sites wouldn’t have their level of traffic, and there wouldn’t be rampant cheating in FBS recruiting. But acquiring the most talented doesn’t always mean you’re going to win, and if you are lucky enough to have talent overcome culture it won’t be a sustained success.

To find “The Best” you need to have a vision of what the best looks like. What are your criteria? What do you want you team to look like, both on the field and off? When a head coach (or CEO) sits down to write their mission statement it has to mean something to them. From paper, to head, to heart. A head coach needs to define their Core Values and recruit players who match those CV’s.

But it’s also the head coach’s job to develop the talent they bring on campus from a high school prospect with potential into a college product, and hopefully an NFL draft pick (never hurts to be NFL U.). To truly be a coach and mentor, you have to be concerned with the mind, body and soul of the student-athlete. Many coaches focus on academics once players are on campus because of APR and public perception- but does it go further than a GPA?

Let’s take a look at how to develop athletes off the field (weight room and meeting room) by first looking at what the game of football requires from a physical and energy system standpoint.

What football is... and isn’t

Football isn’t the military. The consequences are as different as the training. The Navy SEALs don’t believe you should train athletes the way you train SEALs and they’re right. You shouldn’t. It’s not the same and there’s hardly a correlation. Do football players stay up for a week straight with little food or water under highest form of stress fearing for their lives every second of every day? Not most.

Also as much as I love using a variety of swear words at different volumes and cadences with ever changing creativity in use- saying them to or in front of someone is a lot different than saying them at someone. Coaches don’t have to “break them down” or “weed them out,” we have to build them up and develop the whole athlete. I’m not saying I haven’t MF’ed my share of people but you have to 1- admit you were wrong to the person and 2- work to grow and change.

Football is an anaerobic game played in the Phosphagen energy system. I’m not damn scientist but what this basically means is that if the game is played in the PES, why would I try in the Glycolytic energy system or Aerobic oxidative energy system? You shouldn’t. This is why I’m so firmly against 300-yard shuttle runs, 110-yard sprints and jogging in general when it comes to football. Phosphagen exercises last 5-10 seconds. So typically, those would be 20-60 yard sprints, agility, COD, or sport skill specific workouts

For the coach that yells “move move move!” he or she is also not training for football re work to rest ratios. Football is played at a 1:7 work to rest ratio. Meaning that if a play lasts 5 seconds (as the average play does) and you rest 35 seconds (the typical rest interval between plays) then you should train with a 1:7 work to rest ratio, too.

Football, essentially, is a 5 second car crash played on one foot and/or with one arm, while off balance and distracted- followed by 35 seconds of standing around. When my players sprint or lift, they are expected to work disciplined and focused on that sprint, lift, or drill before taking a focused rest interval (notice I don’t call it a break). We have to train it that way both in the weight room and on the field. If you need a conditioning test you’re a shitty coach. Period.

Football also isn’t a powerlifting competition nor a body building competition. Having bi’s and tri’s is a side effect of training, not something we prescribe into the workout. it’s something the athlete can do at home, but I don’t have the time to program in curls or triceps extensions. They’ll come from pull-ups and other exercises we do program.


Tim Kight’s Focus 3 podcast is an outstanding resource to learn about being a leader in any type of organization but obviously through college football as a main focus. He’s aligned with THE Ohio State football program and their former coach Urban Meyer. Kight’s episode 49 on Mental Toughness is one of his best (you can listen above or by clicking here). We’ll get deeper into Mental Toughness later, but the keyword that comes up the most often is “Confidence.”

The most important part of being in the weight room is gaining confidence. Being a willing tackler is extremely rare in football. It’s like punching someone in the face, everyone says they would do it but will you actually do it when the time comes? Probably not.

So where to begin? Most college off-season programs begin in January. Some programs bring athletes in and put them through a hell morning at 5am the first chance they get in January. That’s quite stupid, and counter-productive (see: jackleg former strength coach from Iowa who almost killed a dozen players). After a football season that hopefully rips from August through late December or even the new year, players are absolutely beaten down. It’s like being through a dozen car crashes.

Instead of hell week, be an actual coach who does programming and cares about his/her talent. Recovery is the key to the first 2-3 weeks of a good off-season program. The S&C Coordinator will build a program around getting the players healthy and prepared to phase into the second part of the program which is absolute strength.

I would offer a movement test (and I don’t mean running the 20-yard shuttle and the 40-yard dash) to see the flexibility and movement skills of players. Where they’re currently sore, injured, or deficient would be my focal point.

Kurt Hester

I am firmly against chasing numbers. However, there has to be a baseline strength acquired both by returning players and incoming freshmen. Louisiana Tech S&C Coach Kurt Hester believes that it takes a college athlete two weeks to regain their baseline strength for football. After baseline strength is met, I then begin to shift my focus from absolute strength to power and speed,

As previously said, the game of football is played on both feet (bilateral) or on one (unilateral) and with arms doing completely different actions (ex. shedding a block with the right while making a tackle with the left). So how do S&C coaches train athletes for sport?

Transfer effect. The key phrase is transferring your programming to sports. Not one sport, the weight room should really transfer to all sports. Name a sport specific lift... I’m waiting. Now you may program volume and stress differently for different sports but the intensity or exercises themselves are the same.

My method for getting maximum power from athletes is a four day approach if I’m lucky and a three day approach if I’m not. We’ll discuss a four day approach here. First of all, no athlete should walk into a weight room after the season is over and just start doing power cleans, clean and jerks, and snatches. There is a system to follow and it’s progressive both in stress, volume and intensity.

As you can see above, my four day programming would be broken up into cleans, clean and jerks, snatches, and yoga (not shown but whatever). The progressive part is we will build our program from mastering green to yellow to orange to red to purple. We may never even do purple. It takes time and skill and at the high school level we rarely get there with more than 1-2 athletes.

We can progress, too, by taking one exercise and looking at how to start training the body. For instance, during early January recover a kettlebell goblet squat is a better idea than a front squat. Wrists are badly hampered after a season and we can slowly build to that point via unilateral lifts and yoga to get ready. The next progression would be a Zercher Squat. Then we would begin to Front Squat. This is a one month process. You have to have patience but it’s not like I’m insisting on two years.

Far enough into the weeds at this point? Good. Now let’s talk about unilateral lifts. Every workout needs to begin with a warm-up (typically a little movement before five body weight exercises), and I like to then transition into a corresponding series of unilateral lifts.

On a clean day, the unilaterals might be overhead forward lunges, 1-arm dumbbell bent rows, and 1-arm DB push presses. I will set a timer and they players will do 20 seconds on, 10 second rest interval on each side (ha and tha) before transitioning to the next exercise.

Then we get into the bilateral meat and potatoes. On a snatch day we might do snatch grip RDL, snatch grip shrug+pull (3 shrugs and then 3 pulls), a behind the neck (BTN) snatch grip press, before overhead squats. Thus, we are teaching the parts-of-whole every time we enter the weight room.

A more advanced clean workout might have clean grip dead lift, clean grip shrugs, clean grip pulls, barbell bent rows, and front squats. Again, the parts-of-whole. I don’t even have to program the core exercise, and will NOT, if I don’t feel we’re ready.

Just like I wouldn’t walk out to practice and say, “Hey, doot doot doot, go run dat power, fella!” I won’t say, “Hey, go cleans you somethin’,” either. I’m going to teach the kick out, down block, combo and QB/RB mesh for power just like I’m going to teach the parts that make up the clean, clean and jerk, and snatch. Just like I would practice power in individual groups, then small group, then the whole offense I will practice the unilateral and bilateral work that accompanies a successful lift.


Psychology is a major aspect in Athletic Performance. From the more general idea of Sports Psychology and sports psychologists down to the smaller details such as character education, transformative coaching, and actual player development (not just a title that really means recruiting assistant).

In all aspects of life, you have to Maslow before you can do whatever it is you’re truly attempting to do. What I mean by that is before you can Bloom (read: Teach) or Saban (read: Coach) you have to focus on the student-athlete’s Hierarchy of Needs. If your new recruit came from an environment with little room for food, water and sleep- they’re not okay. Such and so on up the list until football matters somewhere between Self-Actualization and No Where.

Unless you’ve done a horrible job of acquisition it shouldn’t be a coach’s priority to ‘run off’ players. Thus, we’re talking about developing athletes into getting their peak performance. I can tell you that there is no learning to be done until the student-athlete (or just student) TRUSTS the coaching staff. The athletes have to believe that you care about them; they don’t care what you know until they know you care- cheesy? cliche? Sure. Truth? Yes.

Love is spelled T-I-M-E. You aren’t going to gain the trust of your players unless you spend time with them. Sometimes that takes grabbing pizza, keeping an open door policy, or having a Madden Tournament. Sometimes that involves explaining your WHY to them and learning about their WHY. Once they trust you, then you can indoctrinate them with your culture.

Urban Meyer’s culture at Ohio State was in three parts: 1- relentless effort, 2- competitive excellence, 3- power of the unit. From there he has verbal cues the players can take with them. Everyone in his program knows 4 to 6, A to B, plus-2. It’s mantra. Every week some character education lesson must be given that reinforces these Core Values.

A true player development coach would follow a student-athlete from initial recruitment through graduation and into their adulthood. They would offer access to job skills training, community counseling, and would be there to make sure players were retained and didn’t leave after their freshmen year (common year for players to transfer and students to dropout).

If you have a coherent narrative, and know WHY you coach (purpose) then players will love and trust you. Once that attachment occurs the team can become a program and the program can become a system of culture and excellence.

Florida State v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

What about Miami?

It’s in my professional opinion, as an outsider, that Miami does not have a strong culture in the locker room. Whether that’s from observing the collapse in the past three bowl games, from hearing Manny Diaz say that there are culture issues himself, or reading between the lines on early departures to the “Pros” and the transfer portal open door... it’s fairly obvious.

In order to improve the culture three things have to occur:

1- The head coach needs to establish a coherent narrative. They must know their WHY and have their purpose, mission and vision in their heart and own it. They have to select Core Values and the Standards of Performance that create behaviors to support their mission.

2- The head coach must believe in that purpose and mission, and communicate it effectively in meeting rooms, on the practice field, in living rooms, on social media, on TV, and over team meals. Everything about that purpose needs to be delivered with clarity, confidence and conviction.

3- The acquisition of talent has to be done with Behavioral Skills and Culture Skills first, and Job Skills second. The head coach is going to have to pass on “talent” for someone who has a stronger cultural fit aka the “best” player for that program at that time. This will create a strong culture and locker room where then the head coach can take a ‘risk’ on someone that doesn’t fit the culture but is an elite athlete.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Developing the college football student-athlete.