June 12, 2014
By Steve Lewis
Another phase of the development of the University of Connecticut football team began on June 2 when current players returned to Storrs for classes and to begin its summer strength and conditioning program.
The NCAA allows football student-athletes to have eight hours of football-related activities at this time of year and first-year head coach Bob Diaco has decided he wants all of them dedicated to strength and conditioning.
Matt Balis is UConn's new Strength and Conditioning Coordinator and brings great experience after serving in the same position at Virginia and Mississippi State.
Upon entering a workout at the strength and conditioning facility at the Mark R. Shenkman Training Center, the atmosphere suggests excitement, enthusiasm and togetherness among the Huskies with Balis in charge of player workouts four days a week. It's exactly the type of atmosphere he wants to provide.
"With Coach Diaco, everyone is flying around, everyone is moving," said Balis about the workout environment. "It's the same thing in the weight room -- we try to treat it like a practice. We only have a short time to get it done, so we have to be organized and efficient."
Players echoed the same sentiment, believing Balis' methods to be necessary in player development not only in a physical aspect, but also in creating a new mental philosophy.
"Fun, excitement, and attacking," is the way senior wide receiver Geremy Davis (Lawrenceville, Ga.) described the strength and conditioning workouts. "We have an attacking mentality. We can't go in there lazy. Coach Balis always has the mentality that we're not here to just get through the day, we're here to attack each lift. That's what he's instilled in each player."
Balis and Diaco worked together at Virginia in 2007 and '08 when Diaco was the linebacker and special teams coach.
"We were great friends and we were on the same page with everything. When he asked me to come to UConn, it was a great opportunity back with a great friend," said Balis.
Balis has been very pleased with the "blue-collar work ethic" that the players have exhibited during summer workouts thus far.
With almost three months still separating the Huskies and their opener vs. BYU on August 29, it is important that coaches and players alike stay focused on getting better day by day.
"We're getting ready to play football games, so our conditioning, our capacity and our diverse energy systems all have to be as trained up as possible," said Balis. "We feel in order to be a great player for four quarters and beyond, you must have a great conditioning base. Those things must be addressed and then the mental aspect of the attacking and grinding of the workouts will make us mentally tougher."
Diaco said he was impressed with the shape that players were in upon returning to team workouts and training sessions in early June. Players were responsible for maintaining good physical and mental health while away from team events.
"I think everybody understood how much work we put in throughout the winter and there's no point in going home, sitting on your butt and doing nothing and wasting that effort," said redshirt senior cornerback Byron Jones (New Britain, Conn.). "You want to go home and keep that intensity up."
Now that all players, except for incoming freshmen, are back on campus, their weekly schedules once again become very demanding. Players have lifting sessions four times a week, with only Wednesday off, and also have two morning runs a week. The length of lifting depends on whether or not a morning workout was held.
"There are different segments of the summer where we have time off, but they'll be training up until the opening game," said Balis.
At this point in the year, keeping everyone healthy is the biggest priority for Balis during these workouts. Though completely preventing injury is impossible, the strength and conditioning coach for the Huskies has found ways to combat the likelihood of a problem.
"Balance training is number one. For every push we do, we pull, and for every pull, we push," said Balis. "The more trained and conditioned you are, the more you can prevent injury. We attack the training because we want to go as hard as we can now so our bodies don't fail us later."
One of the more unusual looking machines, yet one of the most important in the weight room, is the "neck machine". Players sit and put their heads against a padded area, stretching their bodies in such a way to strengthen the base of their necks. The reason for this exercise is very applicable to issues surrounding football today.
"It's important to have a strong neck because you hear a lot about concussions and a lot of times they can be prevented or at least minimized with a stronger base," said Jones. "If you take care of your neck, then your head won't swing and hit the ground hard, so it's about taking care of yourself."
Balis added: "The research out there through strength and conditioning suggests the best thing we can do is increase the base size of the neck... if you can dissipate some force upon impact, then we feel we're getting our job done as best we can."
With loud music playing and intensity from Balis, it is easy for players to get the most out of each workout. Throughout the training session, players yell to encourage each other and compete against one another to bring out their best performance.
"There could be a game situation where someone just messed up and you have to pick that person up," said Davis, who had 1,085 receiving yards last season. "It's the same thing with the weights. If you see the weights defeating them, you have to help them push through it. Everything we do in here is tied to how we play on the football field."