Foundation of UW spring football laid in winter conditioning
LARAMIE -- The focus for Wyoming Football turned to Spring Practice this week as the Cowboys hit the practice field for the first time on Tuesday. But the foundation for Spring Ball and for the 2021 season was laid during the months of January, February and March as the Cowboys went to work in the weight room and on the turf to improve their strength and speed in preparation for the 2021 season.
"We certainly did have a good winter conditioning period this year," said head coach Craig Bohl. "We had about two more weeks allocated to strength and conditioning this winter than what we normally would have as we pushed Spring Practice back, and our players took advantage of that extra time.
"We're just getting the measurables now, but I can tell you our overall team speed compared to the previous year was up a couple miles per hour or about five percent, which overall is very impressive. Our body weights are up. Our lean muscle mass is improved and in terms of our strength levels as a whole the bar has been raised. That gives us a great foundation and now we need to translate that to the football field.
"We're well pleased with where we are at. We were very mindful of how we wanted to approach winter conditioning. Eric (Donoval) and I talk all the time about how we want to develop our players and that has resulted in us making good broad-based gains which should translate into a bigger, stronger, more athletic football team."
Donoval is Wyoming Football's Director of Sports Performance. He leads the team of strength and conditioning coaches who work directly with the Cowboy Football team to develop their strength and their speed.
Individual Training Programs for Individual Position Groups
In the world of training college football players, the term one size fits all does not apply. Each position group and each athlete within a position group is studied by the strength and conditioning staff to optimize their training.
"Not only do we have a head strength coach, but we have four assistants, and they divide the squad up into the types of workouts needed to enhance their skills," said Bohl. "Certainly, an offensive lineman is going to train differently than a wide receiver. There are going to be some core exercises that apply to all the groups, but we've specialized the training down to which guys need to develop strength and explosion vs. speed and explosion. You have the offensive and defensive linemen. You have the mid-skill positions -- the tight ends, fullbacks and linebackers -- and then you have the skill players -- wide receivers, running backs, quarterbacks and defensive backs."
"Each strength coach is designated a position group or position groups," said Donoval. "That was how Coach (Tommy) Moffit did it at LSU when I was an assistant for him. When I was at LSU, I trained all the defensive backs and wide receivers. Here at Wyoming, I train all the defensive backs and the wide receivers. Jordan (Jurasevich) trains all the defensive line. Carl (Miller) trains the O-line. The reason those guys train just one position group is because they are such vital positions. Here at Wyoming, we're going to live and die with the guys in the trenches, and I wanted just one coach dedicated to each of those position groups. Colin (DeClark) trains the quarterbacks, tight ends and running backs, and then Tre (Thomas) trains linebackers, fullbacks and specialists.
"In terms of the program itself, when you look at what we do with the skill and mid-skill positions as opposed to an interior lineman position it is very, very different. There are some similarities. There are some basic barbell movements that will always be a staple of our program -- back squat, power cleans, bench press -- but on the field and in the weight room the intensity at which they lift and the exercise selection is very, very different."
There is No Substitute for Speed
Speed training is an area that the Cowboy Football strength and conditioning coaches focus on. Donoval has specialized in speed training since his days as an assistant strength and conditioning coach with the LSU football program from 2010-17. He has continued that at Wyoming since joining the Cowboy Football program in 2018.
Experience Training Elite Athletes
Donoval has had the opportunity to work with some elite athletes at both Wyoming and LSU. At Wyoming, Donoval has trained a number of players who went on to the NFL. Among those former Cowboy were: Marcus Epps, Carl Granderson, Cassh Maluia, Logan Wilson and Andrew Wingard, Donoval also worked with a number of high NFL Draft picks at LSU, including: Jamal Adams, Odell Beckham Jr., Leonard Fournette, Jarvis Landry, Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson, Devin White and Tre'Davious White, .
"I was fortunate to be a part of the process of training those individuals and fortunate to be a part of their journey," said Donoval. "We've had our fair share of players from Wyoming in that group, which is really encouraging to see. That starts with coach Bohl and the athletes his staff recruits, and then the buy in our kids have once they get here. I was very fortunate to have coach Moffit hire me and give me my start in this business, and I was very fortunate to have coach Bohl bring me to Wyoming and trust in me to give me this opportunity.
"I wrote the speed program at LSU my last four years there. When we got up here to Wyoming, I wrote it up here, so it's been eight years that I've been writing speed programs. Every team is different year to year, and every athlete is different year to year. The speed program has to continue to evolve and progress and as you get guys faster, it takes a more fine-tuned stimulus to continue to get them faster. That is why it is easier to get a guy who runs a 5.0 flat forty and get him down to a 4.8. What's really hard is to take a guy who runs a 4.4 that is wired really tight and neurologically is very explosive and get him down to a 4.3. That's hard."
The Flying 10 is a speed measurement utilized by Donoval and his staff to measure a player's speed over a 10-yard span when the player is running at top speed. Individuals are given up to a 30-yard start and laser timing is set up to activate when the player enters the 10-yard zone and when they exit the 10-yard zone. The laser timing helps eliminate any human error in starting a stop watch or stopping a stop watch.
"Our main speed test is called a Flying 10," said Donoval. "What a Flying 10 is it measures laser break to laser break. There is no human error involved in it. We give them a distance to build up their acceleration and then we measure the time it takes for each player to cover 10 yards at top speed. Then we convert that into miles per hour.
"The maximum distance we give them to accelerate is 30 yards, so they are essentially running the same distance as a 40-yard dash. The benefit of running a Fly 10 as opposed to a 40 is with a 40-yard dash you can improve your technique at the start to get a faster time, but it doesn't actually give you a measure of did the athlete get faster at their top speed -- they just got better at the drill. With a Flying 10 there is no debating if you cover 10 yards faster at your top speed than you did in a previous test, so we can truly tell if a player has gotten faster.
"It's not a well-known test outside our profession. It is a well-known test in the track world. It you watch a lot of our speed workouts, there is a track philosophy behind it. We take a track-based approach because they are the fastest athletes and if we want to get faster they are a pretty good group to mimic some of our speed workouts after.
"We're certainly not the first staff to use this by any means. It has been around for awhile. There are some coaches who I have a history with back when I was at LSU that have used the measurement for years. One of them is Paul Jackson, who has been at Ole Miss and South Carolina and is currently at Utah State. Another one is a good friend of mine, Joey Guarascio who is the head strength coach at FAU. Within that circle those are the guys who use that test the most, but I'm sure it is utilized by a lot of places."
Donoval said there are currently 44 Cowboys who can run 20 miles per hour, 25 who can run 21 miles per hour and 11 who can run 22 miles per hour.
Donoval and his staff have been tracking the Flying 10 test with Cowboy players for about two years. The speed workouts he has implemented during his time at Wyoming has been a process.
"When we first got here, we began with a process of introducing these guys to speed work. They hadn't done a lot of it before," said Donoval. "There is a certain, proper progression we wanted to take with the speed work rather than just having them go out and sprint. You are going to have a big risk for injury if there aren't certain technical and mechanical things that aren't laid down as a foundation first. It was a process the first two years of teaching these guys how to run upright, getting them strong and elastic in the correct ways first and then the speed program progressed, and we've gotten faster and faster each year.
"When you look at someone like Logan Wilson (former Cowboy and current NFL linebacker) and how he runs and why he runs fast is very different from why Isaiah Neyor (current Cowboy wide receiver) runs fast. They have two completely different sprint profiles, so you have to train those guys slightly different at different times of the year. That is what we're trying to dig into deeper now to continue to evolve our speed program.
"We're really happy with our speed numbers. Our average Fly 10 at the end of the summer of 2020 between our skill and mid-skill players was a .98, which converts to an average of 20.9 miles per hour. We're currently at a .97, which is an average of 21.1 miles per hour. Any time you get 40-some guys, which essentially comprises most of your skill and mid-skill guys on your team, running 20 miles per hour you're adequately fast."
Strength Numbers Have Improved Significantly in One Year's Time
Donoval and his staff have also seen significant improvement in the strength numbers of the Cowboys.
"Some of the general strength and power numbers that we've seen improve this year include the back squat," said Donoval. "The main position groups that we emphasize the back squat with are the offensive and defensive linemen. Going back to the spring of 2020, we had 17 guys who could squat over 400 pounds. This spring we have 26 players who can squat over 400 pounds. We had 12 guys who could squat over 450 in the Spring of 2020, now we have 14. And we had three guys in spring of 2020 who could squat 500 pounds and now we have six who can squat 500 or more in the Spring of 2021. Our team average in the squat went up about 10 pounds in that one-year period.
"In the bench press, spring of 2020 we had 34 players who could bench press 300 or more pounds. This spring we have 52. We had 21 guys who could bench 325 in 2020. We now have 33. We had 11 players who could bench press 350 a year ago. We now have 23. And we had two guys who could bench 400, and now we have three. Our bench press collectively for the team went up an average of 11 pounds.
"In the power clean, spring 2020 we had 36 guys who could power clean 275 pounds. We now have 50. We had 13 guys who could clean over 300 pounds and now we have 28. Our team average went up six pounds and every position group has gone up in the power clean."
Reaching New Heights -- Literally
One of the measurements that Donoval and his staff use to measure explosiveness is the vertical jump. This spring has seen some astounding improvements in this measurable, including one football student-athlete who posted an amazing vertical of 46 inches.
"In the vertical jump, which is one of the best indications of explosive power, our team average went up 1.2 inches," said Donoval. "In the spring of 2020, we had 27 players who could jump 30 inches or higher. We have 53 now. A total of 13 guys could jump 35 inches, and now we have 37. We had two guys who could jump over 40 inches a year ago, now we have nine guys who can jump over 40.
"The greatest example of improvement and of explosive power is Isaiah Neyor, who jumped 46 inches. He can fly. He has had a really good offseason.
"All these improvements show the hard work our players put in and how serious they take it. To be able to exceed the numbers we previously had while going through a pandemic year, I feel real comfortable with where we're at right now."
It's Not Just About Gaining Weight, Sometimes Losing Weight is a Benefit: Eric Abojei and Levi Williams are Two Examples
While adding healthy weight to players through muscle development is a common goal for college football teams, in some cases losing weight is a benefit. One of the Cowboys who has had a great winter is junior offensive guard Eric Abojei from New Hope, Minn. Abojei has lost around 55 pounds since last season and now weighs in at around 328. He is in the best shape of his college career and could have a big year in 2021.
"Eric has lost a lot of weight," said Bohl. "He is still a big man but his weight had gotten to the point where it was cumbersome for him as the game wore along. He probably didn't move quite as well as he would have liked. Now he has transitioned to a weight where he can maintain his level of play for a longer period of time."
"All the credit goes to Eric and his commitment to his overall improvement and his team first attitude," said Donoval. "He is such a talented athlete and we had discussions with him about if he was able to get his weight down not only would he be able to display that talent better, but he would be able to display that talent through a 13-play drive. He's really cleaned up his diet. He came back for winter training already down in weight and then he lost an additional 17 pounds through winter training and he's as healthy as he's ever been."
Another player who has changed his body weight from a year ago is redshirt freshman quarterback Levi Williams from Canyon Lake, Texas. As a true freshman in 2019, Williams was listed at 6'5" and 208 pounds to start the season. In 2020, he worked hard to get bigger while trying to maintain his mobility and Williams' weight grew to 240 pounds. Entering Spring Practice this week, Williams was listed at 224 pounds -- exactly halfway between his previous two weights. This will hopefully provide Williams with both the increased size to weather hits from defenders, while allowing him to improve his speed and allusiveness.
"We felt like the weight that Levi (Williams) added last year may have slowed him down a little bit," said Bohl. "Levi was an excellent track athlete in high school, and now that he has leaned up, I think we'll see his speed show on the field. We're pleased with where he's at."
"When coach (Brent) Vigen was still here we had a conversation about Levi," said Donoval. "He came back about 245 last year and it was by no means a bad 245. He was put together well, but we felt like his speed suffered some from that added weight. Levi is a very fast athlete. I've seen him run 21 miles per hour. Levi has kept all that muscle he had at 245 but he's trimmed down that non-functional mass he put on during the pandemic. He looks incredible.
"Some guys who come to mind who have made good weight gains are Keyon Blankenbaker, who has put on 11 to 12 pounds. He's about 185 right now. Chad Muma is up to 242 right now. Easton Gibbs put on 15 pounds of lean body mass. I think he's around 227."
As Bohl said, the gains his team made in the offseason have been encouraging, now it is time to translate that to the field during spring practice. The Cowboys will continue spring football over the next four weeks leading up to the Spring Game on Saturday, May 8.
2021 University of Wyoming Football Spring Practice Schedule
Tuesday, April 6 Late afternoon (Practice #1)
Thursday, April 8 Late afternoon (Practice #2)
Saturday, April 10 TBA (Practice #3)
Tuesday, April 13 Late afternoon (Practice #4)
Thursday, April 15 Late afternoon (Practice #5)
Saturday, April 17 TBA (Practice #6)
Tuesday, April 20 Late afternoon (Practice #7)
Thursday, April 22 Late afternoon (Practice #8)
Saturday, April 24 TBA (Practice #9)
Tuesday, April 27 Late afternoon (Practice #10)
Thursday, April 29 Late afternoon (Practice #11)
Saturday, May 1 TBA (Practice #12)
Tuesday, May 4 Late afternoon (Practice #13)
Thursday, May 6 Late afternoon (Practice #14)
Saturday, May 8 TBA (Spring Game, War Memorial Stadium, Open to the Public, Practice #15)
* University of Wyoming press release