July 21, 2010

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Michael Strauss graduated from high school in December and enrolled at UVa in January.

Kevin Parks and Morgan Moses started classes at the University last month.

Football coach Mike London’s other recruits for 2010 arrived in town for summer school this month, and Brandon Hourigan has been working with the first-year class as a group for a little more than a week.

Hourigan, Virginia’s strength-and-conditioning coach for football, has seen some things he likes and some things he doesn’t. That’s always the case.

In a perfect world, every incoming freshman would report in superb shape, having diligently followed the training program he received after signing a letter of intent in February.

Alas, that never happens, says Hourigan. He’s learned that from personal experience at UVa and his previous stops, as well as from conversations with his peers in college football.

“It’s just so common,” Hourigan said last week in his office in the McCue Center weight room. “It is what it is. Only a few come in ready to go, and those few are the guys that are a little bit more mature. There’s some guys that just get it.”

A summer ago — Hourigan’s first at UVa — those guys included Tim Smith and Perry Jones, both of whom ended up playing as true freshmen. Others showed up out of shape, and the same thing happened this year.

“They look OK, but then you put them through [initial testing] and they’re just crushed,” Hourigan said. “You’re like, ‘Huh? What have you been doing?’ Because obviously we give them programs, we give them all this stuff, and either they follow through with it or they don’t. It’s interesting.”

Hourigan and his staff have about eight weeks to work with the first-year class before training camp begins. The summer program started with a physical assessment of each player. The rookies were tested in various lifts and exercises. At the end, each player received an overall score on a scale from 0 to 29.

The highest grade, Hourigan said, was a 26. The lowest was a 4. He declined to single out any freshmen but said most scored in the high teens or low-to-mid 20s.

His immediate challenge: Prepare the first-year players for the rigors of training camp.

“I can’t perform miracles, but I’m going to try to do the best I can to figure out exactly what they need — ‘OK, this guy is probably going to need more of this, this or this’ — and get them ready when it comes time to practice,” Hourigan said.

“Are they going to be able to handle two hours outside in the heat? Are they ready for that? That’s the most important thing I need to take care of. From there on out, I know I can get the extra time with them in here, doing the training, learning the exercises, getting them stronger.”

The newcomers also must be introduced to the standard set by the team’s veterans, “hard they work and how hard they go,” Hourigan said. “It’s pretty amazing what they do.”

In 2009, his final season as UVa’s coach, Al Groh played 14 true freshmen. Only three of them — Smith, Jones and Tucker Windle — were in for more than 98 snaps.

London is likely to redshirt more first-year players this fall than his predecessor did in ’09. It’s too early, though, to say how many newcomers might be physically ready to play this season.

“It just depends on the maturity of the person and how fast they can adapt to situations,” Hourigan said.

“Are they strong enough to be on the offensive and defensive line. Are they fast enough? Do they have enough durability? Do they have enough fire? Are they willing to work? You have to be open to really get punished and go hard, because that’s what it’s going to be. It’s going to be a grind.”

The first-year players have been working out separately from the veterans. They’ll continue to lift as a group once training camp opens.

“I didn’t have that opportunity last year” — Groh wanted veterans and rookies mixed together in the weight room — “and that’s big, because now we can teach more,” Hourigan said.

The advantages of keeping the freshmen in a separate training group?

“First off, volume,” Hourigan said. “Because now I’m not going to have 50 guys in here at one time. And now we [can focus on] teaching the different exercises — the bench, the clean, the squat — the way we want it taught. Teach them how to go from one thing to another, how to stretch. Just our philosophy.

“We didn’t have a chance to do that really, officially [last summer]. That stuff didn’t happen until like the second week of September last year, and at that point we were getting guys that were getting on and off of the roster into playing.”

Hourigan has no complaints about the fitness or work ethic of UVa’s returning players, a group led by captains Ras-I Dowling, Nick Jenkins, Marc Verica, John-Kevin Dolce and Joe Torchia. Hourigan is thrilled, too, that such former stars as Clint Sintim, Marques Hagans and Marcus Hamilton have returned to Charlottesville to work out this summer.

“They’re awesome,” Hourigan said.

Matt Balis, Hourigan’s predecessor, left UVa for Mississippi State in December 2008. Hourigan was hired in January 2009, days before the start of the Wahoos’ winter training program.

The timing was less than ideal, but Hourigan doesn’t consider 2009 a lost year from a strength-and-conditioning standpoint.

“With the amount of time that I had and how I went about it, I think that we got a lot accomplished,” he said. “And I’m lucky because the people I had around working with me were able to help me to be successful at that.”

Overall, though, the team is further along than at this time last year, he said. It’s not that London has given him more autonomy than Groh did, Hourigan said. “I think it’s just more experience being around the guys, just knowing them and knowing what buttons to push and what things we need to do and how to go about getting things done. Coach Groh gave me the freedom to do what I needed to do. The hard part was you were just learning everything, learning the ins and outs of the school, all that stuff. So it was hard to figure out what needed to be done.”

When London guided the University of Richmond to the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision national title in 2008, his strength coach was Hourigan. After being hired at UVa, London wasted little time before retaining Hourigan.

“Coach London and the football staff, they’re great to work with,” Hourigan said. “I think they’re excited about the opportunities that are coming up here in the next couple weeks. We’ll be able to hand [the players] off to [the coaches], and then they start up training camp and see what they have.”

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