By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Their gray T-shirts darkened with sweat on a clear June morning, the players gathered around Frank Wintrich, who reminded them of his objective: to make the Virginia Cavaliers a supremely well-conditioned football team.
Wintrich, UVA’s new director of football performance, also wants to build a fast team. His top assistant, Kevin Heiberger, who previously worked with Wintrich at South Florida, North Texas and BYU, specializes in speed training, and that’s a priority for the Wahoos.
“The reality of the situation is, if you can get from Point A to Point B faster than your opponent, typically you’ll win,” Wintrich said.
Heiberger provides expertise gained during four years as a performance coach at IMG Academy in Florida, where he worked under Loren Seagrave, a renowned speed coach whose pupils have included NFL players as well as track & field athletes.
“He speaks all across the world about speed development,” Heiberger said.
During his time at IMG Academy, Heiberger kept in touch with Wintrich and shared ideas on speed training. When Wintrich took over as director of football performance at BYU in 2015, he had a position to fill on his staff, and “obviously [Heiberger] was the first phone call I made. He comes out, and then we start being able to really work it.”
For the Cavaliers’ returning players, their summer strength and conditioning program officially began Monday. Half of their time in training, Wintrich said, is spent on speed development, but the players work on movement every day.
“Just from a big-picture standpoint, the speed stuff is important, because what it’s teaching our guys to do is generate force into the ground and move more efficiently,” Wintrich said. “But the movement component, I think, is even more important than the speed component. Because from an athletic standpoint, if they’re not able to get into those positions and hold the positions, then they’re not able to execute the techniques.”
To help the players move better, the strength and conditioning staff emphasizes joint mobility, muscle flexibility and kinesthetic awareness, Wintrich said.
“You come out and watch us train, everything starts with movement,” he said. “So before we come in and touch a weight, before we do anything, it’s all about getting your body moving. We’re lubricating the joints and we’re moving and stretching the muscles. Because if you’re not able to move through those ranges of motion, it doesn’t matter how much force Kevin can teach them to develop into the ground.”
The Wahoos are in their first year under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who spent the past 11 seasons running the program at BYU. For UVA’s players, much has changed during Mendenhall’s tenure, on the field and off. The emphasis on speed training is new, too.
“This is actually one of the first times I’ve ever worked on speed so much on a consistent basis,” senior wide receiver Keeon Johnson said, “and you can tell there’s a lot of improvement.
“You see it in testing, and in practice, during these workouts and conditioning, you’re not as tired. Overall you just feel great, like you can go for days.”
The strength and conditioning staff, like Mendenhall, is detail-oriented, Johnson said.
“Every day Coach Heiberger is going to be consistent on making sure you have your ankle dorsiflexed, making sure you’re doing all the small things right, which will lead to running faster,” Johnson said.
If an exercise or conditioning drill does not translate to the field or help with injury prevention, “it doesn’t help us,” Wintrich said Tuesday.
“For example, today the guys did the speed work and then immediately went into some position work. So now they’re taking the feeling of being able to move that fast, and then they go and do the position work. So we’re trying to [improve both areas] simultaneously as opposed to saying, `Well, let’s not worry about football. Let’s just train them for speed, and then we’ll turn them loose on the football coaches in August and hope for the best.’ ”
This intense focus on speed training is not the norm in college football, Wintrich said, but it’s essential if Mendenhall’s system is to thrive at Virginia. Players are in perpetual motion during practices, and the new coaching staff has installed a fast-paced, no-huddle offense.
“There’s people that pooh-pooh what we do because they say we don’t lift enough,” Wintrich said. “Come watch our practices. Our skill-position players will run between 5,000 to 7,000 yards at a practice, so you’re looking at several miles of work that they have to get in. If they’re not prepared to run that much and go as fast and hard as they do, it doesn’t matter how much they can squat, they’re going to be sucking eggs over there on the sideline and they’re going to pull a muscle or whatever.
“Again, it’s got to be placed within context. So we look at it and say, OK, these are the demands of the practice, which are designed to support the demands of the game. So then our training needs to be able to support the demands of the practice.”
The players’ diets are designed to support those demands, too. Over a nine-week period that started in early February, the cumulative fat loss for team was 515 pounds, said Randy Bird, UVA’s director of sports nutrition.
Wintrich said: “If you think about fat, you can’t do anything with it. You’re not going to punch anybody with fat, you’re not going to sprint faster with fat. It’s just dead weight. So if you’ve got 70 pounds of fat on your body, that’s like just throwing a 70-pound weight vest on and trying to go run around with that. So the leaner our guys are, the more useful mass they’re going to have on their bodies.”
Johnson, who stands 6-3, has kept his weight around 215 pounds since Mendenhall took over, but his body fat has dropped from about 8 percent to 5.2 percent, and his speed has improved.
“I feel better,” Johnson said. “I look better.”
Heiberger mixes such equipment as sleds, medicine balls and acceleration ladders into his speed training. How much faster, he was asked, can players become with training?
“Depending on their technique, it obviously varies,” Heiberger said, “but usually we tell people that we can decrease their [40-yard dash] times between two- and four-tenths of a second, and this was proven and documented when we were at IMG. Because we’re looking at speed as a skill, just like any other athletic skill, and we want to try to hone those skills and develop them so that they can run more efficiently and faster with their legs.”
There were two workout groups Wednesday morning. Virginia’s defensive players started at 6 o’clock, and the offense followed at 7:30. Each session started outside on the practice field before moving into the weight room.
The players went through what Mendenhall calls “Ready Prep” — an extended period of stretching and flexibility exercises — before they began moving in earnest at speeds ranging from 50 percent to 100 percent.
The outdoor work concluded with three sets of 300-yard shuttles. For these, the players were divided into three groups, each with a different time standard to meet.
“This is the fourth quarter,” Wintrich told the offensive linemen before their final 300-yard set. “This is where it happens. Think about imposing your will on your opponent right now.”
Virginia, which finished with a 4-8 record in 2015, opens the season Sept. 3 against Richmond at Scott Stadium. Johnson and his teammates expect their offseason labor to pay dividends in the fall.
“We’re getting faster,” Johnson said. “I see a lot of improvement, not just in myself, but other people as well. It’s just the mindset of everybody when it comes down to doing hard work. Nobody’s pouting about it, nobody’s moaning about it afterwards or before.
“We know every day is going to be tough, so you have to bring the mindset that it’s going to hurt sometimes and you have to fight through it, and it’s going to help in the long run.”