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12th Man Magazine Feature: Strength in Numbers

August 06, 2014
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Courtesy: Texas A&M Athletics
(photo: Texas A&M Athletics)

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STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

High-tech workouts and high-end athletes
take Aggies’ conditioning program to another level

by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine

Since its inception in 2008, “The Program” has worked with collegiate and professional teams across the country in an effort to build better leaders and more cohesive teams. According to the organization’s website, The Program has worked with more than 200 teams, including the University of Alabama, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Ohio State and pro franchises like the Boston Bruins.

The Program was founded by Eric Kapitulik, a former special operations officer with the United States Marine Corps. As a platoon commander, Kapitulik led a team of 20 covert operations specialists on numerous special forces-related missions, including long-range reconnaissance patrols, hostage rescues, high-altitude jump exercises, ship takeovers and gas-oil platform takedowns.

Quite frankly, Kapitulik is one helluva tough guy, who has participated in eight Ironman Triathlons and has climbed five of the seven highest mountain peaks on each of the seven continents. His instructors are similarly elite in their training backgrounds (Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Marine Corps Special Forces, etc.) and their commitment to maintaining peak physical fitness.

“The Program is not a strength and conditioning company,” the website states. “We do not seek to build bigger, faster, stronger and more talented individuals. Rather, we seek to build better leaders and more cohesive teams. To achieve our mission, The Program is committed…to our three core principles:

• We are physically and mentally tough.

• We don’t make excuses and we don’t let others make excuses for us.

• We work hard!

"(Coming to A&M) wasn't about business; this is personal. This is home."

- Larry Jackson

The Program has generated enough success at other schools that Texas A&M head football coach Kevin Sumlin decided to bring the leaders of the elite training organization to College Station. In hindsight, Larry Jackson, Texas A&M’s Director of Football Sports Performance, says The Program trainers made a positive impact on the A&M players and the coaching staff by putting the Aggies through rigorous training techniques and team-building exercises.

“It was good, and these were some real dudes,” Jackson said. “These guys could kill you in your sleep. We’re talking lethal assassins here. They taught our guys how to break through some mental barriers. The coaches learned a lot, too, as they helped us to find and develop some strong leaders. We got a lot out of it. I guess the difference from the norm is that those guys got something from us, too.”

Indeed, the trainers who also volunteered to go through Jackson’s legendary “sleds workout” received a memory they will never forget. Pushing weighted sleds in the blistering Central Texas heat and humidity became the tortuous trademark of the grueling Friday workouts for the Aggies during the summer. The sled work tested the resolve, endurance, mental toughness and manhood of the A&M players on a regular basis.

“I am not going to lie; the sleds hurt,” said senior defensive back Deshazor Everett. “It really hurts. There’s no way you can really prepare for it. It’s a non-stop process, and you are not done when you think you are done. Sleds are a grind, to say the least. But I definitely feel like we are in great shape heading into the season because of it. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Nor will The Program’s trainers.  In their visit to Aggieland, the trainers learned why the A&M players often refer to Jackson—in a respectful but humorous way—as “Black Death.” The Program instructors, who have undergone the most mentally and physically demanding training that the military can provide, lost their lunches and struggled to keep their focus on the sleds.

“These elite, trained killers started going through the sleds and they were in the corner (of the practice field) trying to figure out how they were going to make it,” Jackson said. “The sled workout is an hour and 15 minutes. I saw one of the guys hit himself on the head and was talking to himself, forcing himself to finish. Later on, he said that was one of the worst training sessions he’d ever gone through.

“This is a guy who is my age and who has been trained to trick his mind into doing the things he needs to do to survive in life-or-death warfare. Now you see what we are asking our players to go through. I think that says a lot about what we are putting them through in preparation for the season.”

Jackson and his strength and conditioning staff placed the players through the kind of hellish workouts during the summer that could make even a marine melt. But, while the players loathed the intensity and the pain of the workouts, they continued to grow in admiration and appreciation for “Action Jackson,” who in less than three years has played a major role in reshaping the physiques of the A&M players and the overall image of the A&M program.

It’s been well-documented that prior to the arrival of Kevin Sumlin in Aggieland, Texas A&M often had a difficult time finishing off foes in the fourth quarter. The 2011 Aggies, who entered the season ranked eighth nationally, blew double-digit leads in five of the six losses during the season.

When Sumlin hired Jackson to oversee the A&M strength and conditioning program beginning in January 2012, the former Wrecking Crew defensive end/linebacker vowed to make sure the Aggies were in physical condition to finish games in stronger fashion. He placed a heavy emphasis on power endurance, dynamic hip flexibility and football-specific movements.

The results from 2011 to the next year were startling. The 2012 Aggies went 11-2 and outscored opponents in the fourth quarter in seven of the 11 wins. A major part of the turnaround was the magnificence of Johnny Manziel, but the improved physical conditioning of the entire team also played a monumental role in A&M’s first-year success in the SEC.

“(Under former strength and conditioning coach Dave Kennedy), you just kind of worked at your own tempo and it was kind of the NFL mentality,” said former A&M linebacker Jonathan Stewart, who played three seasons under Mike Sherman before playing his senior year under Sumlin. “We definitely worked, but it was more leisurely. We’d get a set in, take a couple minutes off, and then get another set going. It wasn’t until Coach Sumlin brought in Larry Jackson that we realized what a difference a high-intensity, fast-paced workout could make. Coach Jackson would kill us; I mean it would be pure torture in workouts, but it definitely made a big difference in how we played in the second halves of games. We wore teams out in 2012.”

Last season’s disappointments had nothing to do with conditioning. A&M’s young and beleaguered defense simply couldn’t generate stops when the Aggies needed them. A&M scored 42 points against then-No. 1 Alabama and 41 against eventual SEC champion Auburn at home…and lost both games.

"It wasn’t until Coach Sumlin brought in Larry Jackson that we realized what a difference a high-intensity, fast-paced workout could make."

- Jonathan Stewart (2009-12)

Nevertheless, it is Jackson’s ultra-competitive nature to take any shortcomings that the Aggies experience on the football field personally. From his first day on the job back in Aggieland, Jackson, who lettered for the Aggies from 1991-94, has stressed that this is not just a stepping stone position on his career ladder.

“This wasn’t about business; this is personal,” said the perpetually energetic Jackson, who helped the Aggies compile a 42-2-1 regular-season record (non-bowl games) during his playing days, while never losing a game at Kyle Field. “This is home. I met my wife, Amy, here in the spring of 1994; we both graduated from here; I came back here after playing; and I feel like I am training my younger brothers. It’s time to eat. It’s time to make Texas A&M one of the most (prominent) powers in college football year in and year out.”

That’s not mere “coach-speak” with Jackson. You can hear the passion in his voice; you can sense the maroon pride as he oversees workouts; and the players understand that Jackson is personally invested in their development as football players and young men.

“Coach Jackson says all the time that the fact that he played here makes this job so personal to him,” A&M senior wide receiver Malcome Kennedy said. “He knows what we are going through, and he is a great coach. But he was also a player here, and when we lose a game, he tells us that he hears from those former players questioning what’s going on. It’s personal to him. He cares so much about us as players and this university. That’s one of the things that makes him so good.

“And I think that’s why he is so driven to constantly improve as a strength coach. He’s always learning and developing new ways to train every part of our bodies. He’ll go old-school like pushing the sleds, and he’ll also (implement) the latest in technological breakthroughs.”


CUTTING-EDGE CRAFTFULNESS

Inside the sparkling Davis Player Development Center, Texas A&M freshman wide receiver Speedy Noil positions his shoulders under a bar that is weighted down with Olympic bumper plates and heavy chains. Noil and other offensive skill position players are part of the mid-morning group, as Jackson has divided the roster into four groups that train at various times during the day.

The smaller groups allow Jackson and his staff to closely monitor each athlete, and the groups have been divided into positions to generate as much competition as possible. With Jackson, everything is focused on creating an atmosphere of competition, including the utilization of state-of-the-art technology.

Noil lifts the bar off the rack, steps back, bends his knees as if he is preparing to sit down in an imaginary chair and literally seems to jump off the wooden platform as he explodes to finish a squat. Noil racks the weight and steps back quickly looking toward the computer screen affixed to the weight rack, as teammates look over his shoulder.

Noil nods his approval as the computer screen gives him instant, real-time feedback regarding the power output he exerted during the lift. Every repetition performed by every player in the group is filmed and calculated by the Elite Form equipment, a system that consists of a 3-D depth camera and touchscreen. After each workout, the athletes and coaches can review the video of their lifts. And after each repetition, the Elite Form system measures velocity and power generated (calculated with patent-pending algorithms).

"I feel like I am training my younger brothers. It’s time to eat. It’s time to make Texas A&M one of the most (prominent) powers in college football year in and year out."

- Larry Jackson

The technology provides an array of other statistics. But the bottom line is that it generates intense competition. “Football is a power endurance game, and that’s why we are charting power output,” Jackson says. “The days of producing one rep maximum to produce a number on a board are gone in my way of thinking. You can brag that my guy can bench a certain amount, but no one cares what you can do once. If we are trying to run 100 plays in a game, I want to train these guys to be explosive every play. While they are doing the workout, they are also trying to beat their last number on the power output.

“If someone beats them, then that other person’s record pops up on their screen. You are competing with yourself and another guy that could have been there earlier in the day. A guy in the 7:45 a.m. group put a number up and you could be in the 10 o’clock group catching up to his number. It becomes a competition not just to be able to do the lift, but to create the most power. Whoever creates the most power the most number of times typically wins the football game. The technology also makes me a smarter coach because I can constantly evaluate the players and their effort.”

In other words, no taking reps off or faking maximum effort. 

“The way he sets up the workouts, we are always competing against each other and ourselves,” Everett says of Jackson. “He really makes sure that we are competing every rep. And with all the technology, the machine is watching you and measuring your every move. You can’t just grunt or strain. You have to work.”

While the Elite Form equipment has been in place since the Davis Center first opened, Jackson’s latest technology tool is the Catapult GPS/Accelerometry System. In a nutshell, players wear a vest or compression T-shirt that has a pocket in which a small device is inserted on their backs. The unobtrusive device features an array of sophisticated micro-technology sensors that record various parameters for athlete activity at up to 100 times per second.

"It is all about the Saturday performance. Everything I do and everything Coach Sumlin does with this team is about preparing these guys to perform on Saturdays."

- Larry Jackson

Coupled with a powerful onboard computer, the units can store up to 50 hours of data for post-event analysis. The device, called an “OptimEye” can break down movement into forward, backward or sideways running, plus record and broadcast heart rate information while recording specific movement patterns through use of gyroscopes and accelerometers. 

What all that means to Jackson, among other things, is that he pushes the players hard enough early during a game week to make sure they are ready for SEC competition, but he can also make sure that they are rested and in peak physical condition for Saturday.

“It is all about the Saturday performance,” Jackson said. “Everything I do and everything Coach Sumlin does with this team is about preparing these guys to perform on Saturdays. The technology allows me to gear the workouts so that we don’t have dead legs on Saturday night when we are going Alabama. A lot of that used to be a guessing game. Now, it’s more science.”


DELIVERING THE PIT BULLS

While Jackson is constantly evolving as a strength and conditioning coach and implementing the latest in technological breakthroughs, he credits his mentors in the past for shaping him. As an A&M player and then as a young assistant coach, Jackson trained under the legendary Mike Clark, who has a strong power lifting background. Clark, currently the strength and conditioning coach with the Chicago Bears, is one of the most renowned weight room technicians in the business.

Then when Jackson worked for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, he trained under Jerry Schmidt, who has a background in wrestling and is known in strength and conditioning circles for mobility expertise.

"We’re bringing in big-time dudes now, and we are using everything at our disposal to turn those guys into elite athletes."

- Larry Jackson

“Mike Clark was kind of like my second father, and I learned all of his philosophies,” Jackson said. “Then Jerry opened my eyes to mobility and flexibility training. And because I played football and really understood the movements of the game, I developed some of my own techniques and implemented those.

“I’m a product of the guys I’ve worked under and the experiences I’ve had as a player. And most of all, I understand that I can always learn more. I learned from The Program guys how to make the sleds better; I learn from technology; I try to learn from everything to make us better on Saturdays.”

No matter how much technology he implements or techniques he masters, Jackson acknowledges that he is ultimately defined as a coach by the productivity of the players on the field. The Davis Center, the R.C. Slocum Nutrition Center and other facilities have helped Jackson and the other coaches improve the physiques and overall fitness level of the existing players at A&M. But what Jackson says is most exciting about the future is the type of athlete that Sumlin is now attracting to Texas A&M.

The first two years of success in the SEC have helped A&M put together some monster recruiting classes. And the raw physical skills of some of those young recruits, Jackson says, are jaw-dropping.

“Let’s take (Speedy Noil) for example, who got here in January and walked in with a really well-developed body,” Jackson said. “You don’t get a chance in life to train many athletes like this. I trained Adrian Peterson (at Oklahoma), and he was a physically imposing guy who was just special. To me, Speedy is really close to a guy like that. Speedy is very gifted in the way he can contort his body. The way he can move is almost cat-like with his body control. He can do multiple things and go in every direction. He is so explosive that he can basically jump with any weight on the bar. His body is still immature in some areas when it comes to being able to build up endurance, but that will come.

“And then in May (freshman defensive end) Myles Garrett walks in, and he looks like Malcome (Kennedy) in terms of his muscular definition, but he is 260 pounds. This guy has a wide receiver body and a defensive lineman frame. Myles may have even more raw physical skill than Speedy or Adrian Peterson. He comes into the weight room the first day and we are doing power cleans, and he ends up with all the bumper plates on the bar, which is about 160 kilos or 350 pounds.

“I’m like, ‘If this kid can hit this walking in here the first day, he really is the real deal.’ Myles did it three times. It changed the atmosphere in the weight room. When that happened, the whole energy in the workout changed. Everybody started cranking the weight heavier than I had ever seen them go. These are the rare kinds of guys that can make everyone around them better.”

And the best is yet to come as A&M continues to recruit elite-caliber athletes and to further develop those players under Jackson’s tutelage. For example, Daeshon Hall was one of the most coveted defensive linemen in the state coming out of high school in 2013, and he played well as a true freshman last fall. But he played in the SEC at about 220-225 pounds. This summer, Jackson says Hall weighed in at 262 pounds and looks like an entirely different player.

“We are getting Pit Bulls and Rottweilers in here now and building them up,” Jackson says. “If you bring me a Chihuahua and say teach this dog how to eat, I can do it. But if you bring a Pit Bull or a Rottweiler in and tell me to do the same thing, we can do a whole lot more damage. We’re bringing in big-time dudes now, and we are using everything at our disposal to turn those guys into elite athletes. I believe we’re pushing all the right buttons, but we’ll keep learning and evolving as we go.” 



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