Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly reveals what is different about the Irish QB situation from last year at this time.
Laken Litman, [email protected]
SOUTH BEND – The “Storm of the Warrior” lift was on a Friday last winter. Miles Boykin remembers it well.
“We started by running and I couldn’t even tell you how much we ran,” the senior wide receiver said. “Then we come into the weight room and we do squats, like two sets by 30 reps and then leg press — we did over 100 leg presses. I couldn’t feel my legs after.”
There were strobe lights, sirens, and music blaring from Ozzy’s Boneyard. The goal was to put Notre Dame through a “storm” that might mimic a chaotic game so they’d be ready. Ready for Miami Part II, or something similar, after what happened last year when the Irish weren’t ready. On a hot and humid night in South Florida, Notre Dame was bullied by a rowdy crowd and a Turnover Chain as it watched College Football Playoff aspirations disappear.
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“Things like that (workout), you look back on it and it’s like wow, we really went through that. There’s nothing I’ll go through that’s harder than that,” Boykin said. “Every time I step on the field, I should be able to do it. And that’s what (strength coach Matt) Balis does. He just gets you ready to play.”
Balis does this with intensity, but does so in what Brian Kelly calls a “demanding but never demeaning” manner. In light of recent events at Maryland, where 19-year old Jordan McNair died from heatstroke after team conditioning workouts, Balis is careful not to push players too hard.
“They’re all your sons,” Balis said. “I have a son and you always keep that in the back of your mind. No matter what you’re doing, at the end of the day you love them, you respect them, you honor the guys, and you have to be careful.”
Last November was a tough month for the Fighting Irish. Holding onto an 8-1 record, they lost two of their final three games before the Citrus Bowl. Brian Kelly was 10-1 in November during his first three seasons at Notre Dame, but has gone 9-12 in the month since. Notably, he’s 4-11 against Power 5 opponents in November during the past five seasons.
One way the Irish are trying to be better down the stretch is making mental and physical gains in the offseason. In January 2017, Kelly hired Balis as director of Football Performance and he might have been the most popular and important hire of the seven new assistant coaches at the time. Balis’ program shocked the system and was immediately transformative. Players got stronger, dropped body fat and posted photos of their leaner #BodiesByBalis on Instagram. They claimed the challenging workouts were the hardest they’d ever done.
Balis remembers his first day on the job, getting to know the players.
“Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson came sprinting into the weight room and got right in my face like, ‘Let’s go, bring it,’” Balis said. “I had to figure out real quick how serious they were and how important training was to them, how important being a champion was to them, and so I didn’t want to let them down. I wanted to bring my A game every single day. I wanted to bring as much energy and passion and competition and give them the absolute best that I could.”
In Year 2, players know what to expect and can handle more volume. Heading into the offseason following the bowl game, they knew workouts would be harder. It would be more of a test in physical and mental resolve.
To keep things fresh, Balis got creative. Players never knew what was coming when they’d wake up at 5 a.m. One day the team ran every step of Notre Dame Stadium. Another day they ran 3.5 miles through campus — “Even the offensive linemen,” said cornerback Julian Love. “That’s crazy.”
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One hot day they went to St. Patrick’s County Park, just north of Notre Dame campus, where they ran some more. They ran up a hill several times with weighted vests and in bear crawl mode.
“Ah, Balis, he’s a tricky one,” Love said. “We thought we knew what to expect with him, but every single day it was something crazy. Something that really pushed us. Last spring lifts, we were like, ‘It can’t get any harder than this, this is the maximum a person’s body can go.’ On a normal Tuesday, which is lower body day, you’re walking out there just like, ‘I can’t believe he just did that to us.’ And were pushing it. He’s pushing us past our comfort zone.
“And we love it. It’s little things we weren’t doing before and so you’re hurting and feeling it early. It forces you to lock in and try to get through each rep one at a time. It’s getting in that mindset like alright, I was thrown a curve ball, but I’m still going to hit it and drive it.”
The goal is to make players just as uncomfortable running or benching or squatting as they will be playing Michigan in Week 1 and later against Florida State and USC in November.
In May, Maryland’s McNair collapsed after running sprints during a workout, showing signs of extreme exhaustion and was unable to stand up straight. He died two weeks later. ESPN reported McNair died of heatstroke suffered during the workout and that he had a body temperature of 106 degrees after being taken to the hospital.
Terrapins strength and conditioning coach Rick Court resigned and coach DJ Durkin has been put on administrative leave in the wake of the report that detailed the verbally abusive and humiliating culture of the football program.
At Notre Dame, it’s clear players are seeing results they want and have a strong affinity for Balis and the culture Kelly has created. But when something tragic happens in the football community, how does Balis push the limits with his guys without going too far?
“I think the head coach and the strength coach are extremely important in developing a strong relationship on what you want accomplished,” Kelly said. “Everybody is interested in bigger, faster stronger; how do you get there? I still think you get there by being demanding, but never demeaning. I think that’s the line that’s out there.
“When (our players) come over from a day in the classroom, they want to come over here and get after it, if you will, and get after it in a positive environment where they’re pushed every single day, and there’s a demand on them to get bigger, faster, stronger, but never an environment that’s demeaning. I think that’s the line that all good coaches look to lay out.”
Balis echoed that sentiment.
“Yeah, strength and conditioning is hard because you have to push people and that’s what we’re all about,” he said. “Guys here want to be pushed. They want to be the best. They want to be champions. But at the end of the day, coach Kelly sets the culture. It’s about trust and love and respect and pushing guys to be champions. Sometimes that’s hard, sometimes it’s OK. And that’s how you get in better shape.”
Because Balis doesn’t have to rebuild players like he did in Year 1, he knows how to tailor workouts for each guy. For example, the main thing first-year starting left tackle Liam Eichenberg needed to do this summer was work on speed. Not running sprints, but moving weights fast. Balis placed an emphasis on dynamic workouts that involve speed squats at a higher rep count. In one exercise, he has two bands strapped on a back bar and has to jump up and explode. This helps him stay balanced and get out of his stance better in run blocking.
Defensive end Khalid Kareem needed to work on endurance since he’ll be getting more playing time — he admitted he paid more attention to conditioning this offseason. For him, running drills — and cutting out dairy — have made his body feel “totally different.” That’s important since the lean 265-pounder will have to go from 30 snaps per game last year to double this fall.
A guy wearing a gold shirt with the word “starving” on the back is ready for that kind of challenge (Kareem was recently). It represents the standard of Balis’ Effort Board in the weight room. Only players “obsessed with greatness” make it there and get a cool shirt, Balis said. By the end of summer workouts, 65 players were in “starving” territory. The rest were still fighting through the “hungry” or “satisfied” stages.
“We slipped up last year,” Kareem said. “What we’re doing now and a lot of what we have done is November, November, finishing in November.”
Notre Dame’s November struggles won’t all be fixed by Balis in the weight room, but it’s a start.
Follow IndyStar Notre Dame Insider Laken Litman on Twitter and Instagram: @lakenlitman.
Notre Dame has high hopes for the 2018 season, and is practicing hard to get to where it needs to be.
Laken Litman, [email protected]