Rutgers players develop physically, mentally, psychologically ahead of first season of Chris Ash era
“I gotta go take this nap.”
Defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick finished his media availability following practice number 12 of the Rutgers football team’s training camp on August 17 and headed to the Hale Center to catch some sleep.
The Scarlet Knights' fifth-year senior had a few short hours before he had to return to the practice field for the second session of the day, the thirteenth training session of camp.
The Knights began two-a-day practices the day before and the Montclair, New Jersey, native was not going to make the same mistake twice.
“You really have to know how to play the schedule, get your rest, your nutrition in the right way, obviously on a two-a-day when you’re going to be sweating a lot more,” he said. “Our first real two-a-day was yesterday and I learned a little something about myself, about how much to eat and drink between times and really rest.”
Pinnix-Odrick’s lesson was one of many that all Knights learned throughout the first offseason of head coach Chris Ash’s tenure on the Banks.
When the former Ohio State defensive coordinator left Columbus for Piscataway, he brought strength and conditioning coach Kenny Parker with him, not by request but nearly by demand.
"If I didn't think I could get Kenny Parker with me, I might not have taken the job,” Ash said, and based on what he’s done in his first eight months on the job, it’s not hard to see why.
Parker put the Knights to the test throughout the offseason, and according to the data he and his staff gathered, a vast majority rose to the occasion.
Players were tested in 10 different categories, including the pro-shuttle and three-cone drills, continuously throughout the offseason in order to measure their progress throughout summer conditioning, according to Parker.
Of the 105 on the roster involved in the workouts, 31 — 30 percent — improved in at least nine of the 10 categories, with 12 improving in all 10.
Parker and the staff aren’t satisfied — they won’t be for a while — but the progress in the dog days of the summer are positive signs to work off of.
“They worked hard,” he said. “Now we had a long way to go, yes. Underdeveloped? Yeah, we were. But they worked their butt off and I gotta commend them on that. That’s hard to do, you don’t see that a lot, kids improve that much, a third of the team improved 90 percent or higher.”
— Rutgers Football (@RFootball) June 27, 2016
What does Parker attribute the high level of improvement to?
Could it be a roster of players eager to impress the new coaching staff?
Is it a group of guys hungry to reverse the fortune of the 4-8 record, including a 1-7 clip in conference that put them tied for dead-last in the Big Ten East with Maryland, they saw last year?
“It’s a blend of everything,” Parker said. “It’s like that girlfriend that you have when you first meet her. You’re always gonna show that side of you. You don’t show everything (at the beginning) and eventually, you’ll show your true colors. So it’s a beginning stage, I guess it’s still the honeymoon because the first game ain’t started yet.”
Everyone in the program should have the date and opponent of that first game memorized — September 3 in Seattle against No. 14 Washington — considering they pass by a screen displaying a countdown timer with the days, hours and minutes remaining until kick-off every day.
Rutgers will enter the home of the Space Needle and Starbucks in the best physical shape it’s been in for a season opener in a long time, hoping to ring in the Ash era in with what would be a big upset.
A question that can’t be answered until the game is in motion is that of mental strength — how much has the team Ash said “quit” multiple times in the face of adversity last season developed in the psychological aspect of the game?
The strength staff has constantly challenged the players with competition amongst each other and adversity in the weight room.
Nature provided some help in that department in the first week of training camp with a heat wave that culminated in temperatures reaching well over 100 degrees on the practice field as the Knights held an open scrimmage for fans on August 13.
In Ash’s view, the players passed that test with flying colors.
“I go back to, when we first got here and we went through the Rutgers football boot camp on the first week, we put the football team through some adversity. We challenged them,” Ash said. “I'm actually very thankful we had the weather we did this first week (of training camp) because, again, it puts the team to a test. How are we with our leadership, our toughness, our commitment, helping each other through the tough times? And I would say our team right now passed that test.”
While the fans who attended the practice suffered in the heat, many returning to their cars before the practice had even ended, Parker coached the practice wearing a long-sleeve shirt and a pair of black Rutgers sweatpants.
“I played football at the University of Florida. I lived in Georgia all my life pretty much,” Parker said. “This is spring heat down there.”
There is reason for optimism in the program.
A new coaching staff with exciting ideas to implement on the field.
A 2017 recruiting class ranked among the top 30 programs in the country, according to Rivals, 247 Sports and Scout, currently at 20 players — 14 of which are from New Jersey, including top-two recruit in the state Micah Clark — and still growing as the program pursues the top targets in the home state the previous coaching staff struggled to contain.
The honeymoon phase is alive and well as Parker said, but like every other honeymoon phase, it will surely end when the Knights face adversity.
When senior quarterback Chris Laviano, who was named the starter for week one on Monday, throws his first interception of the season, and when the team digs itself into its first deficit and when it suffers its first loss and its first — and likely not last — blow out, the smiles will fade and there will be turmoil.
They’ve been preparing for that, too.
“(Football is) kind of like how life is. Life doesn’t always happen the way you want it to. You gotta learn how to adapt to it,” Parker said. “We prepare for rain. We are always preparing our kids for everything … losses are going to happen, wins are going to happen, but we don’t train to lose — we train to win.”
If Rutgers reaches its goals and begins winning games and championships, the final whistle blowing and the team gathering in the corner of High Point Solutions Stadium blaring the lyrics of “On the Banks of the Old Raritan” as the fans sing back, it will be because of the valuable lesson Parker taught the team upon his arrival.
“You have one body. Can’t buy a new one. If you could, I would’ve already bought me a brand new back,” he said. “You gotta take care of your body. We stress that more than anything.”
The extensive conditioning program would normally come with concerns of overtraining the players, putting too much on their plate and eventually leading to them burning out.
Parker’s belief is the opposite — the kids aren’t being overworked, they just haven’t been taught how to take care of their bodies after the workout was done.
The Knights learned as much about recovery as they did about football during the summer as they were taught a multitude of things to perform every day that they never did before, but are essential parts of their days now.
“It’s not about overtraining, it’s more about, I think people are under-recovered,” Parker said. “People don’t take care of their body. I know that here, (before we got here), they didn’t. They didn’t carry water, they didn’t foam roll, they didn’t bandstretch. They didn’t talk about sleep, they didn’t talk about eating, they didn’t talk about just the 8 to 10 hours of sleep. They didn’t talk about any of that. Now, you can ask any of our players and those who’ve been here the past seven months, they’ll know it. Because we stress that. You’ve gotta take care of your body.”
The players heard the message loud and clear.
“Coach Parker stresses a routine. He says ‘you really have to find a routine. All great players have a routine, you have to know your body, you have to take care of your body,’” Pinnix-Odrick said. “And I think that, honestly, what I’ve seen around the Hale. I’ve seen guys stressin’ to get their body right. ‘I gotta go warmed up, I go get stretched, I gotta get in the tub,’ and that routine is what gives people the confidence, gets people right. Let’s us do the crazy things they ask us to do.”
Parker points towards the low number of injuries on the team two weeks into training camp as an example of these methods having an effect.
Ash echoed the sentiments in his media day press conference, noting the health of the team at this stage of camp as a sign that “the plan up to this point … has worked.”
Pinnix-Odrick completed the assessment with a player perspective.
“I think our injuries speak for themselves, the amount of injuries that we’ve had, especially on the D-Line, you know, everybody’s healthy, everybody’s going and a lot of that is attributed to how we take care of our bodies,” he said.
The work in the weight room was supplemented by the introduction of Allison Kreimeier, the first full-time sports nutritionist Rutgers has ever had, as Ash pushed to increase focus on nutrition.
Kreimeier arrived from Houston, where she was the Director of Football Nutrition for head coach Tom Herman, a colleague of Ash when both worked at Ohio State in 2014.
Along with the experience of running a nutrition department of a college football program on the rise, she brought a slew of information she’s been drilling into her players heads.
Walk around the Hale Center and there will be a TV screen at nearly every corner displaying similar tips on what they should be eating, how much they should be sleeping and a further reminder to remain hydrated.
The latter is probably drilled into each and every players head by now — everyone of them is required to have a water bottle on them at all times.
It all wraps around to achieving optimal performance through “recovery and keeping them well-fueled,” which Kreimeier told Ryan Dunleavy, then with Gannett New Jersey, was “a priority of the program.”
After the Legislative Council of the NCAA ruled student-athletes, both scholarship and walk-ons, “could receive unlimited meals and snacks in conjunction with their athletics participation” in 2014 — ending the three-meal-a-day or food stipend rule that was in place before the ruling — education on proper nutrition could not have arrived at a better time.
Rutgers installed a 24-hour snack stand with a variety of choices — some good, some bad — so Kreimeier has been persistent in making sure the right decisions are made.
“Yeah, I do, I do,” said junior offensive lineman Dorian Miller when asked if he ever feels Kreimeier peek over his shoulder as he’s choosing his meal. “That’s her thing. But I always check with her too to make sure she passes my plate and in her eyes, it’s good.”
The former clinical dietician can’t follow every player everywhere they go, so she’s made sure they’re educated enough to make the proper decisions on their own.
“I don’t know how many teams in the country have the type of nutrition facts that we get,” said senior wide receiver John Tsimis. “We’re having meetings about it every Friday in the summer, just learning new things and definitely just loading us with a lot of information. We probably know as much as anyone by now.”
The lessons include teaching sophomore Deonte Roberts, who is expected to start at middle linebacker for the Knights this season, an alternative way of cooking chicken than frying it, showing sophomore offensive lineman Tariq Cole, who shed 40 pounds from the end of last season to now, how to make good choices when he goes grocery shopping and having fifth-year senior offensive lineman Chris Muller add vegetables to a peanut butter shake to fight inflammation.
— RU Sports Nutrition (@RUfueledup) June 28, 2016
Muller, who sat out during spring camp due to a foot injury, boiled down all the lessons on nutrition he’s learned into one simple formula.
“I had to stop eating like crap. I had to eat right,” he said. “Our dietitians helped us, they gave us all the right nutrition. So that was just the biggest change, eating right and seeing how much it could affect your body and thank God Allison came when she did and she helped me be as ready as I could for the season."
The Rutgers coaching staff is quick to praise the physical development of their players, and it’s because they have the data to back it up.
Players are weighed daily throughout training camp to ensure they are maintaining weight in order to perform to the best of their abilities out on the practice field.
“We weigh guys every day,” Parker said. “It’s all for safety. Because if a kid weighs 220 and the next practice he’s 210, he lose all that weight, he’s losing all that energy. In the same process, he’s dehydrated. Third thing, he’s gonna be in more risk of injury. The whole part of playing football is staying on the field … you could be the best player in the world but if you can’t stay on the field, you’re more of a coulda-shoulda-woulda kind of kid.”
Losing weight is not an option.
“You don’t lose weight, you’re not allowed to lose weight,” Parker said. “(players tell me) ‘Coach, I lose like 20 pounds every camp.’ No you don’t. Not us, not here. You’re gonna make your weight every day, you’re going to take care of your body every day.”
A punishment of 100 push-ups if a player is found wandering without water was mentioned by Parker but it likely gets worse from there for larger slip-ups.
How much trouble the player that, according to a first-person story from Ash published in Sports Illustrated’s Campus Rush, “stuffed a bean bag in his pants to help him gain an extra two or three pounds” after struggling to make weight ran into was unspecified, other than having his entire unit kicked out of the locker room.
But the fact of the matter is, players not making weight has been the biggest concern for the Rutgers coaching staff this training camp.
One year ago, five players were arrested and subsequently dismissed from the program, five players including the projected starting quarterback and his best receiver were suspended for the first half of the season opener for breaking curfew and the head coach was being investigated for “impermissable contact with a faculty member of the University,” a charge he was eventually suspended three games and fined 50,000 dollars for, as the season opener approached.
Last season was one of, if not the most turbulent and controversial seasons in program history.
Ash came to Piscataway less than a month after it concluded and with the help of the coaching staff he hired featuring positions he introduced, has righted the ship and created an immeasurable level of anticipation from a starved fan base in his first nine months on the job.
But all the work, all the positive press, all the improvement — both physical and psychiological — will slowly begin to fade into the background if they don’t translate into the desired success when it counts.
“At the end of the day, the biggest thing that matters is you gotta win ballgames,” Parker said. “We started out good, we’ve done some very good things here, but at the end of the day, we gotta play ball. That’s the catch.”