When the North Carolina Central football team returned to camp earlier this month, head coach Jerry Mack had to do a double take. The Eagles, all across the board, looked different.
After a summer with strength and conditioning coach Brandon Lee, Mack said his troops came back to school in better shape than of any of the previous teams he has coached in Durham.
“For the guys who have been around for the last two or three years, you look at them now and say ‘wow,’ ” Mack said.
Lee’s conditioning methods – some creative, some unorthodox – will benefit the team in the fall. Lee said the Eagles aren’t always the biggest team, but their toughness and conditioning, going back to summer workouts, is what separates them.
“This summer program blew every program we’ve ever had out the water,” said junior safety Alden McClellon, who gained 12 pounds of muscle over the summer. “We got a lot of work in.”
Here are a few things the players did to get in shape:
On what the players called “camo day,” Lee and his staff dressed in military fatigues and led players through a series of tough workouts designed to push players past the point where they thought they couldn’t take it anymore. This wasn’t an every Monday drill, just something the team did occasionally whenever Lee felt like switching it up.
The workouts involved players wearing black and pulling sleds loaded with 45 pound plates. Sometimes Lee or assistant strength and conditioning coach De’Vaughn Gordon would hitch a ride on the sled to add a little extra weight. The circuit training also included boxing, bicep curls and carrying teammates or duffel bags loaded with up to 80 pounds up and down the football field.
“It was just a fun day,” McClellon said. “The first time I did it, it was tough. It was fun, but it was exactly what he intended for it to be. It felt like punishment, but it felt like hard work.”
During several workouts, Lee and his staff provided resistance by pulling back on a weight.
“Our players give the best effort,” Lee said. “That’s what the summer is about.”
The Dirty Dozens
The ‘Dirty Dozens’ involved players doing 12 reps of each weight they were lifting. The series of lifts started at the bench press and included squats, curls and leg presses.
If a player began to handle a weight with ease, Lee would add more weight to the next set.
“He’s going to push you until you are ready to throw up,” said McClellon, who added 15 pounds to his bench press.
Lee said the secondary group made some of the biggest gains building muscle over the summer. In addition to McClellon, Lee said safeties Jaquell Taylor and Anthony Sherrill each put on about 10 extra pounds of muscle.
Lee used the word “beastly” to describe the running backs group, which features several players – running backs Ramone Simpson (185 pounds), Dorrel McClain (190 pounds) and Isaiah Totten (175 pounds) and wide receiver Chance Kennedy (160 pounds) – who weigh less than 200 pounds but can squat at least 500 pounds.
Summer school helps
Mack said the team benefited from having most of its scholarship players around for both semesters of summer school. In the past, only small groups of players were on campus at a time, so most of the players were doing workouts on their own.
This summer, players were with Lee, working every chance they got. Student-athletes can train up to eight hours per week during the off-season, so the Eagles trained four days a week, up to two hours a day. After the season ended, Lee sat down with each player and mapped out a training plan, setting goals for each individual.
“Most of these guys were here for first session of summer school and second session,” Mack said. “They had about eight weeks or so to train, develop their bodies and get their conditioning in. What you see right now is we haven’t had as many small injuries like we had in the past.”
And the final secret ... Jif
Unlike the Triangle ACC schools, N.C. Central’s football program doesn’t have a nutritionist on staff. There isn’t a training table just for student-athletes, so the Eagles eat in the cafeteria with everyone else. Players don’t have the options of post-practice snacks such as protein shakes or bars and fruit, like players at UNC or N.C. State.
Lee’s solution: Jif peanut butter on white bread – and lots of it.
“We just try to stuff peanut butter sandwiches down their throats,” Lee said. “Those extra five pounds are going to mean the world in week seven.”
Lee estimates the team went through 200 five-pound jars of peanut butter over the summer. Before 6 a.m. workouts, players would grab a spoon, get a scoop of peanut butter and make a sandwich before workouts. Don’t have time to make it to the cafeteria before a meeting, or it’s closed afterward? No problem, Lee’s peanut butter and bread was always waiting.
“We try and put as much in them as possible,” Lee said. “After all, they are college kids, so we have to make sure they eat.”