March 27, 2009

New winter conditioning program yields results

MADISON, Wis. - At this point a year ago, the Wisconsin football team was already several practices into its spring season. However, after a disappointing regular season and blowout loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, a few changes were made to this season's spring ball format.

Instead of starting spring ball before UW's spring break recess, UW head coach Bret Bielema delayed the start of his team's 15 practices until everyone returned from the week off.

In doing so, Bielema was able to extend winter conditioning to a full seven-week session, led mostly by new strength and conditioning coordinator Ben Herbert.

"Originally I was going to start before spring break," Bielema said during his spring football media day press conference. "But (I) really wanted to give us a seven-week window that really gave us almost an entire amount of time that's equal to what we do during the summer.

"So we kind of gained almost two summers during our out of season program, which has been the goal."

And to this point, the program has already seen noticeable gains. According to Bielema, every player he met with to discuss the new winter conditioning program was quick to crack a smile and show excitement about the progress.

"We had a little bit of a competition where we wanted to set up a clear cut winner and a loser between position groups on the team, and had a little bit of a competition built within our team so that offensive and defensive players competed against each other, but then also competed together," Bielema said. "The specifics of it, we weren't all that much different, but it was definitely a different atmosphere."

During the first practice of spring ball, it was evident that many of the players had transformed their bodies into something bigger and stronger than what they were at the turn of the calendar following the bowl game.

Running back John Clay had increased his weight to nearly 250 pounds without losing much of his explosiveness and speed in the open field. Cornerback Aaron Henry has added 10 pounds to his frame since tearing his ACL in December of 2007.

But more impressive than those players is the muscle J.J. Watt has added in preparation for the spring season. After being named defensive scout player of the year last fall, Watt looks to be in a prime spot to be a regular contributor at the defensive tackle position throughout spring and into the fall.

Since arriving on campus, has added 20 pounds to his body, and most, if not all, is due to the strength and conditioning program at Wisconsin.

"Winter conditioning was real good," Watt said. "Coach Herbert got us going real well and it was a real intense off-season for us. Everybody got real strong. I know I got way stronger.

"Coming out here, we feel a lot better about ourselves and it's going to be a real great spring."

During spring practice last season, a large number of injuries were accrued throughout the 15 allotted practices. While those cannot be directly linked to the former strength and conditioning program, one has to wonder if it played a role in prompting the change this season.

Needless to say, with gains made in the first of two seven-week sessions, the summer conditioning program will offer another opportunity for this relatively young team to grow both mentally and physically as the season draws near.

"I guess this "first summer," it was amazing," Henry said. "I mean, it really pushed us, it really forced us to get in there and really forced us to bust our butts.

"I think it's going to be real crucial going into this "second summer."

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