Body of work: Florida strength coach is key to turnaround
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The most important guy on Florida’s sideline Saturday wasn’t coach Dan Mullen or quarterback Feleipe Franks.
He didn’t wear a headset or have a play-calling sheet. He didn’t touch the football or get in the huddle.
He was hardly even noticeable at the team’s annual spring game at the Swamp. Yet his role the last three months and the next three months is more critical to the program’s planned turnaround than anyone else.
Strength and conditioning coordinator Nick Savage is working behind the scenes to return the Gators to form.
The early results?
Mullen said players averaged a 3.5 percent loss in body fat during the first two months Savage has been there, eye-popping numbers that prove what Florida had been doing wrong and what Savage is doing right.
“That’s pretty good in two months,” Mullen said. “He could market that and get his own infomercial and make a ton of money off it if you advertise that, right?”
Savage officially unmasked what people close to the program, including former coach Jim McElwain, suspected was a problem in recent years. Former strength coach Mike Kent, who followed McElwain from Colorado State, was seemingly in over his head.
Even McElwain openly questioned Kent’s efforts after Michigan manhandled the Gators in the 2017 season opener in Arlington, Texas.
His tactics came under more scrutiny when athletic director Scott Stricklin pinpointed Florida’s strength and conditioning program as one deficiency during McElwain’s tenure.
“It’s the backbone,” Stricklin said. “Any successful program has a really strong strength and conditioning program that builds accountability, and programs that aren’t as successful usually are lacking in that area.”
Mullen hired Savage to fill the void.
Savage spent the last two years with Mullen at Mississippi State, so there was no transition period in Gainesville or even talks about philosophy and direction. Mullen trusted Savage to get the job done, and Savage went right to work installing a program that mandates heavier weights and an increased commitment to lifting.
“I loved the last coaching staff,” Franks said. “But coach Savage is a bit more, I want to say, strenuous. He’s whipping us into shape real quick.”
Savage caught players by surprise early. He took them on a 2.7-mile run around campus on Day One of his conditioning program — he called it a “team-building exercise” — and conducted circuit training along the way. They stopped in certain spots for situps, pushups and squats.
“We were like, ‘Wait, what?’” defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson said. “We thought we were just going to be running just to be running. Once we started, it was more like the more we went, we were straining.”
They were just getting started, too.
“Obviously it’s not pedal down all the way from Day One,” Savage said. “You’ve got to kind of take your steps and build them up. Once that pedal got cranked down, it was a real eye-opener.”
Eventually, the results began to show. Guys could see progress on scales, in mirrors and especially in side-by-side photos.
“Talking to the guys on the team, it’s very different from what they’ve done in the past, so they’re going to get that huge jump,” Mullen said. “I still expect to see big gains this summer because now they’re to the point where they’re in shape. ...
“The positive of that is it’s going to be easier to buy in more in the future because they’ve seen those results in the short period of time. So if I just buy in over a long period, I’m going to look like an SEC football player.”
Short-term results have drawn rave reviews, especially from those who experienced what happened before and what’s happening now.
“It’s stupid,” said defensive tackle Taven Bryan, who is expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick this month. “Savage is an unreal weight coach. ... Just the way he changes everyone’s bodies. We looked like the Pillsbury Doughboys.”