Yesterday two articles hit the web about Carolina's defense, particularly its improvement in the second half of games. If you haven't been following along, in the second half of the last three games UNC has held opponents to 10 points and 328 yards total. It was enough to put away ECU and nearly stage a great comeback against Louisville. Naturally, people are beginning to wonder what the secret is.
Inside Carolina's Greg Barnes talked to the defensive coaching staff and linebacker Tommy Heffernan, who attribute the success to stripping the defense down to the basics and then, beginning with the second half of the Louisville game, having the players finally get it. Missed assignments dropped, and once players saw the light they started studying the playbook and game films better. Since then, a little more complexity has been added to the defense for the ECU game, and things are trending upward.
Andrew Carter at the News & Observer takes a different tack, ascribing the success to strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez (Hernandez declined to be interviewed). The Tar Heel players are just in better shape, and are shutting down more exhausted opponents in the second half. At first blush, this may seem absurd. There can't be that much difference between the strength and conditioning programs at major football schools, can there?
I'd be inclined to take that view, but I've been reading a review copy of Ray Glier's book How the SEC Became Goliath. I'll have a full review later, but one of his primary arguments is that the big programs there have the best strength & conditioning programs, most of which are led by proteges of Tommy Moffitt, who holds that position at LSU. The SEC spends more on strength & conditioning coaches than everybody else — Alabama has had as many as 12 on staff — and their players typically have more muscle than there opponents. To wit:
SEC schools, particularly the ones that have won a title in this golden era, have an edge with strength and conditioning. The weight coach can be a cult figure in the SEC, or at least a marketing start. [Scott] Cochran has become so well known at Alabama that a furniture dealer wanted him t be its pitchman, which would have been a lucrative deal if he had been able to accept it.
[Atlanta Falcon and Alabama grad Mike] Johnson said the head coach at Alabama is busy recruiting in January and early February and cannot stand over his players in the weight room. It's why he has Cochran, a graduate of LSU and a native of New Orleans. Moffitt knew Cochran as a young boy and said the effervescent Cochran bounced around as a nine-year-old back home and has always been wound up around the game. He is particularly energized in the weight room to motivate Saban's players.
"That's one of his biggest assets," Johnson said. "He is Coach Saban's key to the team. He is how Coach Saban pushes his off-season on the team."
There are a couple of Carolina examples that fit this theory as well. First, when Mack Brown left Chapel Hill for Texas, one of the first people he took was strength & conditioning coach Jeff Madden. You'll find more than a few folks who said the quality of player at UNC slipped a bit with his departure. Madden is the only Tar Heel coach still remaining on Brown's staff, although Longhorn fans haven't been particularly happy with him and he was promoted out of the locker room in favor of Bernie Wylie, late of Tennessee. (Wylie also gets paid more now than Madden.)
For the second example, I'll turn to Roy Williams' biography Hard Work, where he describes his first practice upon returning to Carolina:
My second day back at North Carolina, I wanted to watch the players work out for a few minutes, just to see what they had. I brought them in to do a little run-and-shoot workout. It lasted 28 minutes. That's all it was. Two guys threw up. I mean the were pathetic. Damion Grant got a rebound and was supposed to make an outlet pass, but the first time he tried it he threw it 10 feet over the guy's head. The second time, he was standing 10 feet in front of the backboard. He was supposed to throw it off the board to rebound it and he missed the backboard.
I walked through the locker room and I overheard Byron Sanders talking to a teammate. "I know one thing," he said. We're going to be in shape because he tried to kill us."
It was 28 minutes. I was just dumbfounded that kids who wanted to be good basketball players were that out of shape. I was thinking, "What in the world have I gotten myself into?"
Apparently conditioning is not treated equally by all coaches, even among the ones in charge of basketball in Chapel Hill. So yes, a new strength and conditioning program could be the key to UNC's resurgence. Although, it's not like Butch Davis was oblivious to the merits of the weight room either; his last strength & conditioning coach was the aforementioned Tommy Moffitt, who would be hired away to LSU by Nick Saban after Davis's departure. And Davis brought in Tom Myslinski, whose tenure at Carolina was sandwiched between gigs with the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars. So you'd think conditioning would not have been a problem for this team. And yet Kevin Reddick sees a difference:
"I can't really explain it," he said. "It's just been putting us through a lot, basically. [It is] probably one of the hardest conditioning programs ... a lot more running. A lot more speed work."
Perhaps it's not so much pure strength as the conditioning. Coming from long distance running, stamina would seem to be the most obvious thing to work on, but perhaps a lot of coaches don't think that way about football. Or perhaps it's not conditioning, and the lessons the defensive coaches have been trying to instill are just now sinking in.