John Denton's Knights Insider: Strength Coaches Have Key Role at UCF

July 9, 2010

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By John Denton

ORLANDO (UCFAthletics.com) - There was a time 23 years ago when Ed Ellis first started as a strength and conditioning coach that he was thought of as little more than a "helper" because his position was considered a luxury and of little importance.

Fast forward now to 2010 and Ellis as UCF's director of strength and conditioning has climbed the football food chain and his importance is almost on par with the offensive and defensive coordinators of the program.

Because the NCAA greatly limits the amount of time that coaches can spend with student-athletes, the importance of coaches like Ellis, Scott Sinclair, UCF's assistant director of strength and conditioning, and assistant B.J. Faulk has jumped dramatically. Often, the strength coaches have more contact with the players than anyone in the program. And because they work with the entire team and not just a particular position, they have often become the eyes, ears and mouths of the head coach during football's down time.

``I've been at this 23 years and when I first started you as a strength coach were just a helper,'' said Ellis, who is about to start his seventh football season at UCF. ``Guys came in when they wanted and some worked out and some didn't. Now though, you're a real coach and what we do is a year-round deal.

``We have the most contact with the kids and I think coaches realize that and realize how vital a strength coach is to a program,'' Ellis said. ``We are the ones making sure when the coaches are not around them that the kids are doing the right things to get ready for the season.''

UCF's players come in throughout the summer on a voluntary basis to lift weights and run sprints in preparation for the start of training camp on Aug. 5. A daily countdown on the wall in the weight room details the number of days before the opening kickoff on Set. 4 at Bright House Networks Stadium against South Dakota. And the cork boards inside the weight room break down the rosters of opponents and attempt to push players to outwork their upcoming foes.

NCAA rules prohibit coaches from taking roll at these voluntary drills or speaking publicly about the progress of the offseason sessions. But UCF's coaching staff is a big believer that players make some of their most significant improvements in the offseason and the work put in over the summer is deemed highly important.

``We try to pride ourselves on winning games in the fourth quarter. When we're running or lifting and it starts to get tough, hey, we want to remind them that we win games when it gets hard in the fourth quarter,'' said Sinclair. ``Because they pay the price in the offseason, that's why you are winning during the season.''

Many strength and conditioning coaches have become the new rock stars of college football because of their ability to make dramatic effects on programs with their intensive work in the offseason. And it's no coincidence that some of the highest-paid strength and conditioning coaches are employed by the elite programs at Oklahoma, Florida, Alabama and Texas.

And at UCF, the players get some of the best direction available anywhere from Ellis and Sinclair. Ellis earned a bachelor's degree from Alabama in 1987 and a master's degree from Arkansas in 1989 and has been certified as a master strength coach, the highest honor given by the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Association. Sinclair is also bachelor's and master's prepared with the final degree coming from UCF in 2006.

``I don't think the general public knows what we do. They think there's a guy that goes in there and tells them to lift weights, but there's so much more that goes into it,'' Sinclair said. ``I have a master's degree and I'm certified in all of these things. We don't just throw a workout on a sheet and say, `Go.' We're making sure workout ranges are at certain levels, we're increasing and decreasing weight amounts at certain times and we're working on dynamic speed. From where it was 20 years ago to now, it's amazing. And it's good because it helps athletes be prepared instead of doing stuff on their own.''

And rather than work out on their own this offseason, current NFL players Kevin Smith, Mike Sims-Walker, Joe Burnett and Torell Troup have returned to campus to get in lifting and running sessions at UCF. Sinclair said that Smith is one of the best examples of a player improving himself greatly by working hard in the weight room. When Smith arrived on campus in 2005 he couldn't bench-press 225 pounds; when he left following a record-breaking season in 2007 he bench-pressed 225 pounds 17 times for NFL scouts.

Ellis said the fact that the former players return to campus rather than working out at their NFL facilities is affirmation in what UCF is doing to prepare players for the season.

``It's always nice to see the guys come back and say that we helped them out along the way,'' Ellis said. ``When Joe Burnett, Kevin Smith, Mike Walker and Torell Troup say that we were a big part of helping them get to where they are, it makes us feel really good about what we're doing here.''

The workouts that Ellis and Sinclair design for the offseason are tailored to each athlete. Linemen tend to focus more on power, so they do heavier weights and run shorter distances. Meanwhile, backs and receivers focus more on speed, explosion and stamina and therefore their drills consist of more repetitions and less weight.

And the intensity of those drills change depending on the time of year. During the season, the focus is on maintaining strength, while it's built around adding strength and speed in the winter months. And naturally the sessions will start to taper off somewhat once training camp opens in three weeks.

And unlike some strength and conditioning coaches, Ellis and Sinclair often participate in the drills with the athletes in order to learn more about how the workouts are affecting them. It's not uncommon to see either coach flipping massive tires around Bright House Networks Stadium along with players or flinging the heavy ropes for arm workouts.

``The workouts are tailored per group and per position on a daily basis. It's not just a general workout thrown out there. We're out there with them making sure techniques are done right,'' Ellis said. ``It's important for us to be involved. I like myself or my staff members working out and know what we're putting our athletes through.''

Ellis and Sinclair have worked with head coach George O'Leary at both Georgia Tech and UCF, and along with Faulk the trio has been together at UCF for six years. Ellis and Sinclair can sometimes play the good cop/bad cop roles with the athletes with Ellis being the calm, sage one, while Sinclair is fiery and emotional. It's a dynamic that has worked well and produced great results.

UCF's trio of strength and conditioning coaches are so trusted by O'Leary to have the players in shape before the start of training camp that UCF no longer conducts a conditioning test at the start of practice.

But while Ellis has seen the importance of his position as a strength and conditioning coach grow immensely over the past 23 years, there are still times when he falls back into his ``helper'' role. When there's a fight among players in practice or a disagreement along the sidelines, he's often the first one to step in and break the players apart. And it's a role that he doesn't mind.

``That's the strength coach's job to be the fight-breaker and the bouncer on the sidelines,'' Ellis said with a chuckle. ``That's OK because we don't mind jumping in there and acting like we're still young. But some of these guys are young and strong and you have to watch what you are doing. We just don't want the kids to get hurt.''

John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.