Kentucky football's high-performance program striving to build a better athlete

jsmith3@herald-leader.comApril 5, 2014 

  • Spring football

    When: Through April 26

    Where: Nutter Training Center (practices closed to public)

    Spring game: 3:30 p.m. April 26 at Commonwealth Stadium

The results start small.

For Regie Meant, it was when his size XL shirts became too snug around his chest and shoulders.

For Braylon Heard, it was making a cut he never would've made at Nebraska.

For Alvin "Bud" Dupree, it was how quickly he was able to get to the quarterback on only his second day of spring practice this year.

"I just exploded," Dupree said last week. "I'm much more confident in myself than I was at this time last year. Coach K's got me bigger, stronger, faster. I just hope it translates onto the field."

That's the hope for all the Kentucky coaches, including Dupree's so-called "Coach K," the duke of high performance, Erik Korem.

When Mark Stoops came to UK in December 2012 brandishing a binder full of big ideas and big goals, the thread that connected all of them was Korem's high-performance program.

It's a model for sports preparation, joining the physical, mental, tactical and technical and forming them into one perfect union to build a better athlete.

As UK's coaches told the Herald-Leader in multiple interviews during the off-season, the program is the foundation for the football program.

It also will be the foundation on which the new football practice facility will be built next to Commonwealth Stadium.

A year ago, high performance was a vague concept, sports science done in busy back rooms at the Nutter Training Center.

But now that they've had a year to get it up and running, Korem was able to discuss in detail what his staff has learned, what it's testing and how it's using that data.

"My gut instinct when I first got here was take it slow and that's exactly right," Korem said. "You can't expect people to change overnight — technology is great — but if you can't get coaches and everybody to utilize it, it's not good.

"So this year, we took small, baby steps, and you really need one whole entire year of collecting data to really start making change."

Tangible results

Stoops scanned the field at Kentucky's recent Pro Day and spotted Avery Williamson doing linebacker drills for NFL scouts.

The coach motioned toward running back Jonathan George, who had just run a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash in front of guys wearing Eagles, Titans and Bengals on their chests while feverishly clutching stopwatches.

Kentucky's 2-10 record last season isn't the measure Stoops uses for whether the high-performance system is working, it's individual players like Williamson and George.

The two seniors didn't seek outside training help to prepare for the NFL, they went to Korem and his staff.

"Things I look at are guys like Avery going to the NFL Combine and really improving on what he even thought may be possible," Stoops said of Williamson's impressive numbers at the combine, including finishing 11th or better in four of the six workouts for his position, including bench press (eighth) with 25 of them, broad jump (ninth), three-cone drill (11th) and third in the 20-yard shuttle.

George's speedy 40-yard dash time shows Stoops what he needs to see, too.

"Those are good signs because those are some very specific data that we can look at and say this is working," Stoops said.

Williamson and George both admitted to being skeptical when Korem came to town talking about things like heart-rate efficiency, anaerobic thresholds and acceleration patterns.

What does tracking technology have to do with football?

"It's definitely a different thing and a different style," Williamson said of high performance. "But it works."

Korem and his staff were unyielding in what they were asking from UK's players.

"It really was a big change from what we were used to," George said. "It was like, 'Our way or the highway,' but the things they brought in, the ideas they had, they were really great for the team."

Even before the season started, players were noticing a difference. Body fat was diminishing, nutrition became a serious focus, times were improving.

When Korem and his staff started at this time last spring, not a single player they tracked ran more than 20 miles an hour, he said.

"By the fall, we had a lot of guys not only running over 20, but breaching 21 miles an hour in practices and games, which shows they got faster," he said.

It's those small things, those seconds shaved off, a boost of endurance to play the last play, a little more flexibility to make the cut with the ball.

"Just because of our outcome (last) season, doesn't mean we weren't seeing results," George said. "These next few years, it's going to be a big change and these guys will be considered an elite program."

Pushing the boundaries

Strange faces were made the first time Kentucky's players pulled over their chests the small halters that provide data to Korem and his staff.

But that little device provides a massive amount of information.

During games and practices, UK's high-performance staff tracks total distance traveled, the different speed zones a player travels within, acceleration patterns, and the load a body is incurring from a change of direction.

It also looks at basics like heart rate and efficiency.

Can it read minds? "I wish," Korem said. "I'd be rolling."

Not minds, but it can read bodies.

"We can pretty much determine a cost or stress (that) a game and practice" have on a player's body, he said.

One of the most interesting pieces of the puzzle for the high-performance guru was studying the effects an up-tempo offense like the one run by UK's Neal Brown has on players' bodies.

"We learned what exactly is a slot receiver going to do during the game," Korem explained. "We've broken it down to how many changes of direction they're making on their right leg and left leg."

Having that kind of knowledge is helping the coaches tailor their daily practices to prevent injuries, especially overuse injuries.

Any time he wants it, wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord can find out how many yards each of his players has run in a given practice.

"Before we had this, you never knew when you hit a wall and when you didn't," he said. "Now this gives us measures of where we need to be with each guy and how much one guy can take versus another."

If he sees a player's numbers creeping too high, the coach knows to pull back.

"There's always that fine balance between pushing them as hard as we can and keeping them healthy," Stoops said.

The fact that Stoops is so willing to embrace the data and use it as a tool to determine practice plans and make key decisions is revolutionary, Korem said.

"For 99 percent of coaches in America, that would be an untouchable area," the high-performance coach said. "They're the experts at football. I'm an expert in developing biological capabilities and more resilient athletes.

"I'm taking my knowledge and we're mashing it with football and we're trying to develop a more resilient, adaptable, powerful athlete."

The goal is to make practices more difficult on the body than a game might be. So when game time comes, players are performing at their highest level.

All of the data gathered is input manually by staff members into a platform developed by a company that has done extensive work with Navy SEALS and NASA, Korem said.

"It helped us create a platform where practice data, medical data, training data all go together," Korem said. "It's a really advanced deal: Everything goes in. We can run very advanced statistical analysis to find out what's causing what."

There's not some magical room at the Nutter Training Center where this information lives.

"When I say the building is a high-performance building, everything from what goes on in the coaches' offices to what goes on in here to what goes on in sports medicine, it's all involved," Korem said.

"It's not just some training program. High-performance management is a global concept that affects everything. It's a way of thinking."

The hope is to develop an athlete who can train more often and recover faster, and that players' bodies can do a specific number or repetitions at the highest levels.

"We're improving their ability to handle more and more and more and more work," Korem said. "So when you have a freshman who comes in, they may have great skill, but that capacity to handle a lot of football is not there. You have to strategically build that.

"We have to develop practice plans the way we develop training plans, because they're the same thing."

And coaches being willing to put aside egos and get help making training decisions is what sets this staff apart, the high-performance coach said.

"With most coaches, it's just a linear thought process of skill development," Korem said. "What makes Coach Stoops so special is he's pushing the boundaries."

A facility to grow in

Anyone who thinks high performance is just a recruiting tool or a minuscule part of Stoops' master plan to fix Kentucky football should take a long look at the plans for the new practice facility.

When they are unveiled, a huge amount of square footage will be devoted to high performance.

With the new facility, "we want to develop almost a living, breathing monitoring system," Korem said.

Players will walk through the door every morning and be tested on what Korem calls their "physiological state of readiness."

Included will be weight, heart-rate variability, omega wave, urine analysis, muscle-skeletal tests, and an adductor squeeze test.

The options are endless.

"The more space we have, the more information we'll be able to collect," Korem said. "We're just trying to streamline the process so things happen faster. That's going to be the idea."

The idea of combining sports medicine, diet and human performance will happen under the new practice facility roof.

"We want to create a really great learning environment, almost like the best classroom possible," Korem said.

Stoops seemed fully on board with creating a place where high performance can live and breathe.

High performance may have started small, but at UK it will only get bigger.

"We're doing as much or more than any Division I football program in the country in that area, with the sports science," Stoops said. "It's important to see more growth in that area. This will only enable us to keep growing."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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