It's usually the same old song and dance at the start of fall camp. Football coaches across the country rave about how great of an off-season their respective teams had and how much bigger, stronger and faster the players are.
But when the University of Kentucky football players started arriving at Nutter Training Complex last week for reporting day, it was clear that the UK coaches wouldn't be selling a bill of goods with regards to the strides the Wildcats have made.
The Cats are definitely bigger.
UK Coach Rich Brooks says 52.4 percent of the team can lift at least 325 pounds, compared with 42.3 percent at this time a year ago.
Brooks said the talent level has helped the overall weight room numbers.
"One of the reasons it's occurring is that we keep bringing in more SEC-ready players," Brooks said. "The depth is better, so you don't have the lower half of the team dragging down the numbers of the upper half. The depth is clearly better than it's been from a strength and speed standpoint. It's clear that people that see us look a little different than we used to."
Several players have bulked up considerably over the past year. Sophomore safety Matt Lentz was listed at 205 pounds at the start of last year, now he's at 225. Senior cornerback Trevard Lindley added about 10-15 pounds in the off-season, as did sophomore receiver Gene McCaskill. And running backs Alfonso Smith and Derrick Locke are also noticeably thicker after a summer of work in the weight room.
But the biggest transformation has been redshirt freshman defensive end Collins Ukwu, who weighed in at a lean 206 pounds when he reported to UK as a freshman last summer. He weighed in at a robust 260 last week.
"He really hadn't lifted before," said Marc Hill, UK's director of strength and conditioning. "He was a tall, skinny basketball-looking kid. He's really bought into lifting, he's really bought into eating right, and using the shakes, (protein) bars and supplements correctly."
During the first six months of Ukwu's freshman year, he got to live every man's dream: eat whatever you want without worrying about any repercussions.
"I just ate up and stuffed myself with whatever," Ukwu said. "Goodies, snacks, whatever. But I feel like it's all good weight, not a lot a fat."
Ukwu also relied heavily on supplements but said he learned a lesson from the mishap of Jeremy Jarmon, who was ruled ineligible for his senior season for testing positive for a banned substance. Jarmon said he purchased an over-the-counter supplement that he thought was OK under NCAA rules.
"When everyone first comes here, (Coach Hill) tells us what to take and what not to take," Ukwu said. "So I just kind of went to the GNC Store and got what I needed and just left. I didn't even talk to the customer employees."
"It's like anything else," Hill said. "If the police are around the corner and they stop the first five guys that run the red light, our guys probably aren't going to run the red light. You tell them and tell them, and when somebody finally hits a bump in the road, sure they all pay more attention."
In August 2000, the NCAA implemented new rules that broke substances down into permissible substances, which includes Gatorade and energy bars, and impermissible substances, which includes Creatine and amino acids. There are also substances that are permissible for the student-athlete to take as long as the school doesn't provide them. It's definitely made Hill's job more challenging.
"There's the gray area because you're sending the kid to the store with limited knowledge, so you have to just teach them and help them so they can make the right decision when they get in the store," Hill said.
Lentz is a self-described workout freak who's admitted to being "addicted to weight lifting." That's OK by Hill.
"You never want to discourage them from doing extra, because that's what you want them to do on the field," Hill said. "Now sometimes a kid can outgrow his position and go from a defensive back to a linebacker, but you never want to shut a kid off unless he's injury-prone."
And Hill said the culture that comes with three straight bowl appearances has intensified the off-season program.
"By winning, the level of expectation is higher and kids train harder," Hill said. "This team has trained since January like a group that doesn't want to be the one that doesn't make a bowl game. The guys that have been here four years, they've never not been to a bowl game. They don't know it any other way. That's how you start becoming like the Nebraska's of the '80s and '90s."
■ Running back Derrick Locke returned to practice Monday after attending the funeral of his younger sister in Oklahoma over the weekend.
■ Running back Alfonso Smith missed his second straight practice with a nagging foot problem and will undergo an MRI on Monday night.