UK Football

Like a Rock: Football Cats in great shape

You hear it before every fall camp at just about every program across the country, the spiel about how the team is bigger, stronger, faster, in the best shape they've ever been in, yada, yada, yada.

The same rhetoric was coming out of the University of Kentucky camp as the Wildcats opened practice this weekend. The players swear, however, they're not selling the same old bill of goods, and point toward one man to legitimize their claims:

Ray "Rock" Oliver.

Oliver, who became a household name across the Bluegrass for his strength and conditioning work with the UK basketball team under Rick Pitino in the 1990's, generated a lot of buzz when he left the Cincinnati Bengals to return to Lexington in the off-season. And while the true results won't be known until the season starts, the cosmetic effect is already evident: The Cats look much better physically.

"Our bodies have changed, and if you see our football team, what that does is it gives our team confidence, it gives a different attitude, a positive attitude, a winning attitude that we think will help us," Oliver said.

Senior running back Derrick Locke knows that people are usually skeptical when hearing about how a team is in great shape.

"People will say, 'Man, I hear that every year,' " Locke said. "Listen, I'm not going to sugarcoat it with ya'll. Rock is the truth. Everything you hear about him is real. The way we work with him, I've never worked this hard in my life, and I know nobody on the team has worked this hard."

Oliver tries to downplay his role, saying, "A bench press has never won a game. You've got to make plays. But it's a little part of winning. You change your body, you change your attitude. With that change, you have more confidence knowing that you've prepared hard for something."

It wasn't necessarily about weight, 40-yard dash times or weight-lifting numbers with Oliver, who focuses more on body composition.

"Guys who were 320 pounds with 27 percent body fat, we got them to 307 with 17 percent body fat," Oliver said. "He's not going to have to work so hard to get from point A to point B, versus if he was some big, fat nasty slob."

At the beginning of UK's off-season conditioning program, Oliver asked the team to do 10 50-yard sprints, or "gassers."

"A lot of people were frustrated and a little scared that he was going to kill us," Moncell Allen said. "Joker was telling me he didn't think we were going to make it."

By the end of the summer, the Cats were doing 24 gassers.

"We had a team run every Friday," Oliver said. "You had to do 16 to pass the conditioning test. Once everybody passed it, we just kept going and it really built confidence. I talked to other people to see what they were doing and I was proud of our guys. I'm not saying other people weren't doing it, but that was a lot of half-gassers."

Now the Cats both look good and feel good.

"When I say we're in the best shape of any team in the league, I mean it hands down," Locke said.

Oliver is a rare mix: a reputed no-nonsense taskmaster who is extremely popular with the players.

One reason is his track record. He's the only strength coach in the SEC with NFL experience, and he has ringing endorsements from Chad Ochocinco and Carson Palmer.

"He let us know straight off the bat that he was not going to put up with stuff like missing workouts," Locke said. "You don't have to like him, but you will respect him. And usually if you respect a guy, you'll end up liking him. And he's also the type of guy that will get on your butt, but then turn around and show you love."

Oliver also doesn't play favorites, another bonus in the locker room.

"It doesn't matter if it's Locke or (linebacker Jacob) Dufrene, (walk-on offensive lineman Stephen) Duff or Randall Cobb," Oliver said. The players "are in trouble if they're not getting it done. It was the same way with Carson, Chad and Tank Johnson. They respect people that respect the game; that'll make them step up and do what they're supposed to do."

And while Oliver is a little long in the tooth to be out there running 24 half-gassers, he's still very hands on. One of his specialties is water work, and he would get in the hydro-pool with Allen as he rehabbed a knee injury. He'll also get involved in the boxing workouts.

"I kind of want them to see me doing the boxing stuff so they'll know that I'll knock them out," Oliver joked.

Most importantly, Oliver said he sought to change the mentality around UK football. With new bodies comes a better mindset and hopefully better results on the field.

"A lot of it is mental," he said. "The thing I've tried to tell them is, 'When I was in Cincinnati, we've drafted them from all over the SEC.' We couldn't tell the difference if the guy was from Kentucky or from Florida. If we couldn't tell the difference, then they should understand there is no difference. When we line up against those guys, we can feel good about our chances."