When a game gets tight in the fourth quarter, Garrett Johnson won’t be thinking about how hot, sore and tired he is.
Instead Kentucky’s junior wide receiver will be thinking about those awful chains.
UK’s players didn’t just run sprints this offseason. They did parts of it while lugging chains along with them.
“We’d do 10 yards, 5 yards, pause and reset, try to do a hurry up offense,” Johnson said. “That workout was the real deal.”
And that drill wasn’t first thing in the morning before the sun gets too high in the sky, either.
“Our workout times were 2 to 4” in the afternoon, Johnson continued. “So we’d go outside and run at 2 o’clock. And we’d drag those chains along with us.”
Tight end C.J. Conrad knew things had changed when players would be near the end of what felt like an impossibly long workout and expect the strength and conditioning coaches would slow things down.
That had always been the formula before.
Not this offseason. Not after two straight years where Kentucky started a season strong only to end it 5-7, watching bowl games on couches at home.
“We did three times the number of drills as last year,” Conrad said. “This year we seem to be able to handle it. Last year there were times when we fell off and weren’t able to finish.”
Maybe that was a microcosm of the previous two seasons?
Maybe something had to change.
It started in offseason conditioning.
“A lot of our workouts had something at the end that you had to get over,” Conrad described. “It wasn’t just a hard beginning and then tapering.”
So the players would wait for the inevitable taper and it wouldn’t come. In its place would be an additional 50 pushups or a medicine ball at your chest another dozen times.
“When we did that, it reminds us that the game isn’t over and we’ve got to finish it right,” redshirt freshman linebacker Eli Brown said.
Every coach in the country talks about his players getting “bigger, stronger, faster” in the offseason.
UK Coach Mark Stoops wanted more than that.
It all falls under the concept of “capacity,” which has been a Stoops buzzword this summer. It’s a word he stole from a tier one Navy SEAL at a conference this offseason.
“What we need to do is to build a capacity to work at a high level all the time,” he said. “I felt like we did that last spring. We had harder spring practices. We did the winter; we had a harder winter than we’ve ever had and we needed to do that.”
The concept of “capacity” stuck with Stoops. Now that he has a team mostly made up of experienced players, he wanted to push them to their capacity.
“With capacity you could go a lot of different directions, but I think our team can handle more mentally, physically, we’re certainly getting deeper, but we have to push them harder,” the head coach said.
So they did that this winter and summer.
Why didn’t that happen three years ago when Stoops arrived on campus fresh off of his success as a defensive coordinator at Florida State? Why didn’t they push the Kentucky players to this breaking point at that point?
Kentucky didn’t have the depth nor the capacity to handle it at the time, he said.
“We were deeper with some very athletic football players” at Florida State, Stoops said. “So you’ve got to always look at what you’re doing to put your players in the best position to be successful.”
When the head coach talks about capacity, he’s not just talking about players being able to run dragging chains along with them when the sun is scorching their shoulders.
He’s talking about their capacity to handle other workloads, too.
Meetings that used to be short and sweet because of immature attention spans can go for two or more hours. Coaches can tackle the finer points of topics instead of spoon feeding the basics, Stoops said.
“You see the guys sitting on the edge of their seat taking notes, paying attention, being very much into it,” he added. “That’s what it takes and that’s what we’ve talked about.”
Maybe fans don’t see a difference yet in this Kentucky team, junior defensive tackle Jacob Hyde said. But it’s a team that sees itself differently because of the extra time and effort it’s put in.
“Guys were tired of putting in a certain amount of work from week to week and day to day and not having the outcome they wanted,” he said. “They stepped it up and now things are gonna change. They have changed.”
Southern Miss at Kentucky
When: Sept. 3, 7:30 p.m.