UC Davis football players Ben Scott and Parker Smith are learning about muscle groups they never knew existed.
“I was lying in bed and my abs started to cramp,” said Smith, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound senior offensive tackle.
“I’m sore in places I never knew you could be sore,” added Scott, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior quarterback.
Along with their UC Davis teammates, Smith and Scott have entered a new world of building their bodies for the physical grind of football. And it’s not just to make their bodies faster and stronger. It’s also to make them safer and more durable.
UC Davis coach Ron Gould has placed a greater emphasis on injury prevention after the Aggies suffered through numerous debilitating injuries last season that included the loss of key seniors — linebacker Steven Pitts, safety Charles Boyett, running back Gabe Manzanares and linebacker Ryan Dimino — for long stretches of the 2014 schedule. The depth-thin Aggies finished 2-9 overall and last in the 13-team Big Sky Conference.
Among the safety measures introduced during the Aggies’ recent spring drills:
• Players wearing concussion pads atop their helmets.
• Comprehensive individual player fitness tests developed and performed by trainer Julieta Guzman.
• The addition of John Krasinski, a forward-thinking strength and conditioning coach and former colleague of Gould’s at Cal.
The puffy-appearing Guardian Cap may elicit a chuckle or two at first glance, but coaches and players are starting to swear by them.
“It’s been a lifesaver for our players,” said Gould, entering his third season as Aggies coach. “When you talk about concussions and last season, we had a lot, maybe a dozen. This spring we haven’t had any.”
Smith said he’s already noticed a difference. As a lineman, his helmet is ramming into a charging defensive opponent on every play.
“They look pretty funny, but they’re working,” Smith said. “I can totally tell from the blows I’ve taken. They don’t feel as bad.”
Scott also wore the protective cap throughout spring drills, but since quarterbacks are usually off-limits to the defense, he rarely got touched.
But all he needed to do was appreciate what was happening around him.
“In fall camp last year, I had never seen so many concussions in my life,” Scott said. “We didn’t have one this spring. So are the caps the answer? It sure looks like it to me.”
The players will continue to wear the padded caps in fall practice but the Big Sky Conference doesn’t allow them to be worn in games. Besides protecting the Aggies from concussions, Gould and his staff are trying to optimize each player’s core body development to better sidestep injuries. The added bonus to such workouts is it usually improves performance.
Gould said Guzman screens each player’s functional movements.
“Every young man has to get tested to see if his core is too tight,” Gould said. “She tests their shoulder flexibility, hamstrings, knees and joints. If they don’t pass her test, they have to come in three times a week and work on their flexibility.”
Gould noticed a difference in spring drills.
“Guys were getting out of their breaks and changing direction real well,” Gould said. “That’s all a tribute to her and her staff.”
Gould persuaded Krasinski to return to California after he worked the past two seasons as the strength and conditioning coach at Fordham. In a short time, Krasinski has ramped up the intensity of drills while offering strength and conditioning concepts that were once foreign to the UC Davis players. Now they are sold on the new routines.
“No one leaves a workout with energy,” Smith said. “We squeeze a lot more reps and overall lifting into one hour than I ever thought we could. He’s been here only six weeks and I can definitely feel a difference. You can feel the muscle endurance building.”
Krasinski’s big focus is on tailoring workouts by position.
“You look at the physical demands of each position and they are not at all similar,” Krasinski said. “A receiver running routes and a lineman blocking, they’re two completely different things. Why would I train them the same?”
Smith thinks Krasinski’s workouts will pay dividends in the fall.
“In the past, we’d be doing certain exercises and I’d think to myself, ‘Why are the (defensive backs) doing the same lifts as the offensive linemen?’ ” Smith said. “So I’m excited to see the differences where small guys aren’t lifting as heavy but through their training you can see they’re becoming more explosive.”
Taking it a step further, Krasinski has brought the team concept into the weight room.
“I wanted them to look more like a team — even in the weight room,” Krasinski said. “So we have a uniform of matching T-shirts, shorts and socks. I told them no visible jewelry. Every single guy complied, and I didn’t hear one negative comment. They’re buying into my philosophy that a good team can beat great athletes.”
Krasinski’s up-tempo workouts in the weight room match Gould’s frenetic practices on the field.
“We’re trying to duplicate game speed in everything we do,” Gould said.
Gould said the intensity of conditioning will ramp up even more when school lets out in late June; then the hot and heavy contact drills return with the start of fall camp. Gould, Krasinski and the Aggies realize that despite all the precautionary measures they are taking, injuries still are part of the sport.
“You can’t play the game hoping you don’t get hurt, because that’s when you get hurt,” Scott said. “I think it’s great that they are taking all these steps, especially with concussions because they are a big deal. But football is a contact sport.”