football

Notre Dame Strength & Conditioning Undergoes Overhaul In Energy

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Matt Balis' first objective was to elevate the energy level during winter workouts.
Corey Boden

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During head coach Brian Kelly’s meeting with the media on Monday in which he introduced seven new staff members, six of them were on-field coaches. Yet the seventh, Matt Balis, is significant as any, especially in the winter months before the Fighting Irish begin spring drills in mid-March.

Kelly introduced Balis as the Director of Physical Performance, and he will be complemented by Dave Ballou from Florida’s esteemed IMG Academy. Along with offensive coordinator Chip Long and defensive coordinator Mike Elko, Balis was categorized as one in a “leadership” position for the entire team.

“[It’s] where a lot of the important elements of building blocks take place for your football team,” Kelly said. “The mental toughness, the finish, things that obviously at times in the fourth quarter didn't show itself.”

The 4-8 record in 2016 was best reflected in the way the team consistently wore down in the second half, especially the fourth quarter, when the offense scored a paltry 22 points in the final eight games of those 15 minutes. In the advanced metric S&P+, Notre Dame’s offense ranked No. 1 in the first quarter — and 96th in the fourth. The defense was a little better but only 63rd in the fourth quarter while losing fourth-quarter leads in setbacks to Texas, Duke, Stanford, Navy and Virginia Tech. Since 2004 at Central Michigan, strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo had been Kelly’s right-hand man in his ascent as one of the top college coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision. However, Kelly was candid that his long-time friend and colleague was no longer able to fulfill the immense demands of his role.

The infrastructure was beset by a sense of drudgery, a lack of esprit de corps and some conspicuous deficiencies in strength, stamina and mental toughness.

“He is currently under a long-term disability right now, and he cannot fulfill the duties of this position,” Kelly revealed of Longo. “…I won't get into too much detail other than [the players] really, really liked Coach Longo, but it was clear that he couldn't function in the manner he could in the first few years. He couldn't get down in the trenches with them. He couldn't get in there and get after it the way he had the first few years.”

Perhaps a corollary to that, per Kelly, was the entire operation mitigating the importance of the strength and conditioning program and the necessary attention to detail.

“We made too many accommodations for [the student-athlete’s] schedule, and used it in a manner that didn't allow them the opportunity to come over here and really let off steam, if you will,” Kelly said. “They go over on that side of campus and they have got to use a lot of energy. They want to come over here and get after it, and we were making accommodations for all their schedules instead of saying, ‘Listen, forget about it. This is what time you need to be here. Get over here and get after it!’

“We were making too many accommodations for their academic schedules and we needed to say, ‘Look, we're going to go early in the morning.’ … We needed to go early in the morning and get all of our weight training done before classes so we weren't making all of these accommodations late.”

The hiring of Balis, a Chicago native who grew up a Notre Dame football fan and is a 1996 graduate of Northern Illinois, comes with the mandate to develop an environment that demands the advancement of physical strength and, equally important, overcoming mental stress and fatigue. He oversaw the strength and conditioning for all the sports at Connecticut’s athletics department from 2014-16, and his previous stints included Mississippi State (2009-13), Virginia (2007-08) and for Urban Meyer at Florida (2005-06), as an assistant, and at Utah (2002-03).

Balis’ hoarse voice befits his calling.

“First you have to have energy,” Balis said of his role. “You can hear from my voice over the years I’ve blown out. Guys feed off your energy. If you come in excited and passionate, they’ll follow…”

Oftentimes to an uninformed follower, a strength and conditioning coach’s “effectiveness” is measured by how many athletes he can get to puke during workouts, or how borderline psychotic/sadistic he can get while pushing them beyond their limits. Earlier this month, the University of Oregon suspended football strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde one month without pay after three players were hospitalized following a series of intense workouts, while many others also were injured.

Make no mistake, Balis knows a huge part of his job is to challenge his athletes, but within balanced parameters.

“We’re not going to go over those parameters,” Balis said. “We will progressively overload those parameters to the point where they will get in better and better shape and improving more capacity as we go. But we’re not going to in week one come in and expect something that they might not be ready for until week four or five. It’s a progression. We’re careful no one gets hurt. Sometimes things happen, but we want to protect the guys in their ability to adapt to the work slowly. It’s a day-by-day, week-by-week evaluation.”

Balis detailed his expectations from day one to the team, and one area in particular is non-negotiable for him or anyone else.

“If you don’t come in excited, jacked, ready to go, you’re not going to get the day back,” Balis said. “That’s part of what we do, and we really stress that in our preparation with the guys. And as they come in, as we’re coaching them, we give them every ounce of energy that we have.”

“It’s a dream come true for him to come here to Notre Dame,” Kelly said, “and you can see the passion that he has on a day-to-day basis for being here at Notre Dame is felt every single morning with our football team.”

Part II: Schedule and plan of attack.

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