Probably the second-most important member of the Mississippi State football staff – after Dan Mullen – strength coach Matt Balis is getting ready to turn his players back to the field after a 7 ½-week strength training program, beginning in January and ending just before his student athletes were off for spring break.
From the Gator Bowl on January 1 to the beginning of spring practices on Thursdays, all 100-plus Bulldogs were in the strong hands of Balis.
The results, generally, are positive.
Balis’ primary goals during the intensive training were, firstly, to get each player better every week, and secondly, to see an improvement in the young players who will ascend from backups to starters or more regular players.
“Our younger guys had to step up and get better, and I thought they did that,” Balis said.
With the top three corners, the entire receiving corps and a handful of linemen and linebackers graduating, Balis knows Mullen will be depending on the maturation and improvement of the youth.
Luckily, the strength staff saw progression at some key positions.
Asked who among the young has stood out, Balis jumped to rising junior cornerback Jamerson Love
“He stepped up and made his presence known,” he said.
And when you’re losing Johnthan Banks, Darius Slay and Corey Broomfield, Balis continued, it’s a pretty big gap someone will have to fill.
The strength coach spent a fair bit of time speaking about another rising junior, defensive end Preston Smith.
With Kaleb Eulls likely moving from end to tackle, a starting spot has been opened for competition, and the 255-pound Smith appears primed to take the gig.
“He’s gotta be a great player and I think he took the steps to do that this offseason,” Balis said.
When Smith arrived at MSU, he was and athletic to play as a true freshman, while Balis has worked with him the last two and half years to put weight on his lean body.
The key, with Smith and every other player, is to mold bodies without depleting talent.
“We’re about lean muscle,” Balis said. “If you’re moving to a position that requires you to be heavier, we want you to gain lean body mass, muscle. If you need to drop weight, we want you to lose fat, not muscle.”
The balance, for someone like Smith, is helping gain the mass required to wrestle past massive SEC offensive linemen, while still maintaining the speed he uses to beat those same linemen off the ball.
Or, for someone like junior Christian Holmes, who is switching from linebacker to tight end, it’s to drop enough weight for him to outrun defenses, but still be strong enough to block linemen and take hits from anyone running through the secondary.
Of course, for many one of the youngest freshmen and sophomores, as well as the newcomers, it’s just adjusting from high school to college.
Most of them, Balis said, were the best players on the field. They didn’t have to strain harder or run farther to better than the competition. Now, they do.
“We go so hard,” Balis said. “We throw a lot at them in terms of expectations and toughness.”
The good news for the greenest of players is that they have teammates who have been in the same position helping them through the process.
Balis said guys like offensive lineman Gabe Jackson, running back LaDarius Perkins, defensive end Denico Autry and linebacker Deontae Skinner, all senior starters, have naturally assumed the roles of leaders in the locker room and weight room, giving those behind them an example to follow.