Jeff Connors is putting his Hall of Fame skills to work as East Carolina’s recovery process from a 3-9 football season in 2016 continues. ECU’s assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning is not one to dwell on the negative.
Connors is part drill sergeant, part research analyst and part personal trainer in doing what he does as the man in charge of offseason development for the football program.
The Pirates are driving toward better things in 2017 and that doesn’t involve staring at the rear-view mirror. Coach Scottie Montgomery and staff have been filling personnel voids even before a 37-10 loss at Temple completed a 1-7 run through the American Athletic Conference last year.
Connors has been working with numerous new faces who are expected to impact Pirate fortunes positively.
“I really feel like our team has done a good job of looking toward tomorrow and putting yesterday behind,” said Connors, who will be a speaker at the National Strength and Conditioning Association Conference [PDF] in Las Vegas, July 12-15. “I really believe that’s where they’re at right now. I believe that they believe in themselves. We believe in them.
“When I look at the depth chart and I’m looking at the 10 guys we brought in midyear, I think our depth chart looks much better. Of course, we’re adding the three graduate guys who are just coming in. I don’t really have any of those guys right now except [Thomas] Sirk. The defensive ends, [Brandon] Henderson (Georgia Military College) is going to come second session. I’m not really sure when Tyree (Owens, Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi) is going to start. The guy we’ve got coming from Minnesota (Gaelin Elmore), he’s going to be I think just beginning in August. He’s got to finish some things academically.
“So when you look at our depth chart in relationship to how we looked last season, which is something I kind of relentlessly study all the time because I believe that you’ve got to be 66 strong. You’ve got to be strong three-deep in each position, particularly on the D-line because you’re going to rotate groups of D-linemen into the game. That’s what this game has kind of evolved into is that rotation. It’s really nice if you can have three rotations where they have similar talent and you don’t have a great dropoff when another group comes in there. Having a pass rush from our defensive ends, having guys out there who are more true defensive ends that are more physical and have more body weight.
“Of course, last year we had four or five walk-ons who started most of the year. Cam White was a great kid but he’s tremendously undersized at linebacker, for instance. I look at our depth chart defensively, I think we’re in much better shape than we were last year. With these three defensive ends coming in, I think that’s going to help us quite a bit.
“I look at our defensive backfield and I think we’re pretty deep there. We’ve got some guys returning. I think that we have got some corners that can get it done for us. We have some corners that are stepping up and doing a better job. Chris Love is looking good this summer. We’ve got a couple of other guys coming on, too. [Tim] Irvin has done really well. He’s having a great summer. [Devon] Sutton will be coming back. He’s got some great physical attributes. Kenyon Taylor should provide physicality. One of the guys that’s really improved over the years is Travis Phillips. He’s put on about 20 pounds, really. He’s looking good. So I think we’re pretty good there with numbers.
“Then with our linebackers, having Jordan Williams back. He’s got some tremendous physical attributes that he brings to the table. Joe Carter really had a great offseason. We’ve got a couple of these other guys who came in like (Cannon) Gibbs and [Anthony] Gutierrez. [Aaron] Ramseur had a really good spring. [Ben] Norris is another guy. I’m not really sure what position he’s going to play. He’s getting big. He’s about 240 pounds now. I’m really looking at having a lot more significant depth on defense from what I can see, studying this depth chart every day and having some true defensive ends are really going to help us get a pass rush. That’s my hope.
“I think our receiving corps is excellent. We’ve got a lot of speed across the board with receivers. We can put five guys out there that are all very fast. Obviously, if we can give our quarterback time to throw, I think we can be successful with our passing game. Of course, we all know how important the running game is. That’s another thing we keep drilling into the heads of our offensive linemen all the time is the physicality part of it, the fact that we’ve got to get off the ball and play low and be physical an establish a run game.
“In relationship of comparing this year to last year, what I see is a significant improvement in depth across the board. I’ve been very impressed with Coach [Scottie] Montgomery’s recruiting. This is my seventh head coach. I’ve been around this for awhile and I think the caliber of athletes that he’s bringing in here and the attention to detail with making sure that we have depth at every position is outstanding.
“Looking into the future with recruiting, to me, I think it’s going to do nothing but look up. . . . I’m the eternal optimist. I’m always going to be that way. I’m not a guy that thinks in negative terms. I just don’t think that way.”
Work ethic is huge when running, lifting and jumping are the primary activities. Connors has to run a demanding program to achieve the desired results.
“I think the enthusiasm is very favorable,” Connors said Wednesday. “This team has been very positive ever since January, when we started. We have some individuals that are stepping up into more of leadership roles such as Garrett McGhin, for instance. I think he’s done a great job himself and also providing a great example and being a vocal leader for the other offensive linemen.
“I’m really happy to see D’Ante Smith and Cortez Herrin back in the mix because they had some physical issues where they had to be cleared to be able to train. They’re both in the mix now and they do have modified workouts but they’re doing very well. That provides us a lot more depth up front on the left side of the ball. My whole thing with the offensive line — I think they’re big and I think they’re strong — I just really believe that they needed to become more mentally tough so we keep challenging them with those types of things where they have to overcome something. Hopefully, keep building on their mental toughness.
“The bottom line, which I’ve always believed, is mental toughness is developed through higher levels of conditioning. That can come in a lot of different forms. But one of the things we’re doing with them is we had them doing position-specific work, which would be specific punching, specific footwork an so forth but at a very high tempo without much rest. They have to be very detailed in the technical things that they do. At the same time, they have to have a certain level of conditioning so they maintain focus.
“Rather than just get them out there and running, we try to make it position specific as well. Being in a good position, having good posture, being able to execute a number of different drills, either hand-quickness drills or a combination of posture on hand quickness type things. Quick feet. They have to have feet. They’ve got to be able to bend. One of the things that they’ve been doing a lot of is jumping rope. That’s one of the things that Coach [Geep] Wade (offensive line coach) really believes in very strongly is jumping rope so we incorporate a lot of that. It’s something that I’ve always done a certain degree of anyway so you have more specific things like that.
“Also, with the lifting, certain things that we might do with super sets where you have one exercise followed by another without much rest or certain types of circuits where they don’t get much rest.”
Sirk, special training
Duke transfer quarterback Thomas Sirk has missed two seasons due to ruptured Achilles tendons and Connors has adapted his regimen.
“What we’re trying to do is we want to make sure that we coordinate our efforts with our training staff and that everything that we choose for him to do minimizes any risk of re-injury to that Achilles,” Connors said. “Sirk is just like Gardner Minshew in that they are kind of two of a kind in relationship to excellent character, leadership, they both seem to be very intelligent individuals. They’re vocal and they’re tough. I see a common thread with those two guys really. That’s really good to see.
“Sirk is the type of kid where he’s going to go just one speed. I mean he’s going to go 100 percent no matter what you give him to do so I’m not real concerned with his conditioning. I think he’ll be fine. I really don’t want to put him in the situation of doing a whole lot of full speed linear work. He can work on his drops and work on the specific things that he does as a quarterback but we want to make sure that we don’t put him in any situation where that previous injury would be jeopardized to re-occur.”
Jake Verity, who saw limited placekicking duty as a true freshman last year, may be punting as well as placekicking this season.
“We have a special program for kickers,” Connors said. “They focus on hip strength, large muscle groups and small muscle groups around the hip joint, also core strength. They have a little different program. We want to make sure that they’re never in jeopardy of being injured in the weight room, of course. A lot of those guys are pretty good self starters. Most of the specialists, the kickers particularly, are always pretty responsible individuals that you can count on. They have a very high sense of accountability.
“In conjunction with strengthening the specific muscle groups involved with the activity, thinking of them as golfers where you have to repeat a stroke with the leg, similar to what golfers have to do with the stroke with a club. We want to make sure they have great flexibility and they’re pain free and they have confidence. So the lifting program that we employ is specific to what they do and the muscle groups that they use, particularly with range of movement. The flexibility aspect of it is crucial, very similar to a golfer.”
Fourth quarter then and now
Connors role in terms of strength and conditioning continues into the season. Some of the circumstances that accompanied his first season at ECU in 1991 when the Pirates were 11-1 have changed.
“I think we all realize the strength of schedule,” Connors said. “Basically what I’ve told our guys — this goes back into the ’90s — where we won a lot of games in the fourth quarter. We were highly conditioned, all that kind of stuff that people have talked about but we didn’t raise the flag. We didn’t put a video on. We didn’t have the ‘No Quarter’ concept.
“We kind of snuck up on people and made it kind of a silent thing where, OK, we want to see them crawling off the field, we want to see them down on a knee. We want to see them bending over. Then we’re going to go in for the kill. We taste blood and go in for the kill.
“Now, it’s a celebration. Like, hey, guess what? It’s fourth quarter. We all know about it and we’re going to challenge you across the field. If we’re going to challenge the opposition, all I’m saying is if you’re going to talk about it, you better be about it. I’m not a guy that really talks a lot. I don’t really talk. I just like to be about it. That’s my approach with these guys. We’ve got to be about it because we have to know what ‘No Quarter’ means and we have to represent.
“Every day, right now, when these guys come in and run, the first thing we do is ‘No Quarter.’ So we have an awareness toward, OK, we’re going to finish the game. There’s a lot of different conditioning-type things going on this summer. Like today, we’re doing a power unit — two 300s around the field. I give two minutes rest. We do 10 30s. Two minutes rest. Six 80s. Two minutes rest. Ten 20s. Two minutes rest. Two 300s. That takes 30-40 minutes just to get that done. Things like that are important to me because I really believe going back to conditioning develops mental toughness and we need an awareness going into the fourth quarter of a ball game.
“I did a little research,” Connors said. “I had my assistants do some research. First of all, we have not been a good road team so we have to find a way to be a better road team. The last two years, it’s not been good.
“Also, looking at the past six or seven years since I’ve been here if you’re three scores up, let’s say 16 or 17 points, is what we looked at. It’s very difficult on either side to come back from that. If we are three scores up — you can call 16 two scores, two touchdowns and two two-point conversions but to me that’s more like three scores. If you’re three scores up going into the fourth quarter, it’s tough to come back from that whether you’re the opposition or the home team. That’s what we saw in our research. So you’ve got to keep the game close and you’ve got to be focused and in great shape to win the fourth quarter. But, obviously, there are a lot of other things that come into affect, too. Game management. All the football things come into affect also.
“But the thing about it is if you’re not in shape, you’re going to lose focus and make mistakes. I’ve always believed that. So there’s no question about the fact that we’ve got to be in great shape.”
Irele Oderinde was suspended as Oregon strength and conditioning coach in January after three players were hospitalized following intense workouts. Oderinde followed Willie Taggart to the Ducks from South Florida.
Connors said that situation has impacted the perception of strength and conditioning.
“There’s no question about the fact that what happened at Oregon this winter has again shocked the world to where when we go to our conference we get hammered with, ‘Hey guys, the Oregon strength coach put people in the hospital,’ ” Connors said. “We’ve had 20 deaths over the last couple of decades. As strength coaches, we want you to start with a four to one rest/relief ratio whatever you do. If I run a 300 in 60 seconds, I’m supposed to rest four minutes. Well, that’s a whole long time. Now during the beginning of a training cycle — but I don’t have four minutes to rest. I’ve only got eight hours a week. You have to be creative in what you do. You have to make sure it’s safe because they’re all over us about safety. So that’s the challenge with strength coaches. OK, you want to win the fourth quarter but to be honest I think our profession has become pretty much standardized. I don’t think we can do above and beyond what somebody else is doing simply because of the restrictions that have been placed on us.”
The circumstances bring out the competitor in Connors.
“I’m going to find a way and I really believe that we still do things that other people don’t do,” Connors said. “You always have that out there looming over your head in that some strength coaches just haven’t been smart. The guy at Oregon really didn’t even have a certification that was credible. You do have that factor.”
New approaches and concepts
The NSCA gathering in Las Vegas next month will no doubt hear some of the wisdom that Connors implements in the Murphy Center.
“There’s a ton of approaches and concepts,” Connors said. “I go the extra mile to stay on top of that. The nervous system only knows one thing and that’s intensity. You either have to lift fast or you have to lift heavy to basically activate the fast-twitch muscle fiber, the large fast-twitch motor units in the body.
“The first thing you want to do is recruit guys who have a vertical jump, who have a 40 time. We all know that genetics is a big part of it. Your training also has to reflect that objective. You are trying to make people more explosive. The way they become more explosive is that they’ve got to become stronger first. They’ve got to convert the strength to power. They’ve got to convert the power to speed. So when you look at the development of the hips, you’re looking at targeting the hips because it’s very crucial to sprinting, jumping, tackling and blocking. That’s definitely in my approach.
“We do a ton of speed work because we know that full speed training activates the nervous system and, actually, full speed sprinting has more of an affect on the nervous system sometimes than lifting does. We know that our nervous system can become more efficient through the work that we do with speed. That’s why we always do speed first. It can actually enhance the lifting part of it. A lot of people don’t realize that.
“We put a premium on speed development but obviously with our offensive linemen and defensive linemen, it’s a little bit different. Football is a game of acceleration for all of your position groups. If you look at the elite sprinters out there, they don’t reach top end speed until 40, 50 meters. We know that with football players, they reach top end speed maybe at 25 to 40 meters, somewhere in there depending on the position group. We have to put a ton of emphasis on the muscle groups that overcome inertia, particularly with our big guys. We have to be able to hold positions.
“We have to have explosiveness from the ground up through the hips and upper body punch with those guys. What we do with them has some degree of specificity with our lifts as well. We’re basically ground-based in lifting because we think it has more specificity to football. We use a combination program.
“When you look at weight lifters as opposed to power lifters and body builders, we know that weight lifters have a stronger two to one fast-twitch ratio in the cross section of the muscle. Part of that comes from who they are. Part of it comes from training, but weight lifters are more explosive than other athletes who lift weights if you want to call power lifters athletes. Body builders are not necessarily athletes. Body builders are large individuals but they’re significantly weaker. You have to basically look at those studies and incorporate those concepts into your training as well. You have to have combination training where you’re doing slow strength but also fast strength type movements, platform movements such as the power clean for instance and other exercises that are related to power cleans. Then you have to have an extensive multi-jump or plyometric program as well because that’s what makes the connection with strength and speed.
“I really think that those are cutting edge ideas. I still attend clinics all the time. I will be speaking at the national conference this year in Las Vegas in July about what we do. I’m happy to have been invited there.”
Peaking and believing
Connors has time-tested experience and has the Pirates on a timer as the upcoming season nears.
“We’re going to maintain a very high level of enthusiasm and work ethic coming into the season, from top to bottom,” Connors said. “I’m very encouraged by the way our football team is approaching this season in their work ethic and progressively the level of leadership that I see from week to week. My whole thing with them is we have to bolster what we do each week. One week has to build on the next week so we peak at the right time. We want to peak when we get there in August. We also have to be cognizant with what we’re doing right now with recovery to make sure we don’t peak too early. That’s pretty much the approach.
“I’m going to try to be more capable now than I’ve ever been. I’m aware of the fact that I’m getting up there. I might have five or 10 more years, I don’t know. I’m trying to make something happen here. My whole thing is I go back to ’91. We won 11 games. We were ranked No. 9 in the country. If it wasn’t for one penalty (in the season opener at Illinois), we should have been ranked in the top five. I believe we should be able to do that again. People might think I’m nuts but I believe we can win a national championship here. I’m going to keep believing that.”