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AFM Magazine

The Need for Speed

by: Richard Scott
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From the time young football players figure out they’re faster than the other players on the field, many assume speed is simply a gift that some have, some don’t. They figure it’s all a matter of nature, genetics or a divine blessing.

While it’s true that some young men are simply born and raised faster than others, no football player has to be content with his speed – or his lack of speed.

“A lot of the kids we recruit have a lot of untapped potential. They’re late bloomers, a kid who isn’t quite a Division I-A athlete,” said Eric Klein, the strength and conditioning coach at Southern Illinois University. “We put them through a lot of hard work and mechanics and show them that they can be faster. Now that we’ve been here a few years, the proof is in the pudding.

“When a freshman comes in now he can look at the improvements that the upperclassmen made and it speaks for itself. When I first started here five years ago we had to get guys to go on faith that what we’re telling you is going to pay off in six weeks, eight weeks, a year. When they saw their numbers improve and their 40s times drop and they started getting to the ball faster, they bought into it.”

There are no magic pills or magic drills to turn a slow linemen into a speed receiver, but every player can improve his football speed and quickness through a combination of several principles: improving arm and foot mechanics; lifting weights for more explosion and leg strength; jump drills for additional explosion and leg strength; proper conditioning, agility and flexibility; and plain ol’ hard work.

“When you combine them all you’ll see great improvement in speed,” said Charlie Dudley, the strength and conditioning coach at Southern Miss. With that in mind, American Football Monthly consulted four respected college coaches who focus on improving the speed, strength and conditioning of their athletes on a daily basis.


When new players arrive at Southern Miss, whether they’re freshmen or transfers, they are timed with electronic timers.

“We time them in straight-ahead speed in the 20 and the 40. Then we test them in the pro shuttle,” Dudley said. “When a lot of these kids sign there’s a press release saying they run a 4.5 or 4.4 40, but when you test them they really run a 4.7, 4.8 40. That’s common unless you get a time on them in your camp.

“Once we get their real times we let them set their goals. I give each kid, regardless of position, a goal sheet for speed, strength, power, agility, flexibility and body fat. Wherever they’re at, they need to get to the next level up for the next offseason period. After three or four years of climbing those levels one at a time, they’re usually at the top.”

When it comes to increasing leg strength through lifting, Dudley is a firm believer in the parallel back squat. “There’s no substitute for it,” Dudley said. “It’s the biggest secret out there for combining size with great speed. When you see guys who are huge and can run, a lot of that comes from parallel back squat. We’re not working on bodybuilding, we’re not power lifting, we’re not preparing for the Olympics – we’re lifting for athleticism.”

When it comes to increasing explosive strength for speed, Dudley prefers explosive lifts such as Olympic lifts – the power clean, snatch and jerk – combined with plyometric drills such as skips, bounds and box jumps.

“What plyometrics does is allow your muscle to get to its maximum strength as fast as possible,” Dudley said. “That’s what you see when you get one guy who is 190 pounds and another guy is 250 pounds and the 190-pounder is just laying the wood and blowing people up all the time. Those guys get to maximum strength as quick as possible. It’s not how much you squat or bench. It’s how you utilize it.”

While 100-yard track speed is wonderful for the track team, it’s not particularly useful for football players who need to explode off the ball. To improve quickness at the snap, Dudley utilizes the hang clean, snatch or jerk lifts.

“Everybody, regardless of who you are, extends their ankles, knees and hips at the same rate of speed – about two-tenths to three-tenths of a second,” Dudley said. “The person who can do that with the most force will do it the fastest. When you’re cleaning or snatching, if you’re doing it with the proper technique that’s going to transfer over to the field because you’re making the same movement. Your muscles are contracting in the same way.

“Your muscle doesn’t know whether you’re cleaning, snatching or in your stance to fire off the ball. It just knows to contract as fast as it can. The person who does that with the most force will get out of there the fastest.”


Klein places considerable emphasis on running mechanics and creating running strength through range of motion exercises, such as high-knees, skipping and low-level plyometric hopping with a focus on ground contact and building strength in the lower leg and foot.

“It seems like a lot of times people tend to forget the foot is an integral part of sprinting and if it’s not strong and able to transfer the force you’ve created in the hips than you’re going to lose the speed and strength you’ve created through lifting and running,” Klein said. “So we do a lot of plyometrics where we can get a lot of ground contacts without wiping out the kids.”

Head coach Jerry Kill doesn’t want to lose kids in the 40-yard dash, SIU times players about once each year. “But really we’re more interested in their game speed, in their speed getting to the ball if they’re on defense or if they’re on offense, getting to the defense or a receiver getting to the ball to catch it,” Klein said.

That’s why SIU players spend considerable time working in 5- and 10-yard boxes. Those drills require short sprints, changing directions, using correct footwork and running technique and quick reactions and responses.

“It’s all about reaction – being able to see what you have to do,” Klein said. “We do a lot of visual-cue agility drills where we’re either pointing a direction or moving someone in a direction so they have to move quickly and react to that movement. We also do some verbal cues where we’ll number cones and holler out a number and they have to respond to the number. This way they’re getting it in two different ways. It’s mental and physical.”

SIU’s weight work focuses on the bench, squat and hang clean lifts. “We work on speed in the weight room by doing some reactive-type strength training, with quick eccentric work on the squats, where we go below parallel and get the guys to almost drop into that position and then explode back up out of the bottom,” Klein said. “It’s a lot like a dynamic squat but maybe just a tad bit faster. We shift our load so we use an undulating periods where we have light and fast and heavy days and constantly focus on how quick that bar can move, whether it’s a squat, hang clean or bench.”

To improve explosion off the ball, Klein incorporates the snap count into workouts. “If they’re moving the bar on a bench press, they have to go on a cadence,” Klein said. “We’ll do sight reaction with defensive linemen, where they go when something moves or something beeps so they increase their neuro-reactive time from the time get their audible or physical cue to the time they actually have to do something.”


William & Mary’s emphasis on academics may limit the program’s recruiting base, but it doesn’t limit what John Sauer can do with his athletes.

“We really don’t get the most talented kids so we have to spend a lot of time on very basic techniques and work from there,” Sauer said. “For example we’re getting the skills kids that are running a 4.6, 4.7 40. They’re good athletes, but they’re not a 4.3, so my goal is to take that kid who runs a 4.7 and get him down to maybe 4.5 by the time he graduates.”

Sauer places consider emphasis on improving body position and arm movement and uses basic drills such as skipping to work on proper leg movement, cycling the leg through correctly and planting the foot under the hips.

“We get guys who are so tight in their upper body sometime and they can’t relax and run,” Sauer said. “We don’t do a hundred different drills. We stick to ones that I feel like most of our guys should be able to master. The things we do things really focus on making our techniques better and that improves our speed significantly.”

Plyometrics also play a key role in William & Mary’s speed program. “We do a lot of hopping and bounding,” Sauer said. “Another big key to improving in that area is the Olympic lifts – developing that reactive and explosive strength in the weight room. We also do a lot with box jumps, with speed box jumps, box jump-ups on the high boxes. We spend a lot of time doing explosive work in the weight room in addition to the sprint work we do in the weight room.”

In the summer offseason program, the Tribe works four days each week. Lifting on Monday and Thursdays is for explosion, with cleans, snatches and jerks. Running and conditioning on Mondays and Thursdays focuses on speed, sprints and plyometrics.

“Mondays are all about quality of effort,” Sauer said. “We may only run four of five sprints, anywhere from 20 to 60 yards depending on the position, but everything is going to be full recovery. They’ve got to be rested to give 100 percent effort. Thursday is more of a speed endurance day for us. We’ll use a 3-1 rest-work ratio on different distances.”

Tuesdays and Fridays focus on strength work, using squats, bench, strength, as well as agility and conditioning runs. “I’ve tried a lot of different formats and approaches but that’s the one I’ve followed for the past four or five years,” Sauer said.

Tribe players have improved their quickness at the snap by using a Vertimax Platform that employs rubber tubing for resistance work. “In addition to improving their vertical jump you also get that resistance and you’ve got to overcome it by doing rapid jumps,” Sauer said. “You hit the ground, react and go.”


The older Coach Tom Cross gets, the more he goes back to the basics, such as getting the heal down and using the entire foot to improve speed.

“I’ve spent some time observing the Kansas City Chiefs in camp and following their offensive line coach, Mike Solari, and he’s always saying, ‘use all your cleats, use all your cleats, use all your cleats,’” Cross said. “He wants all of their cleats on the ground.

“We just work on good hands, explosion through the Olympic lifts, proper body lean and smacking the ground so hard with a tight ankle that something good’s going to happen.”

In the weight room, Cross relies solely on Olympic lifts. “It’s all about ankle, knee and hip extension,” Cross said. “A lot of people say they are using the Olympic lifts but they’re putting so much weight on the bar that the kids get no real technique and speed on the bar. We do our work with light enough weight that we have good technique and speed. We also teach good arm control.

“We don’t get too carried away on back squats. ... I don’t want our kids leaning. You can’t be an athlete leaning over. I want them to be upright in their squat technique. “When we’re doing Olympics lifts, it’s the speed of the bar and the posture of the athlete that matters. Everything else is secondary.”

Cross believes proper arm and foot technique is often ignored in running. “We do a lot of work on moving the arms quicker, maintaining an arm that’s very, very close to the side of the body and moving that thumb from cheek to cheek,” Cross said. “We do that by putting rubber bands from the thumb around the elbow and get that thing locked.

“We really work to get the toe up and keep the ankle tight at all times and then pick the foot up off the ground and get the heal near the butt and smack the ground so hard you’ve got to move something. Chances are the earth won’t move so it’s going to move the runner.”

Another idea that’s easy for any program to incorporate is running stairs. Not the stadium steps that require long strides, but the shorter steps that are more useful for football. “When I was at the University of Tulsa we used to run those all the time and the guys would kind of make fun at me,” Cross said, “but I noticed when all our guys came back from the pros to work out they would run those short steps. They were trying to move their feet faster, quicker.”

Cross strongly believes the vertical jump correlates to football speed so he relies on box drills using different levels of boxes and jump-rope drills that keep the foot close to the ground. In each drill, the emphasis is on quickness and explosion.

“We don’t strive to see how high we jump very often,” Cross said. “We want to see how little time we can spend on the floor. If we’re jumping off an 18-inch box to a 36-inch box, the whole point is: how quick are you off the ground?”

Cross tells the story of a young Brent Venables as a marginal Division I-A prospect. After a high school all-star game Cross told Venables, “If you’d get those heals down a little more in your stance, you’d get where you’re going quicker.” Venables went on to become a productive college football player at Garden City Community College and Kansas State before joining the K-State coaching staff. Now he is the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma. “I didn’t see him for another nine years and I was visiting at K-State and their strength coach, Coach (Rod) Cole, was going to introduce me to him and Coach Venables stopped him and said, ‘Coach Cross, I want to tell you that advice you gave me changed my life,’” Cross said.


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