June 21, 2013
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN – In 10 weeks and a day, Auburn’s football team will run through the billowing smoke and on to the field. The roar of the Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd will reverberate in their helmets. Generations of players say it is an experience like no other.
But the price to stand in that tunnel and feel the surging emotions is high.
In the weight room, outside in the hot summer sun, Auburn players prepare for the season that rushes closer. Ryan Russell, the strength and conditioning coach who came from Arkansas State with first-year head coach Gus Malzahn, oversees it all.
And Auburn players, Russell says, are reaching deep as they fight back from the bitter disappointment of last season’s 3-9 record. Though summer workouts are technically voluntary, he says players aren’t treating them that way.
“It’s been great,” Russell said in an exclusive interview with AuburnTigers.com. “We have zero issues. The thing is it’s the kids that are holding each other accountable. They are getting in each other’s ear and being accountable to one another. That’s what you want to see. You want to see them take ownership and not always have to have somebody on top of them telling me what to do. That’s the neatest thing for me to see so far.”
Russell was an assistant on Kevin Yoxall’s Auburn strength and conditioning staff in 2010 and 2011 before following Malzahn to Arkansas State and back. But it was a new and different program he introduced to players in January. Hungry to put the despair of last season behind them, they took to it quickly.
“We have to run them out of here sometime because they have classes,” Russell said. “We are having to push them out the door, which has been exciting. We used to have to pull them in. Now we are pushing them out.”
The leadership that Auburn players almost unanimously say was lacking in last season’s collapse has stepped to the front.
“I really have seen that moreso than I’ve seen in the past,” Russell said. “Guys are stepping up and speaking up when I’m through speaking to the group. They are taking ownership.”
Russell says the key now is for players not only to continue what they’ve done, but to get better and do more.
“I challenged the guys (Wednesday),” Russell said. “We are right at the halfway point. It’s going to be interesting to see how we finish up. Every team in the country is going to train hard for the first 2-3 weeks. Everyone is fired up and ready to get after it. The great teams are able to find that motivation through the whole summer.”
Summer workouts will continue until the last week in July, when Auburn players will get a week off to rest and recuperate for the start of preseason practice in August. But much remains to be done before what will be a welcome break. This week marked the beginning of what Russell calls four-quarter agilities, a demanding series of position-specific drills that are called plays. They start off hard and get harder.
“This was our first week doing it,” Russell said. “We did six plays a quarter. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s six seconds of all-out effort where they are sprinting, decelerating, changing directions and all that. It was probably the best I’ve seen a first day go as far as guys getting after it, doing it the way it’s supposed to be done, not having to send anybody back for loafing or anything like that. It’s going to get tougher as we go. Next week is eight, then 10, then 12.”
Russell tells Auburn players it takes more than strength, more than quickness and agility, more than conditioning to go where they want to go. He talks to them about taking pride in representing their school and in how they live their lives.
“We put these guys in some unbelievably tough situations,” Russell said. “We tell them all the time that confidence is earned. You have to earn confidence by paying the price. You can have pain of hard work or pain of regret. You’d better work hard, because if you don’t, you’re going to be regretting it on Saturday.”
Coming tomorrow: Russell talks about his plans for developing Auburn’s younger players.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: