The five-man staff consists of head strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald and assistant strength coaches A.J. Artis, Mike Farrell, Byron Jerideau and Shaq Wilson. Together, they oversee the Volunteers’ performance and are involved in everything from academic support, to helping with recovery and treatment, to helping with nutrition. They’re available around the clock for student-athletes whether it be needing someone to talk to, strength and conditioning related or to be a hype man.
UT’s assistants’ ability to motivate stems from their college playing experiences. The entire staff, including Fitzgerald, have all played and excelled in Division I football.
“I always tell the guys, ‘I’m just teaching you stuff that I wish I knew when I was in college,'” Jerideau said. “It’s things from nutrition to recovery to hydration to strength. It’s just a matter of understanding that I’ve been where they’ve been. The things that they’re going through right now, I’ve been through it when I was in college, so if they have questions, ask me and ask this staff because we understand what they’re going through and how their bodies are feeling and where their head is.”
Any way the staff can support the players, be available for them and help their performance, they try to do it.
“We all love mentoring our players and that’s really important for us,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s why I came back to college, left the NFL and that’s why I recruited this strength staff to be a part of this. I wanted these guys around the players. Obviously, for performance reasons and injury prevention there’s none better than these guys to do it, but more importantly is mentoring these players into being men.
“They’re coming here as young men. Their parents are handing them off to us and the football coaches and we’re taking them for a time. We want to leave them in a higher place than when they came because they’re going to be older and they’re going out into the real world. We want to make sure they’re ready to do that.”
“You see them develop, you see them grow,” Artis said. “We’ve only been here for 10 months but from month one to month 10, you see those guys who were missing classes, they’re not missing classes any more. There’s a growth and maturity as athletes and as a team. I feel like the team has gotten tighter as the whole staff has been here.”
The team has also gotten stronger under Fitzgerald’s staff, continuing the training that was started back in January.
“So, off-season training was full activity,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s running. It’s conditioning. It’s agility and speed work. It’s specific position drills that we do and it’s the weight room. It’s really all inclusive.”
During the season when the coaches take over, the staff takes a step back from the running, movement pattern, agility and position work and focuses more on strength.
“We have to keep punching the clock in the weight room,” added Fitzgerald. “Really the key to success to being a strong football team is being strong at the end of the year. The strength staff really has to make sure the players are at their strongest point at the end of that 12-13 weeks so when they play those games at the end of the year, they can really make a difference as far as the outcome of the game. You want to be a team that makes small improvements every week. Over 12 weeks, that can add up to huge gains.”
Taking on the philosophy that each week is a knew season and that you need to attack that one week for that one game, keeps an edge for Tennessee’s players.
“You’re starting to see it build as we’re getting better and better each week,” Wilson said. “They’re understanding the process, they’re trusting it and they’re learning how to finish the right way.”
A key to that is how the workouts are built. Between power cleans, squats and bench presses, players are doing under hurdles, core, lower back and rotator cuff work in addition to other injury prevention training. The result is performance enhancement due to an increase in strength and power over time.
“It’s just the beginning of where we want them to go,” Farrell said. “We knew it was going to be a process. Just to see them face a challenge and then rise to the occasion is something that’s been fun to be around. There’s teams out there that I don’t think love football as much as our team loves football and aren’t willing to sacrifice like our team is. To see that and be a part of that is really all you can ask for as a coach.”