Editor’s Note: Texas A&M Director of Football Sports Performance Larry Jackson, a standout linebacker and defensive end for the Aggies from 1991-94, sat down with 12th Man Magazine’s Rusty Burson last month to discuss the physical condition of Texas A&M football team, his strength and conditioning techniques and his appreciation for the new Davis Center for Aggie Football.
Q: How pleased are you with the overall physical condition of the team and how the guys have responded to your workouts?
Jackson: It’s been good. I was really excited initially about watching some of the players on the field and how they responded in games. You can have a guy who is a weight room warrior, and you hope that his efforts in the weight room will translate to the field. But it’s not a given. I’ve seen plenty of guys who could perform in the weight room, but it didn’t translate to the field. Other than watching some highlights and seeing some film from last year, I didn’t know how these current guys would put to use what we have stressed and taught them. At this point, I’d say I am pleased with how the guys have responded on the field. Training these guys and seeing the product we put on the field, you know our staff always wants to make sure that what we have done during the offseason translates to the field. So seeing our guys flying around for four quarters every weekend, seeing the excitement and the energy that they play with, and to hear them talk to us about how good they feel during the games makes our staff feel pretty good that it actually translated and the guys can see where the future of the program is going.
Q: So, were you particularly nervous heading into that first game of the year against Florida when you still didn’t know whether it would translate or not?
Jackson: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. The players and everyone else around here weren’t privileged to something that Coach Sumlin and I were privileged to in that we knew our (strength and conditioning) formula could be highly effective in training guys to succeed on the field. We’d seen that time and again at (the University of) Houston. But here, we were applying that formula to a different type of athlete: athletes who are generally bigger and stronger than what we were used to seeing all the time. We wanted to see how this program would affect an athlete like that. Coach Sumlin had total faith in what (assistant strength and conditioning coach) Chad Dennis and I brought from Houston, but my anxiousness and nervousness prior to the game was just in wondering exactly how it would be translated. My wife can tell you that I was kind of worked up and she was like, ‘Honey, just calm down. You have done what you can do.’
So, we go out and start playing, and our guys are flying around and they are laying their hats everywhere, being very physical and wanting to prove to the world that we fit in the SEC. A lot of our guys took the skepticism in the offseason personally, and they worked very hard to prove we belonged in the SEC. They bought into what we were doing, and that made a difference in our preparation and work ethic. So, during that game, I’m watching guys like Damontre (Moore) running around, flying from sideline to sideline and making plays. It was great to see that. When you see the program coming together and see all the hard work paying off it feels good to see what we have done since January.
Q: Sticking with that Florida game, there were an awful lot of Gators pulling up with injuries—real or fake—that slowed down the pace of the game, and particularly the A&M offense, dramatically. Do you think rule changes need to be made to prevent the apparent fake injuries from happening?
Jackson: That is so hard to judge, because you would hate to crucify a kid if he is hurt for real, but on the flip side, if a kid is hurt for real then he probably shouldn’t be coming back in the game on the next play. It is kind of a double-edged sword. You don’t want to falsely accuse a kid of faking an injury, but if you are really looking out for the safety of the athlete, then he probably should sit out one minute or one series or something like that. I almost don’t know where you take that. At the end of the day, I just tell my staff that I want to make sure that it isn’t our guys who are lying down on the field. I also tell our guys that if you are lying down on the field, and I think you are fine, then I will come get you myself. You don’t want that. It is a pride thing. It is an attitude thing. You don’t ever want to let another player think he got the best of you. If you are really hurt, that is fine and there is nothing that you can do about it. But we aren’t going to play that game.
Q: Since you mentioned Damontre Moore, I believe he may be the poster boy for what you accomplished with this team in just a matter of months. He displayed flashes of greatness the first two years here, but then he would take stretches off. Is he one guy you are really happy with in terms of his conditioning?
Jackson: Just watching him makes our whole staff feel good. If you work hard, buy into the program and if you want to be successful, it can be done, and Damontre is proof. Damontre has one speed on the field and that is 100 percent when you snap the football. You almost have to tailor your program to accommodate a guy like Damontre, because it’s not that he wants to come out of the game; it’s that he gives 100 percent at all times when he is in the game. So if he is not trained to go that hard on all the plays, then he will have to come out. I would like him to be in such excellent shape that he is able to play every snap at 100 percent. That’s very hard, and most people have no idea how hard it is. But in the first game of the year on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Damontre missed only five defensive snaps through the whole game. That’s impressive.
Q: Final point about that Florida game: I saw you walking off the field in an apparent mood where I—even as a longtime friend—didn’t want to stop and try to congratulate you. You say you were relieved by how the guys held up physically, but you didn’t seem very happy. Would that be accurate?
Jackson: (Laughing) I will say this: You go back to the Ole Miss game where we had six turnovers and still won the game. You can smile afterward because we won the game, and there was no need to find a moral victory. If some other team morally kicks our butt and we win the game, I’m OK with that. I would rather have that than for us to kick their butts and them win the game at the end. And you’ll never, ever see me smiling if we are walking off Kyle Field following a loss. As I have reminded our players numerous times—and as you and I have discussed many times—I never lost a game here when I played at A&M. Not one. So, I’m not about moral victories against Florida or LSU, especially at Kyle Field.
Q: Coming in here as the head strength and conditioning coach, you said right away that you were going to absolutely, positively make certain that your players were fit, flexible and strong in the hips and midsection. Why is that so important?
Jackson: It is all about power endurance. Success on the football field is a lot more dependent on power endurance than what you can max on one rep. You have to be pretty strong to succeed, but you have to have endurance. You have to be strong for a long period of time. Your core and your hips are your power zones. When your hips get tired, that is why athletes play high, as opposed to keeping a low center of gravity. It is not because their legs are tired. If a guy is a 700-pound squatter, but he plays high because his hips are weak…he’s going to get beat.
It is really so simple that it’s complex to a lot of strength coaches. I don’t know if they over-think it or what. I think I am just barely smart enough—or maybe too dumb to over-think it—to know what it takes to play on the football field, as I have been a player myself and I know what gets tired, what weakens you as the game goes along, how important it is to play at a low pad level and so forth. Personally, I could run all summer, lift weights all summer and still feel like there was something that I was not doing to fully prepare me to play at maximum effort and technique on every snap. I figured it out, and I was like, ‘Ding, ding, ding. It’s the core and the hips.’ We are going to train our players this way, our players are going to hit the field this way with great core strength and explosiveness in their hips, and they will be able to go all day. If someone else trains their team that same way, then it’s going to be a dogfight. But if they don’t, we are going to have that edge.
Q: When talking to many of your players about you and your style and your focus on the core and hips, they always talk about the amount of time and focus you put on hurdles, having them go over, under, around and every which way imaginable across the hurdles. What’s that all about?
Jackson: That is a hip endurance exercise. A lot of teams do it, but we do something a little bit different with it, and I can’t have enough hurdles in a weight room to train the players. It really helps your dynamic hip flexibility. You develop strength going around it, over it, under it, and you are doing a lot of things where you are forcing your hips to bend. The translation is that you are forcing your hips to bend and move in a similar way to what you do on the field during the game. So, what we try to do is football-specific movements. Everything we do is designed to give us an edge on that field. We don’t do a specific conditioning test to make our strength and conditioning coaches feel good about themselves. To me, that’s an easy way out, like turning them over to Coach Sumlin and saying, ‘I’ve done my job getting them in shape; now it’s your turn.’ No, Coach Sumlin and I both know what it takes to play football and what it takes to be conditioned for football. The test of what we’re doing—Coach Dennis, (assistant strength and conditioning coach) Monty Gibson and me—is what our guys do on the football field each and every week. I really don’t care how much one guy can max or how fast he can run a quarter-mile if he is not getting the job done on the football field each week.
We put in a lot of work with these guys from January to August in the weight room, but the real test that matters comes when it is the third or fourth quarter, and both sides have been pounding each other in a classic SEC football game. Then what matters most is who has the most explosive hips; who has dynamic hip flexibility; who has the greatest core strength; and who can play at a lower pad level. When I see Damontre making plays from sideline to sideline, Johnny Manziel making plays all over the field and running away from guys, and when I see our offensive line asserting control in a key situation, no one gets more satisfaction out of those ‘passing tests’ than me and Chad and Monty. We are all bouncing around and giving high fives.
Q: Back in January, you told these players that they would likely hate you from January to August, but they would love you from September to the end of the season. So, are you feeling the love?
Jackson: (Laughing) When I see them flying around and the excitement on their faces, I know they are appreciating us. They may not tell me they love me, but I know deep-down inside that they know how much we care about them, how much time and effort we have invested in them and how much we want them to succeed. They don’t need me, Chad or Monty to be their friend. There are 100-something players on this team and 50,000 students on this campus that they can have as friends. They need me to be their coach and to push them to where they need to be. When we are out there playing and they are smiling—regardless of whether we are winning or losing at the moment—and they know that they are in condition to be able to play all the way to then end, that’s satisfying to me. They know they are in the condition to make the plays to win the game at the end. I know they love being in that condition and having that assurance. And I love not seeing them stumbling around out there or lying on the field. So, while they may not admit that they love us, there is a whole lot of ‘like’ going on.
Q: I was talking with Monty Davis during the Arkansas game, and he was raving about what you were doing with these players in this new facility, which bears the name of Monty and his wife, Becky. Can you even gauge what this sparkling, 14,000-square-foot facility has done for you guys so far?
Jackson: Unfortunately, we didn’t have it to train for this season, because we moved into it after we started two-a-days. But it’s obviously going to help our players maintain their strength during the season and help them improve tremendously during the offseason. But you could have the best training knowledge in the world, and with no athletes, it doesn’t mean anything. So, what really excites me is when we bring in recruits and show them the commitment that people like Becky and Monty Davis have made. This right here gives us the facility we need to recruit the horsepower we need to play in this conference. Personally, I have never seen a college football-only facility that looks like this. When these kids walk in here from high school to see the games and they are looking around this facility, they can see that people like (lead-gift donors) Becky and Monty Davis and (fellow seven-figure donors) Ashley and David Coolidge and Peggy and Dan Allen Hughes are not just showing up to root for them; they are investing their hard-earned dollars in the student-athletes to help them become the best they can be.
It’s not just lip service. They see the names and the pictures up on the walls, and these players know they go to a school where the former students care that much and pour their resources into the program. And I tell these recruits that this facility, along with me, is proof of the power of the Aggie network and reach. For me to be able to come back to my alma mater and to walk into a situation like this where they just moved into the SEC and they literally told me I had millions of dollars at my disposal to equip a brand new weight room…well, I am living proof that this school looks after its own long after you have played your last down. I came here to play football, I left and went to the league, they hired me back to start my career here, and then I left to go get better and they hired me back when I was good enough to come back. This Davis Center and me being hired here speaks volumes about the commitment to excellence and sincere caring for players that A&M is all about.
Q: I know you have been pleased so far, but I also know you, and I can only imagine that you are looking at this as just the start of something really big, right?
Jackson: Absolutely. Coach Sumlin is going to keep recruiting great athletes. I am going to keep bringing firepower in here. We are going to keep pushing the program and fine-tuning all the stallions the best we can. We keep trying to be the best in our knowledge, approach and technology, and the more players we get and the longer the kids are in the program, the more the attitude and swagger is going to improve and increase. Eventually, there are going to be so many players in here that if you are the guy on the top (of the depth chart), then you better stay hungry or someone is going knock you off. And if you aren’t on top and if you aren’t hungry, you are never going to get on the field. Once you have a program like that, then every week you get better because the guy behind you is pushing you so hard. When I was here as a player, we used to say that you better never give your backup a chance to shine because we had so many players here. If your backup shined brightly enough, you might not see the field again. The competition was intense. That is what we are trying to create here now. The competition to be on that field representing Texas A&M is just getting started.