Luke McNitt has a strong grip on what to look for in a strength and conditioning coach.
“The No. 1 thing is knowledge,” the Nebraska football team's 2016 lifter of the year says. “They can be as intense as they want, but if they don’t know what they’re doing, it can counteract all the hard work you’re doing.”
In addition, McNitt said, “It’s all about how well the whole (strength and conditioning) program works together and how it prepares you for each stage — spring ball, summer and fall camp. It’s got to be different for each period. And you have to think about injuries all the time.”
McNitt, a fullback who completed his eligibility in 2017, experienced James Dobson as the team’s head strength coach early in his Husker career, then Mark Philipp the past three years.
Zach Duval now takes the reins. In fact, Nebraska players will get a heavy dose of Duval and his staff starting Tuesday, when the team’s winter conditioning program commences at North Stadium.
I’m sure it will be a hoot — that is, if pain is your thing.
Bottom line, Nebraska players quickly will get a much better idea of what will be expected of them under the program's new leadership structure.
In fact, one could say this week is when the Scott Frost era begins in earnest.
“It’s a very important period,” McNitt said. “It’s one of the few times where you don’t have to worry about football as much and can kind of worry about your body and how you can improve it. These couple months before spring ball are where I made most of my gains.”
Nebraska obviously needs to make gains as a program. Many folks will long remember 2017 as the season when a proud Husker program spiraled into remarkable levels of softness. The scores paint the picture: 38-17, 56-14, 56-21 (at Minnesota), 56-44, 56-14 (against Iowa in Lincoln).
You hear multiple theories about what went wrong. I go straight to the top, to Mike Riley and his sunshine-and-rainbows approach to coaching — which obviously appealed to media and was particularly appealing to opponents.
What's more, Bob Diaco turned out to be a disaster, and the offensive line was a stunning disappointment.
You’ll also hear people point the finger at Philipp. He's fair game for critics in that strength coaches are regarded as the heartbeat of a team.
McNitt, though, praised Philipp’s work.
“There are so many things that go into (winning),” McNitt said. “To narrow it down to one thing, that we weren’t conditioned — that’s not true at all. I think we were in great condition.”
This is where McNitt’s expertise comes in handy.
“There’s that fine balance strength coaches are trying to find,” he said. “You can be overworked. Coaches are always trying to find that perfect groove. It’s tough to do with 150 guys. But I think the prior strength staff did a great job. I was in the best shape of my life going into the season. I know a lot of other guys were.
“The wear and tear of the season affects guys,” he added. “That’s something you can’t really account for. It’s football at the end of the day.”
Jamie Belt was pleased to hear that McNitt defended Philipp. Belt brings unique perspective to the discussion because he not only worked under Philipp as an assistant strength coach for the past three years, but also worked for Duval for several years at XPlosive Edge in Omaha.
Belt will now work full time as a trainer for world boxing champion Terence "Bud" Crawford of Omaha.
“Nebraska’s getting the best strength coach in the nation,” Belt said of Duval. “I’ve been saying Zach’s the best since I met him 15 years ago — and after working for him for about three years.”
Belt describes Duval as “a guy you don’t want to let down. He’s a good relationship builder, an intrinsic coach.”
In other words, he gets to know athletes so well that he understands what makes them tick.
Duval obviously is mindful of the speed component of the equation because Frost’s program is largely defined by speed.
“Zach taught me years ago that speed is built in the weight room,” Belt said.
Asked what Duval might bring to the table that’s different from Philipp's style, Belt said, “I don’t want to get into it too much, but Zach’s an old-school Husker Power guy. Put it this way: He’s the right man for this job right now. He’s going to bring back a lot of things that Nebraska was doing when it had that dominating culture in the mid-90s.
“You have to remember, Zach was taught by the Godfather himself.”
That would be Boyd Epley, of course.
Belt also has great respect for Philipp, describing him as a “phenomenal human being.”
“He’s the most fun guy I’ve been around in a weight room,” Belt said. “He motivated the heck out of the guys. At 5:30 in the morning, 6 in the morning, he’s bouncing off the walls. It doesn’t matter what day it is. One day he had a 100-plus degree fever and he was still bouncing off the walls.”
McNitt said Dobson, now the head strength coach at Vanderbilt, also possesses abundant energy and motivational ability.
“Every strength coach has differences in ideas, differences in personalities, but every strength coach is going to be a very intense individual, they’re going to be very motivated — just in different ways,” McNitt said. “You just always want a guy you can look to and know that at 5 a.m., you have a guy there who can get guys going, get them motivated to get ready for the day.”
McNitt has been training in Lincoln for Nebraska's pro day in March. He seeks guidance from Reggie Davis, the former Husker running backs coach. In addition, “If I go up to the stadium now,” McNitt said, “I’m sure the new coaching staff would be helpful as well."
McNitt is excited about Frost's tenure, for obvious reasons.
“I wish I could find another year of eligibility, find a way to get out there,” he said. “I’m excited for my friends who are still on the team. It’s going to be fun to watch from kind of a different perspective to see what they can do.”
The process begins in earnest Tuesday.
“You just have to treat it as a clean slate,” McNitt said. “It’s going to be different. There will be a lot of changes. But if you’re able to roll with those changes and see what these new coaches want — and how you can put yourself in the best position to succeed — then it really becomes about just coming in, putting your head down and going to work.
“The chance to start something new can be very exciting.”