KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After a 2015 campaign filled with too many injuries and fourth-quarter face-plants, Butch Jones made a hard choice.
In March, Jones parted ways with longtime strength and conditioning coordinator Dave Lawson, who worked for Jones at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and UT.
In advance of Tennessee’s most important season in a decade, Jones wanted an increased emphasis on explosiveness, flexibility and power, so he didn’t have to look far to find a new strength and conditioning czar.
Michael Szerszen, Lawson’s right-hand man at UT, was handed the keys to weight room, earning a promotion without a new title.
This offseason, Szerszen implemented a system focused on group training, Olympic lifting and injury-prevention drills. More front squats, more power cleans, more clean pulls.
“The team really took to the changes,” Szerszen told SEC Country.
“They embraced it from Day 1. Really our (whole philosophy) is focused on total athlete development. We put a major emphasis on the explosive. On the power movements.”
There was an adjustment period for most of Tennessee’s players to learn the new lifting techniques, but Szerszen said all he had to do was “show them the results” for the team to truly buy-in.
“The whole group was coachable. We motivated them,” he said.
“Show them we care about them. Caring about them is giving them a pat on the back when they do well and then pushing them when they’re not living up to their own standards.”
Strength and conditioning staffs are praised every offseason, but Vols players swear the results are real.
“It’s helped us a bunch. The strength staff did a great job with us,” star defensive end Derek Barnett told SEC Country.
“They don’t ever get enough credit. We just came in the morning everyday with a good mindset, knowing we were this close to playing in some big ballgames last year, in order to take that next step we saw it in the weight room this offseason.”
Under Szerzen, Tennessee has embraced more sports science, too, using tools like ’Catapult’ and other GPS trackers as a way to test how workouts translate to the field. Players say the flexibility training and short-burst speed sessions have turned Tennessee into a totally different team.
“All our explosive work has really translated to fall camp,” said sophomore defensive back Micah Abernathy, who Szerzen singled out as one of the stars in the weight room.
“We’re doing more speed training and more explosiveness. That’s something that we didn’t have as much before. It’s way more of a focus now. To play in the SEC you have to be explosive. You have to have speed just to last. And if you want to succeed, you have to take it a step further and that’s what we did.”
Perhaps the most notable change in Szerzen’s system is how much more individual attention each player receives in the new small group settings. Senior offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman focused on his hip flexibility, while Abernathy concentrated on improving his lower-body power.
Although Szerzen deflected credit for Tennessee’s offseason changes, junior cornerback Emmanuel Mosley gladly did the heavy lifting for him.
“Man, I really like the new (system),” said Mosley, who teammates noted is the strongest player pound-for-pound in the locker room.
“I like the way we switched to Olympic lifts because that’s what it takes to be more successful on the football field. You got to bring that extra little oomph when you hit.”
Jesse Simonton covers Tennessee football and recruiting for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and SECCountry.com