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Start fast, finish strong: Strength coach brings fresh attitude, results to Florida

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Posted: Friday, October 19, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 12:23 am, Fri Oct 19, 2012.

As the fourth quarter wore on, Jon Halapio could see the fatigue creeping across LSU defensive tackle Josh Downs’ face.

Florida’s offense was in the midst of a stretch of 25 consecutive run plays, the final step in its physical 14-6 dismantling of LSU on Oct. 6.

Every down pushed the Tigers closer to the edge.

Mike Gillislee for 10. Gillislee for 9. Jeff Driskel for 3. Mack Brown for 5. Brown for 7. Gillislee for 3. Solomon Patton for 3.

Downs and the rest of the Tigers’ defensive line were running on empty.

“I was looking in his eyes, and he was dead tired,” Halapio said.

Meanwhile, Gillislee and the Gators were only getting stronger.

The man many Florida players have credited for their stamina, first-year director of strength and conditioning Jeff Dillman, was roaming the sidelines.

In all likelihood, he was yelling.

Shouting “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” is Dillman’s signature, but he often takes a more focused approach. He wants the Gators to finish.

“That’s why we play four,” Dillman yells on the sidelines. “This game is 60 minutes. Just keep punching them in the mouth.”

After the Gators consistently wilted late during close games in 2011, Dillman’s emphasis on closing strong hit home in the offseason.

And if Florida needs any extra reminders, Dillman is there on Saturdays, too.

“He was probably the most pumped-up person on the sidelines,” Jaylen Watkins said after Florida’s win against LSU. “You would think that he was going in and out of the game.”

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Turning the team coach Will Muschamp called “soft” at the end of 2011 into a group of finishers was not an overnight process.

Florida was outscored 72-22 in the fourth quarter of Southeastern Conference games last season. Most of the Gators have that number committed to memory.

“Coach Dillman pretty much ingrained it in our minds,” wide receiver Frankie Hammond Jr. said. “Every workout we came into, he reminded us. It stuck in our heads. We don’t want to have that score. It needs to be flipped around.”

Dillman has used inspirational videos and quotes from athletes like Michael Jordan, but perhaps nothing provided the Gators greater motivation than that score. Muschamp said the coaches beat the figure into the players’ heads.

The number compelled them to work harder in the weight room. When the weight training was finished, the Gators would take the practice field for 110-yard sprints.

Dillman was hired in January, and by the midpoint of spring practice offensive coordinator Brent Pease could see the difference in his linemen.

“Their bodies are changing,” Pease said on March 21.

On March 29, linebacker Jon Bostic said he had put on about 10 pounds of muscle since the end of the 2011 season.

The workload and intensity remained high through summer and into fall camp.

“It was hard,” Driskel said. “[Dillman] said going in: ‘It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to pay off and you’re going to see the results during the season.’ We’re definitely seeing them now.”

Through six games, the Gators have outscored their opponents 54-10 in the fourth quarter. They hold a 440-101 edge in rushing and win the fourth-quarter time of possession battle by an average of 9:25 to 5:35.

The trend ties in to another of Dillman’s many mantras: “Start fast, finish strong.”

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When Dillman left IMG Academy in Bradenton after two years to take a position at Florida, director Trevor Moawad knew where to begin his search for a replacement.

Moawad again plucked from the coaching tree of LSU strength and conditioning coordinator Tommy Moffitt, who is entering his 13th season with the Tigers and has produced some of the best strength coaches in all of sports.

In addition to Dillman and Scott Gadeken — Dillman’s replacement as the head of physical conditioning at IMG — Moffitt’s teachings have sculpted Florida State head strength and conditioning coach Vic Viloria and Alabama director of strength and conditioning Scott Cochran.

While working under Moffitt as LSU’s assistant strength and conditioning coach from 2003-06, Dillman learned the value of a strength program based on Olympic lifting, which Moawad described as a “lost art.”

Many modern weight-training programs focus on toning muscles and preventing injuries, but Olympic training is about building explosive strength. The Gators have shifted their weight room work to include mostly snatches and clean and jerks. With fewer reps at heavier weight, Florida’s players have added mass and explosiveness. Defensive tackle Omar Hunter said he gained more in the most recent offseason than in any of his previous four with UF.

“I feel like I’m more explosive now than I’ve ever been,” Hunter said.

Bostic echoed the sentiment.

“I feel more explosive, stronger than I’ve ever been,” he said.

Muschamp saw the value in the system when he was with LSU as the linebackers coach in 2001 and as the defensive coordinator in 2002-04.

When Mickey Marotti — UF’s strength coach of seven seasons — left Florida after 2011 to work for Urban Meyer at Ohio State, Muschamp saw an opportunity to get “back to the old core lifting that I was accustomed to.”

“I saw the success that we had doing the core lifts and squat and power clean and the development of those players [at LSU],” Muschamp said. “When Jeff and I talked, that’s what I said I want. We’re going back to what we know.”

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What Dillman brings to Florida’s weight room is more than just an intimate knowledge of elite physical training.

He brings energy, he brings enthusiasm, and he brings passion.

“When you walked in the IMG athletic center, you knew you were in Jeff Dillman’s house,” Moawad said. “Whether you were Maria Sharapova, Cam Newton or a 13-year-old, you knew that you were coming in there to work.”

Whether he was working with a teenage tennis player, a surefire first-round NFL Draft pick or the senior executive of a Fortune 500 company, Dillman approached training the same way.

They’d all hear the “Yeah, yeah, yeah” yell and they’d all get a taste of his comedic side, which included shouts like “Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey,” for early-morning workouts.

Moawad, who specializes in mental conditioning, saw how everything from Dillman’s tone of voice, to his inflection and even his body language helped him get the most out of athletes.

“You’re going to be motivated through fear, through incentive or through your desire to be great,” Moawad said. “Jeff knew how to use all three of those very, very well.”

Dillman always moved around the weight room quickly, wanting to be at the “eye of the storm,” as he called it.

Moawad said the shift from the technicians IMG usually employed to a motivator like Dillman came as a shock to the athletes. Not long after Dillman was hired, they all came around.

“They loved him,” Moawad said.

Dillman has brought that attitude to Florida.

“He has a lot of energy,” Bostic said. “He’s funny. He helps us have a good time in the weight room.”

Dillman has also brought a championship pedigree.

After winning a BCS Championship with LSU in 2003, Dillman served with the Tigers for two more seasons before becoming the director of strength and conditioning at Appalachian State, his alma mater.

Appalachian State was coming off of an FCS national championship, and Dillman played an integral role in winning two more.

“While he put his own stamp on things, it was more a matter of him maintaining and building upon what was already here, which he did,” Appalachian State coach Jerry Moore said. “He was a huge part of us winning two more national championships in 2006 and 2007.”

Dillman won national championships in his first season at both LSU and Appalachian State. Florida is No. 2 in the BCS poll.

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When Muschamp took to the podium after Florida’s win against LSU, Dillman came up within the first 20 seconds.

“I can’t speak further without talking about Jeff Dillman,” Muschamp said. “It was very evident on the football field that we had a strong, physical football team.”

Later that night, Pease sent Dillman and assistant director for strength and conditioning Jesse Ackerman a text message: “Thanks. You’re doing a great job. Thanks for showing up in this game.”

“Our guys got stronger as it went along,” Pease said. “When I look down there and [the LSU players] have got their hands on their hips, and our guys are still rearing to go, that’s a product of what they’ve done from the summer.”

In one offseason, Dillman has helped bring about a total transformation. A season after finishing 7-6, the Gators are 6-0 and in the thick of the national championship race.

“Last year we weren’t in that kind of conditioning,” center Jonotthan Harrison said. “That kind of condition is sorry. But now, this year, it’s really showing that all our work in the offseason is really paying off.”

Contact Greg Luca at gluca@alligator.org.

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