The change was immediate and it was shocking but the results were undeniable.
Elijah Conliffe remembers the first time Nick Savage made the Gators go through a “hold the rope” drill. Florida had been split up into four teams during offseason workouts and each team had a long rope to hold while they ascended the mountain of stairs.
“It was hard,” he recalled. “But I had my teammates around me, encouraging me and pushing me.”
Khairi Clark has been around for three coaching staffs — remarkable both positively and negatively — and he said he had never run stadiums until Savage made it a regular occurrence.
Running has been a staple for the Gators so much so that Monday Clark said the team is “running to death” but it’s paying off. Conliffe (listed at 6-4, 317 lbs.) and fellow defensive tackle T.J. Slaton (6-4, 358) had trouble running gassers after one of the first spring practices. Conliffe had senior tight end C’yontai Lewis literally pushing him to get the big defensive tackle to move faster and finish the drill, which was a punishment for some players showing up late to class the day before.
“When it first started off, me and TJ were really struggling. But, as the spring went on, we got a lot more condition, more technically-sound,” Conliffe said. “Maybe between the second scrimmage and the third scrimmage. That’s where I felt my best, and then, from there, it was pretty good.”
They’re not a track team, though. The Gators are making strides under a new and greatly improved strength program led by Savage. The before and after pictures that Savage and his staff had made up during the spring were eye opening, leading many to ask what in the world was the last staff doing with the team?
Savage puts an emphasis on straining in everything you do. It’s a mindset where your mind can take over when your body is telling you it’s done. It isn’t and Savage is pushing each player to find a limit they didn’t think they previously had.
The most shocking quote came from Clark, who readily admitted that the Gators were physically outmatched on the field on more than one occasion in 2017.
“I felt like we weren’t as strong as what we are right now, because of, you know, the staff we had last year, we didn’t get pushed as hard as to what this staff does for us,” Clark said. “I feel it’s a big difference now, because this staff has actually made all of us very stronger, and we’re noticing it during practice.”
How many games though?
“Last year,” Clark responded. “I would honestly say it was the majority of the games.”
That’s not supposed to happen at the University of Florida and it’s something that Savage and Dan Mullen simply won’t tolerate.
Across the board the players are noticing a difference. Zach Carter, a redshirt freshman, noted that his weight jumped up more than 10 pounds while his body fat decreased from 23% to 18% and his squat has improved nearly 60 pounds as well.
“We don’t do one-rep max, but last time we squatted I did 450 for five,” he said. “So I’m getting better.”
Jabari Zuniga reported that his squat last year was around 400 pounds. He’s pushing a cool 500 now.
“It’s extremely different. We come in everyday and you’ve gotta get your mind right because you’re gonna be squatting heavy, you’re gonna be benching heavy. You’ve just gotta get your mind right,” Zuniga said. “With the last coach, it was more of we’d go like one week heavy, one week off. But with Coach Savage, it’s like every day you come in and you’ve gotta be ready to work.”
That’s the mentality and culture change that has taken place in the first seven months that this new staff has been in Gainesville. Football is mentally and physically demanding and thanks to the change in the strength and conditioning staff the Gators will be better prepared this season in both areas.