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Out with strength coaching. In with performance: Rhea and Ballou have created a one-of-a-kind program

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Saban finds two extraordinary talents at an unlikely place.

Ballou
David Ballou, Alabama’s Speed & Performance Coach
(C) Indiana University Athletics, 2018

Alabama opens the doors on its new Sports Science Center, another innovative step towards nutrition and conditioning for athletes. With its opening, the program will also see some new faces leading the S&C program.

And, honestly, it was probably time.

We loved Coach Scott Cochran’s work at Alabama over the last dozen years. For most of those, Alabama was one of the most physically dominant and freakishly-strong programs in the country. But, if you’ve looked around lately, Alabama simply is not demonstrably larger or stronger or faster at most positions than their title-contending peers. Others have closed the gap — Georgia, LSU, Auburn, and Clemson notable among them. The types of blue-chippers those programs attract, and the emphasis on speed in the modern game, are surely responsible for much of the disparity evaporating. But, even as the size and strength gap has lessened. Alabama has seen critical injuries arise — many freakish, some perhaps a focus on the nature of the workouts.

A modern game requires a modern approach. Above all, it requires speedier, healthier, and better conditioned athletes. “What worked before” is an insufficient justification for retaining a decades-old S&C model. We live in an information age driven by data and smart application of that data. That is why David Ballou and Dr. Matt Rhea are a welcome breath of fresh air: Coach David Ballou as Director of Sports Performance, and Dr. Matt Rhea as Director of Performance Science

Hailed as “game-changers,” the pair have made an immediate impact at every stop of their career. We’ve covered their bona fides before but by way of a refresher, the pair are — as many of Saban’s historical finds — Midwestern guys with their roots in the Big 10.

Dr. Rhea has drawn the most headlines, and the casual fan will find his social media accounts very informative, particularly his didactic tweets on outcomes-based training methods and performance evaluation. He is unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom in the field, and often wades into controversial areas of kinesiology.

Of the two, Dr. Rhea has earned the most coverage on this (and other sites), so we’ll let those pieces speak for themselves and instead focus a bit more on David Ballou.

Coach David Ballou is just as intriguing a hire as Dr. Rhea. It is rare to find a Moore-winning coach who also specializes in speed development and has kept starters upright through the course of a season.

Ballou came to Alabama from Indiana by way of Notre Dame and IMG Academy. He is as Hoosier State as it comes, too. He played fullback at IU, helped coach the Notre Dame OL, and was a legend at Avon High in Indiana, where his teams were national champion finalists on seven occasions and took home six titles in a dozen years across multiple sports.

After his stint at IMG, he returned to Indiana as the director of performance, and there he was united with Dr. Rhea.

Ballou helped develop a Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line, honoring the best line in the country. Two of those linemen, guard Quenton Nelson (6) and tackle Mike McGlinchey (9), were drafted in the Top 10 of the 2018 NFL Draft. Four players were selected overall.

Before coaching in college, Ballou worked as the head football strength and conditioning coach at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for two years. Both the 2015 and 2016 teams went undefeated. In 2016, seven IMG players were laser-timed at under 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash one year after having no players reach that mark. Twenty-one of the 22 starters to open the 2016 campaign also started in the final game of the season.

It is very likely this connection to IMG that landed Coach Ballou and Coach Rhea on Nick Saban’s radar in the first place. That association with IMG’s legendary athletic machines is not likely to be overlooked by recruiters either. Though Ballou is not a field coach, the S&C matters tremendously to those recruits. That is why this hire is just as intrumental and in many ways has an even greater impact on recruits than a position coach might.

The other reputation that the pair bring Tuscaloosa is perhaps as important, if not more so, and one that addresses the unspoken bugaboo: Alabama’s conditioning. Simply put, in a game that has seen more snaps added, longer game times, and an emphasis on faster over Herculean, far too many players were going down far too often with far too many serious injuries. Name the last season where Alabama did not lose a critical starter that complicated (or even derailed) a promising season. 2015, maybe?

While their past results do not guarantee that there will not be injuries in the immediate future, keeping players healthy has been one of their major accomplishments.

“It made a huge difference for us, in multiple ways,” Wright told The Indianapolis Star. “Not just for the increasing in speed and strength, but a cut in the number of documented injuries, as well as the gains we made during the season.”

“It made a huge difference for us, in multiple ways,” Wright told The Indianapolis Star. “Not just for the increasing in speed and strength, but a cut in the number of documented injuries, as well as the gains we made during the season.”

Learn more about Coach Ballou here.

At the end of the day, though, it’s about results...and they get results.

While Rhea and Ballou were at Indiana, the average top running speed of players increased by an obscene three MPH. When those Hoosier teams struggled —largely because of a porous defense and talent deficit, it wasn’t because of an athleticism gap against the big boys, either. IU held their own in sprinting contests against the conference standard-bearer, Ohio State. And they flat-out made several other conference teams look flat-footed.

“Team speed is what wins football games,” Rhea told Stack.com. “Those kind of improvements are a combination of the intense work ethic of our players and the fact Dave Ballou and I are willing to invest a ton of time into individualizing this as best we can for our players.”

What does it look like when translated to the field? I would direct your attention to the 2:56 mark below.

If that is a harbinger of the future, then not only is such an approach unique to college football; it exceeds even the standards of the pros. It will be a program that is leaps and bounds beyond its peers: “Alabama will possess a one-of-a-kind program, not only in college, but in the NFL as well,” said Dr. Lyle Cain of Andrews Sports Medicine.

Indeed, Football Scoop recognized how crucial an asset they are by naming them the No. 11 most important coaching hire of the offseason.

The rave reviews from within coaching circles, demonstrable Combine-type improvements in measurables, and results on the field speak for themselves. But Dr. Rhea and Coach Ballou’s individualized workouts within the larger framework of the program are earning the highest praise of all from their most important critics: the players...

...and the newly-recruited faces.

So, grade the hire and then chime in below. How do you feel about the hires? What do you think would be a realistic benchmark of success for Alabama’s new S&C and Speed coaches?

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Grade the Hire

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  • 88%
    A+
    (840 votes)
  • 10%
    A-/B+
    (96 votes)
  • 1%
    B-C
    (11 votes)
  • 0%
    I’m a bitter Indiana fan or skurred Boog and wanted a D-F answer on here.
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