By Zach Abolverdi, Correspondent
All things are difficult before they become easy — even Nick Savage’s workouts.
Florida’s director of football strength and conditioning “shocked the system” with his first offseason in early 2018, transforming the physique of several players. Savage put the Gators through another grueling regime over the past two months.
“It was tough, but guys got through it,” wide receiver Josh Hammond said. “It’s just work at the end of the day.”
The work was more strenuous and came with higher expectations in 2019. However, the team’s readiness for Savage’s program paled in comparison to last year.
“Night and day,” Savage said. “It was still a grind. Definitely able to push the envelope and go harder this year.”
The purpose of Savage’s first offseason was to make the players uncomfortable. When they arrived on Day 1, a sign had been placed outside of the weight room with new rules: no cellphones, no eating, no sitting down, no yawning.
And from that moment on, Savage’s standards served as a wake-up call for the Gators.
“We did a lot more disciplinary stuff,” Hammond said. “He had to test us to see what kind of shape we were in and get guys prepared for the workouts we were going to do throughout that first offseason.”
Florida’s introduction to Savage was a 2.7-mile campus run with four workout stations (abs, push-ups, pull-ups, bodyweight squats). The players weren’t allowed to go home until the entire team finished. Everybody eventually made it.
“Barely,” Hammond said.
This year’s offseason program didn’t feature that workout on the first day. Hammond said Savage started with football training rather than conditioning.
“He knows guys are more in shape now, so we didn’t have to do the campus run,” Hammond said. “First day back for workouts, guys were excited to go. You could just tell it was a different energy.”
The team still had to run, but Savage opted for stadiums instead. Good thing the mid-year enrollees didn’t have to cover the whole campus.
“I felt bad for a couple of the freshmen on the first stadium run we had,” linebacker David Reese said. “A couple freshmen died on that. I felt bad. But they made it through, most of them.”
Savage’s hardest workout was once again the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” on Feb. 14. Reese vowed that the Gators outworked every team in the country that day. Savage referred to the workout by a different name this year.
“Celebration,” Savage said, “Valentine’s Day Celebration. But it was good. Same mindset as we go into it.
“No matter what’s in front of you, who’s in front of you, where we’re at, we’re going to go attack and go win.”
The team took that mentality into the V-Day “celebration” and responded much better than in 2018. The workout had not changed from the year before, so the returning players were ready for it.
“Valentine’s Day was still the toughest day, but guys attacked it because they knew what to expect,” Hammond said. “Last year, guys were kind of timid and scared to see what it was going to be like.
“We had only heard stories about it. This time around, we were just telling the freshmen, ‘You better be ready.’ It was the same workout.”
Savage’s overall program was not the same in Year 2. Other workouts intensified, max-out limits increased and players raised the bar — not just on bench press.
“The expectations are higher,” Reese said. “We threw more weight on the bar. Naturally, as a team, we got stronger like we’re supposed to.
“Coach Savage just cranked up the intensity. When a guy has that much passion, it makes you want to work harder for him.”
Savage said players were willing to buy in last year, but had not been pushed to their limits before. With a year under his belt, he has figured out the key to every kid and how to motivate them.
“We know all these guys,” Savage said. “Know what makes them tick, what buttons to push, their physical needs, their mental capacity. All those little things add up to their success, so knowing them has allowed us to push harder.
“We were able to push harder and turn percentages, reps, schemes, all those things. … Last year it took us a while to build into the true workouts. This year from the get-go we were able to put the gas pedal down.”
Florida coach Dan Mullen wouldn’t want it any other way. UF made significant strides last year in the weight room and on the field, but Mullen said the players had to work harder and do more this offseason in order to make a jump in 2019.
That began with Savage and his strength staff.
“They do a great job,” Mullen said. “To see some of the gains we’ve made, just physically. Hopefully we’ve made some good physical gains during the offseason program.
“They develop them physically and mentally and for their health. Not just to get bigger, faster and stronger, but also for health purposes and for getting them stability.”
Savage lives up to his last name, but he said safety is always the top priority. Former Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair tragically died last summer from a heatstroke during an offseason workout, which led to the firing of Terrapins coach and former UF defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin.
Savage made sure to educate himself on what went wrong at Maryland.
“We have different modalities,” he said. “It’s a full program-wide job that we have to do. We use technology, we rely heavily on the medical staff. There’s no push back. We’re all in this together. At the end of the day, safety is our No. 1 concern.”
Savage has his handprints all over this team, from the quarterbacks to the defensive backs. Star cornerback Marco Wilson hasn’t played football in six months (ACL), but looks absolutely jacked thanks to Savage.
“His program is crazy,” Wilson said, “so it’s going to get everyone right.”
Quarterbacks Feleipe Franks and Emory Jones have both bulked up, with Florida’s incumbent starter up to 245 pounds. Franks said he played 20 pounds lighter last season.
“Coach Savage, that’s my boy. I’m a big fan,” Franks said. “What he does just helps me be more confident running the ball, being able to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball taking hits.
“I love how he does his program. When it’s time to work, it’s time to work. But when he can be your friend, he can also get on to you. That’s the type of coach I’ve always liked. Ultimately, it makes you a better player.”