Iron Works

Iron Works

The football, launched twisting from the fingertips of Pitt quarterback Bill Stull, spiraled 40 yards into the cold damp of a late November Pittsburgh night. Receiver Jonathan Baldwin, running a post pattern, streaked down the right sideline, past the flatfooted Notre Dame cornerback tasked with the unenviable assignment of covering him solo.

Three yards short of the goal line, Baldwin slowed to adjust his timing, held off the Irish corner with his 6’5”, 225 pound frame, and then laid out horizontally, corralling Stull’s perfectly placed throw beyond the reach of the Irish corner - who was so appreciably overmatched that he hadn’t yet turned around to find the ball as it landed in Baldwin’s hands. This second quarter touchdown catch - prominent among the 2009 season’s enduring SportsCenter highlight clips - was one maybe a handful of collegiate receivers in America could have made, but it was the athleticism of Baldwin’s leap and body control that the Notre Dame player couldn’t match.

“We keep running routes,” says Baldwin, a sophomore, “and as the game goes on, I can feel defensive backs get weaker because they don’t want to jam us anymore. That’s because of James.”

Don’t call Pitt’s James Smith a strength and conditioning coach, because he’ll correct you. In his own vernacular-changing language, he’s a physical preparation coach for American Football, and for the past three seasons, he’s been the only coach entrusted with the physical preparation of Pitt’s skill players - a designation encompassing nearly every position on the field except the offensive and defensive lines.

Unlike most Division I programs, where the head strength coach prepares a football team in its entirety with a gaggle of assistants and interns doing his bidding, Pitt’s football physical preparation department consists of a unique arrangement where Smith and Head Physical Preparation Coach Buddy Morris share coaching duties on an equal, independent basis, with Morris handling the linemen and all major injury rehabilitation, and Smith working exclusively, and autonomously, with just about everyone else - almost two-thirds of the team.

“I owe Buddy a great deal of thanks for the work I’m able to accomplish,” says Smith. “He made it clear right off the bat that we’d have a separation of state. I’d have the skill guys, and he’d take the linemen. The biodynamic demands of football are unique to all positions on the field, so each position necessitates its own specialized brand of physical preparation.”

Smith’s charges have turned heads since his arrival at Pitt, with Philadelphia Eagles running back Lesean McCoy, Arizona Cardinals running back/returner Larod Stephens-Howling and San Francisco 49ers linebacker Scott McKillop among the players with whom he’s worked extensively.

“I was extremely lucky to have been able to work with James for three years,” says McKillop. “He has a great feel and understanding for the human body, and the program was so much more advanced when he arrived. He knows everything about all the new technology and research in the field.”

“I can’t wait to get back to Pitt to train with James because of how fast he got me,” adds Stephens-Howling. “The running aspect of what we did was great for me, because James got my top-end speed way better. That’s what got me to the next level.”

An obvious prerequisite for skill players in Division I football is the development of speed, an area in which Smith specializes through his research and correspondence with several of the world’s foremost authorities in the field - people who consider him a colleague. “Our arrangement at Pitt worked out seamlessly,” he says, “because one major element of skill players’ preparation is speed training, and along with my study of sport training, I’ve made it a point over the years to prioritize my understanding and practice of speed training. While the ability to move very fast is largely inherited genetically, in order to fulfill an athlete’s potential in this regard, the coach must take a very thoughtful and well-planned approach.”

Replacing the mercurial McCoy, a two-time first team All-Big East selection and the cornerstone of the Panthers’ offense, was Pitt’s primary dilemma this past offseason, and you can be certain the prospect of inserting in his stead an under-recruited 5’8”, 195 pound true freshman named Dion Lewis was one that made for a spring and summer of sleepless nights for head coach Dave Wannstedt and his staff.

What most casual fans don’t realize is that before summer training camp starts - with its requisite two-a-days, vomiting and ice baths - college football players spend the majority of their time with their strength coaches. Before Lewis played a single down for the Panthers, his preparation was placed in Smith’s hands in January 2009.

“The first thing I noticed,” says Lewis, “is that James was really specific with everything. I felt like I was doing things a hundred percent the right way. Everything was simulated to the way it is in a game.”

Lewis’s 2009 season exceeded McCoy’s work at Pitt in virtually every category, with the Albany, NY product turning in a season for the ages: a Big East - and Pitt - freshman record 1,799 yards rushing, with 17 touchdowns and multiple honors including Big East Offensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year - the first time a player has won both honors in the same year since Michael Vick did so at Virginia Tech - and Second Team AP All-American. Not bad for a running back who, according to most preseason publications, was “in the mix” for possible playing time.

“A lot of it was because of James,” says Lewis. “We were able to train a lot harder because we weren’t as sore after workouts as I was used to. He knows how to time everything. My legs got so much stronger with him, and I always felt like I was getting stronger as the game went on and the season went on.”

“Part of what I do” says Smith “entails identifying peculiarities that are unique to each player as an individual and adapting the training accordingly. I’m absolutely committed to doing everything I can for my players, regardless of whether they’re starters or on scout team. In Dion’s case, I think I was the only one in our facility that was fully confident in January with regard to what our running back situation would be come September. I remember telling Coach Wannstedt and Coach Walker that the running back position will be the least of our concerns and that, with full respect to Lesean’s accomplishments, Dion was going to surpass the marks set by McCoy.”

Smith’s system is unique among American football strength programs primarily because of Smith himself. As a teenager, introduced by his father to international track and field, he began to study alternate means of physical preparation for sport - methodologies both practiced by world-class Olympic level coaches and ignored, for the most part, by American strength coaches. Years of comprehensive study of straight-from-the-source training manuals authored by some of the world’s preeminent sport scientists and coaches have pointed Smith in directions few Americans have cared to veer.

“I hold myself accountable as a leader, communicator, technical instructor and programmer,” says Smith. “As a technical instructor, it’s my responsibility to effectively instruct the orthopedically sound and performance enhancing mechanical execution of all training means. Our programming is complex, and I ensure that what I create for my players is highly appropriate for their positional requirements, their stage of physical preparation and where we are in the training year.”

In Smith’s words, training for Pitt’s skill position players is individualized for each position based on the biodynamic and bioenergetic structure of what’s specifically necessary for each position. In other words, they’re trained in a manner that’s optimal for what they’re actually doing on the field, taking into consideration the geometric positions of each player’s movement, along with the forces he both generates and sustains and the energetic machinery and physiological adaptations specific to his needs.

“There was such a drastic change when James got here, because he’s so intelligent” says First Team AP All-American tight end Dorin Dickerson, who with his 4.38 40 yard dash time and 42 inch vertical leap promises to make plenty of headway at the NFL Combine in February. “Everything he says makes sense. I’ll ask him about anything, and he’s always right. He also earned my respect right away because he’s big and in shape and trains hard himself.”

The training methods and exercises imposed on athletes, Smith says, are “irritants” to their bodies. The act of training literally irritates the human organism, and the body will adapt to being irritated. The idea, then, is to irritate the organism just enough to promote continued adaptations while effectively managing the athletes’ workloads and recovery process.

“All coaches,” says Smith, “should have a thorough understanding of the biodynamics and bioenergetics of their sport. When you have this understanding, all you have to do is formulate a hierarchy of training objectives at any given time and plan your athletes’ training accordingly.”

There’s an intangible quality to any coach. Maybe we know what this is, and maybe we don’t, but it’s something a coach possesses that ultimately determines how much of what they’ve passed on is actually put into practice by their athletes. Smith’s system, his players say, acts as a highly effective conduit to their on-field success.

“The whole team buys in,” says Stull, perhaps Pitt’s most embattled player in recent years. “We know we’re going to just destroy teams in the fourth quarter.”

Stull, a senior who led Pitt to a 19-17 victory over North Carolina in December’s Meineke Car Care Bowl, finished this past season with one of the highest passing efficiency ratings in the nation - a noteworthy turnaround after a career marked by injury and a constant battle for his job.

“James is more than just a coach,” says Stull. “He’s a friend, and he stuck with me, and it’s great to have a coach who knows exactly what he’s talking about. Going into bowl week, my arm felt great, like I had just started camp and didn’t just play a full season. I owe that to James. He doesn’t miss a single detail.”