ATHENS, Ga. — When strength-and-conditioning coach Dave Van Halanger first came to Georgia, he would hand out special awards at the end of each summer to every player who could bench press, squat and power clean a total of more than 1,200 pounds. It was an exclusive club.
This year, he would have distributed 39 of those awards, with more than a few players topping the mark by a wide margin.
The results don’t come as a surprise following an offseason conditioning program that was widely considered the toughest in years at Georgia, but the numbers were still a welcome reward.
“I just saw all offseason a lot of guys who really wanted to get better, really wanted to improve themselves and improve the team,” said fullback Shaun Chapas, who won the team’s MVP as the best conditioned big skill-position player this year. “Overall, I think people really just want to win this year.”
From the start of offseason workouts, the attitude in Georgia’s weight room was different, more intense. As the losses mounted and the trainer’s room grew increasingly crowded last year, the morale in the gym slipped. But when the season finally ended, Georgia’s veterans were determined to make coming to work fun again.
Chapas, defensive end Justin Houston and linebacker Darius Dewberry held their own competition to see who could power clean the most weight by the end of the summer. In more than 30 years as a strength coach, Van Halanger had only seen a player lift more than 400 pounds once. This year, both Chapas and Houston did it.
Houston set the team mark with a power clean of 420 pounds, and Van Halanger said the number would have been higher if the strength staff hadn’t put an end to his heroics.
On the bench press, 29 players lifted more than 400 pounds and two — Justin Anderson and Jeff Owens — each topped 500.
Tanner Strickland was on pace to set a team record by squatting 700 pounds before he hurt his shoulder, but 14 other players topped the 600-pound mark, led by Brandon Wood’s 650-pound squat.
“There were guys everywhere that just worked hard, and when it came time for max day, it showed,” said Rennie Curran, who set the linebacker records for squats and bench press.
More than the sheer numbers, however, it was the quantity of work that impressed Van Halanger.
NCAA regulations bar coaches from overseeing workouts during the offseason, and Van Halanger is not allowed to track attendance. Following last year’s failures, however, he didn’t have to.
Georgia’s seniors began a strict training regiment from the first days after the 2008 season ended, and they held every one of their teammates accountable for getting the most out of their offseason.
“Leadership is such an important phase,” Van Halanger said.
“This year, the seniors really took a role in making sure every player was there and working. They really wanted to make it a great year. I think 10-3 really left a bad taste in a lot of these guys’ mouths, and they don’t want that taste anymore. They wanted to do some things that were really different, and since Jan. 1, they have really come together.”
It’s not that participation wasn’t always strong, but this year things were taken to a new level.
When players reported for the first day of fall camp Monday, head coach Mark Richt said there were no conversations about their summer adventures. No one had left.
Even the freshmen who arrived just two months earlier had made significant progress. Wide receiver Rantavious Wooten has already packed on more than 10 pounds. Cornerback Branden Smith rarely lifted weights during his senior year in high school, but by the end of July he was a gym rat.
“We had 100 percent participation from everyone almost every time,” Owens said. “It’s been the best summer since I’ve been here, and I think that’s going to transition over onto the field.”
Owens’ performance in the weight room spoke volumes about another motivator for Georgia’s players during the offseason.
The senior defensive tackle tore his ACL during the Bulldogs’ first game of the season and spent the next few months simply trying regain the strength he had lost. By the time he maxed out last month, however, he could squat 600 pounds.
“It’s an overwhelming feeling to see all these guys that were in green (non-contact) jerseys, and you know the long process it took for them to get back from all that,” Curran said.
“Just to see them back in the weight room just crushing weights, you can not help but be optimistic about this season.”
Of all the improvements made in the weight room this offseason, the return of that optimism might be the most important.
It’s obvious during the offseason that a team has the right chemistry, the right feel, the right intangibles to be a champion, Van Halanger said. Between the injuries and the setbacks and the off-field distractions, last season never felt quite right.
Walking around the gym this year, however, Van Halanger sees a group of players happy to be there, eager to work and believing in the system. Whether they’re talented enough to win remains to be seen, he said, but this year’s team certainly feels like a champion.