published Thursday, August 21st, 2014

Lawson's lead: Strength coach talks Tennessee Vols' summer

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's summer workout program included one late-night running session at Neyland Stadium in June and workout that featured strobe lights, dance music and a donut-eating contest in July.

The architect of those winter and summer workouts and the countless morning weightlifting and conditioning sessions is Dave Lawson, the director of strength and conditioning who's followed second-year head coach Butch Jones from Central Michigan to Cincinnati to the Volunteers.

Tennessee spent the summer months in the hands of Lawson and his right-hand man, Mike Szerszen, and the two were charged with preparing the Vols for training camp and the season.

"It's amazing what they do in the strength and conditioning program," freshman tailback Jalen Hurd said. "It's different than any other program, I can tell you that. They push us very, very hard, and just going into training camp, I'm so glad that they did, because I really felt prepared."

The Times Free Press caught up with Lawson for a few minutes at Tennessee's media day last week.

Q: Before you arrived at UT, the strength coach position was a revolving door, and it seemed the Vols had a different one every year. In the second year with you, could you tell a difference in the continuity?

A: "I think it helped, yes. A lot of them knew the expectation, what it was. They were here all of last year, and they know what our belief system is and what our standard is of what Coach Jones wants. I enforce what he wants, and I think it gives the kids peace to know what direction we're going in, and they worked like it."

Q: In talking to some players, you like to not tell them what they're going to be doing before every workout. What's your reason for doing that?

A: "I think it keeps it fresh, but it also keeps them on edge a little bit, which is a good thing. I think it also helps develop -- Coach Jones talks about it -- physical toughness and mental toughness. When you don't know what's coming, you have to come in prepared, regardless of what it is, and that's what we talk to the kids about.

"No matter where you play, you have to go through the same mentality to attack and go after it, and it's the same thing there with the workouts. They don't know how much they're going to run. They don't know how much they're gonna lift. It doesn't matter, because you're gonna work at a very high intensity level every day."

Q: When you have a bunch of freshmen come in that have never had workouts five days a week like they have here, how do you keep them going?

A: "We've done it different ways. We've done it where you have a separate lift groups for so many weeks, and I think that slows the process down. I like to put them right in with the group. They'll be right besides an A.J. Johnson, or a [Kyler] Kerbyson or a [Mack] Crowder, [Curt] Maggitt -- whoever it may be.

"We obviously watch their technique. We don't have them use the same weight the other kids are, but it speeds up the learning process because they want to come in and proves themselves. They want to be a part of the team.

"They're a part of the team now, so instead of having them at a separate time, slowly baby walk them in, we're gonna watch what they do, but we put them right in with everybody else so they can build confidence quicker."

Q: It's your program in the summer because the players are spending a lot of time with you. From May to the end July, how do you look back and evaluate if you had a good summer?

A: "First of all, it's always Coach Jones's program. I'm just part of the program. ... I'm just working under what Coach Jones wants. How do I know that, it just kind of comes together. You can tell by the mentality, the way the kids walk.

"They say that kids take on the personality of the coaches, and when they're around us we're trying to create a hard edge, we're trying to create confidence, we're trying to create that confidence [that] when they walk in you just see it. You can tell by the way they walk around, talk, all that."

Q: When you have a bunch of grueling morning workouts and late-night runs, and then you have that one session with the strobe light and a dance party, do you think players appreciate those hard workouts more when you have some of those outside-the-box sessions?

A: "I think they understand it. Our position as a strength coach, what people don't really see, they love to hate you. You're asking them to do things they don't normally do. You're lifting at a faster tempo, you're lifting more weight than you want, you're running way more than they ever would.

"They kind of look at you sometimes like you've got three heads or something. I think that shows what we're about. You are going positive with them when you do all these things, but I think they see that, that, 'Hey, they're trying to make it where it is a fun environment. The kids were very upbeat about that night.

"What I think is funny is people see that and they probably don't think it was a hard workout. I laughed when A.J. Johnson said, 'You guys lure us in here with this, and still hammer us with a hard workout.' That's a compliment."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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