When a new head coach takes over at a major football program, his on-field assistant hirings always get the most attention, but there's one important hiring that doesn't get the attention they deserve, the head strength and conditioning coach.
While it may seem like the head strength and conditioning coach is the guy who simply runs the weight room and makes sure athletes are doing their lifts properly, that coach has a lot more responsibility can anyone imagine even beyond running offseason workouts and is a critical hire for any major football program with the management role that the head S&C coach must also take on.
When you get your strength and conditioning coach hire right, it can make a big difference on and off the field helping to keep the program run smoothly while also maximizing players' physical potentials.
For the Hokies, it's becoming clearer every day that the Hokies hit a home run when they hired Ben Hilgart to be their head strength and conditioning coach.
"After finals and a little time off, you essentially turn your team over to your strength and conditioning staff. I just think that Ben (Hilgart) and his staff have done a fantastic job not just with the gains we've made from a physical standpoint, but continuing to teach and preach the culture." - Justin Fuente on Ben Hilgart
There are two areas that Hilgart has performed well in doing: developing his athletes physically and being an extension of the head coach including making sure every player is back this fall and stayed out of trouble of any sorts over the summer.
First, we'll look at the more well-known role Hilgart and his staff have of physically maximizing the Hokies' football players. This is what Bud Foster had to say on Hilgart on Monday when asked about the difference he's seen from previous S&C coach Mike Gentry and Hilgart.
"My take on all of this is that there is a next generation of coaches coming in. Coach Beamer was, in his generation, and iconic guy with what he did with special teams and those type of things. Coach (Mike) Gentry was big on the development of your players and now you are seeing the same kind of people, but it is a different era.
You got a different dynamic and an offensive coach who has been known for developing offensive schemes which made his niche a little bit and you see Ben (Hilgart) in that same regard in my eyes. It's not just about getting bigger, faster, stronger; but doing things that are injury preventative and those are the type of things that I see that is a little bit different than Mike did before." - Bud Foster on difference between Ben Hilgart and Mike Gentry
While there's no doubt that Bud Foster has lots of respect for the job Mike Gentry did, Ben Hilgart has quickly impressed Foster with how he has physically developed his players and done work to help prevent injuries.
The numbers back up the comments from Foster as all of the DEs that were with the Hokies this spring are at least 240 pounds. The four players who worked at defensive tackle this spring are all over 280 pounds with Tim Settle being at 335 pounds where the Hokies want him at rather than the 360 pounds that he entered college at.
The great weight numbers aren't limited to the defensive line as the offensive line has 14 players at 300 pounds or more with only 2 of the linemen being on-scholarship players that aren't true freshmen. Across the board, the numbers are great for the Hokies including Tremaine Edmunds being a terrifying 250 pounds and Terrell Edmunds being 220 pounds, NFL-size for a safety.
While weight numbers aren't on their own a guaranteed good sign, these impressive weight numbers across the board show that the Hokies have been excelling in the weight room maximizing their physical potentials. If that isn't enough for you, here's some short-term comparisons Hokie players tweeted on their weight room successes.
From early enrollees to veteran players, Hilgart has made a big difference in maximizing the physical and athletic potentials of his players with the Hokies set to reap the benefits of that this fall. Fuente also said that the Hokies are "probably farther along" physically going into fall camp this year than last year, another great sign that Hilgart's program is producing noticeable results.
Going into the fall, Hokies' fans can know that physically, their team should be able to compete with just about any team in America.
The second part is how the head strength and conditioning coach basically becomes the head coach for football programs from the end of the spring semester till the start of fall camp while also being critical in selling the message of the head coach.
It used to be that coaches could have absolutely no contact, but the NCAA has slightly tweaked that rule to allow some contact between on-field coaches and their players.
Despite that rule change, the head and strength conditioning coach still basically becomes the head coach in late May, June, and July while also playing a big role in the establishment of a program's culture year-round, two things that Ben Hilgart has done quite well.
On Monday, Fuente was asked about Hilgart's strength and conditioning program in addition to his initial praise and Fuente had more raving reviews for Hilgart.
"For me, it's the extension of what we're teaching. I'm not a strength coach and I don't pretend to be one. To me, it's about continuing to get the kids' ears, continuing to command respect from them but also performance and to see the guys believe in what we are trying to build. For me, disseminating our culture is as important as the gains you make numerically." - Fuente on Hilgart and his strength program
The "#HardSmartTough" and "1-0" culture that Justin Fuente has established quite quickly is not only a testament to Fuente but also to his staff including Hilgart especially with the weight room success that the Hokies have had, the increased number of off-the-field, voluntary workouts that players are wanting to participate in, and how Hilgart has embraced Fuente's vision and message, something that only helps in getting the players to buy in.
We've seen the players also buy in to Hilgart's strength and conditioning program with even how they simply go to the weight room with videos from this spring of the players running across the practice field to get there instead of taking a casual stroll and enjoying the day.
Hilgart has embraced the lunch pail mentality of Bud Foster and #HardSmartTough mentality of Justin Fuente in the weight room with Hilgart giving out hard hats to the workout warriors of the offseason this spring instead of having a lunch pail. Hilgart has gotten the Hokies to buy into his program and the results speak for themselves and will make an impact on the field this fall.
Another thing that shows how Hilgart has been able to help run the VT football program competently over the summer is the fact that the Hokies had a very quiet offseason with no off-the-field issues, something that is not only credit to the culture that's been built but also to Hilgart to make sure the Hokies don't have any players go rogue and create distractions.
Ben Hilgart doesn't get the same publicity as Bud Foster and Brad Cornelsen get, but the role he plays in the physical development of Virginia Tech football players and the job he undertakes basically becoming the temporary head coach for the current players from the middle of May to the end of July is probably the second most important role in the Hokies' football program behind Fuente's role as head coach.
If you don't know who Ben Hilgart is, you should now get to know because he's one of America's best strength and conditioning coaches and may be the best hire Justin Fuente has made while in Blacksburg, and that's saying something.
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