KNOXVILLE – With much of the attention of the college football world squarely focused on recruiting right now, it’s easy to forget about the players who will have the most to do with Tennessee’s results on the field next year – the ones already on the team.
For the returning players, the past month since they’ve returned to campus has been about getting in the weight room, and getting to know a new leader there. Strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson came with head coach Butch Jones from Cincinnati.
"He is pushing everybody out there to their limits right now,” left tackle Tiny Richardson said of Lawson, via an offseason special on UTSports.com. "He doesn't have to say much, you can just feel it. From how he makes us squat, to the way that we run, you can tell that everything can be implemented on to the field."
Jones didn’t invite his entire staff from Cincinnati, but he felt that Lawson was an essential staff member to bring with him to Knoxville. After stops at West Virginia and Eastern Michigan, Lawson joined Jones’ staff at Central Michigan in 2007 and has been with him since.
"I've been very fortunate to work with many strength coaches during my career, but there is no one other than Dave Lawson that I would trust with the physical and mental development of our football team," Jones said of Lawson while the two worked at Cincinnati. "Our philosophy in our strength and conditioning program models our on-the-field philosophy."
The feeling is mutual from Lawson. He’s developed a working relationship with Jones that makes it easy to design a program that works within Jones’ plan for the entire team.
"He's consistent,” Lawson said of Jones after being hired in December. “I think he has a certain level of expectations that he wants from us as coaches, which trickles down to the athletes. So there is consistency within the whole program."
Lawson’s philosophy includes an emphasis on strength, speed and football-specific lifts and drills that are designed to translate to the field as opposed to simply boosting workout statistics.
For the Vols, that sometimes means lifting less weight with a higher number of repetitions to work on endurance while building strength.
“He just talks about making us uncomfortable so we can be the best conditioned team out there so we can win the fourth quarter of every game," rising senior right tackle Ja’Wuan James said.
Added Richardson: “He doesn’t treat us like a bunch of bodybuilders. He treats us like athletes.”
In a video preview of offseason workouts (seen here), the Vols can be seen doing everything from squats to one-footed jumps to sprints where they start out on their knees.
It’s not all about speed and endurance, though. Lawson knows the level of strength that the Vols will face week-in and week-out in the SEC. He’ll continue to emphasize raw strength building as the Vols work closer to the season.
"They've got to be strong and that's another thing that builds the mental toughness,” Lawson said in December. “The stronger you are the more physical you're going to be. It's the most competitive conference in the United States. The intensity of the series has got to be at a very high level all of the time."
Whatever drills he puts the team through, he also has the luxury of a brand new $45 million football facility to do it in.
"It's very nice,” he said. “Whoever designed it and put it in did a great job with it."
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga