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Dobson reshaping Cornhuskers' storied weight program

5/20/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Coming into the Nebraska football offices every day for James Dobson is akin to a pianist heading into Carnegie Hall.

Dobson feels like he's carrying on a unique tradition for the Cornhuskers, who pioneered the concepts of a modern strength and conditioning program with Boyd Epley's ground-breaking work back with the programs in the late 1960s.

"This is a very unique place for strength and conditioning," said Dobson, who arrived from Iowa several weeks after Bo Pelini was hired. "Boyd got it started and Mike Arthur really developed strength and conditioning into what it is today here. It's very special to be a part of it."

Despite that lofty and storied history, Dobson has been able to place his own stamp on the Nebraska program after only one season directing the strength and conditioning program.

Charged by Pelini to help develop speed, particularly for players in the offensive and defensive lines, Dobson instituted a plan to help his players in the trenches lose weight.

The result was improved performance in both groups by emphasizing leaner, quicker athletes in his first season. It paid off with a 9-4 record last season, capped by a Gator Bowl victory over Clemson.

That strong finish helped catapult the Cornhuskers through a strong second season in Dobson's program, building on their work of the first year there.

One of the big reasons for Nebraska's success last season was several resculpted players. Starting guard Matt Slauson played nearly 35 pounds lighter than in 2007 and Zach Potter dropped 15 pounds to 280. The results were seen on the field.

"It really helped us out," Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "It got us pointed in the right direction, but it's only a start."

Dobson's program emphasized flexibility, speed development and explosive power. For conditioning, Dobson believes in short, 50-yard sprints rather than longer distances.

"The old thing about things being easier the second time around might not necessarily be true," Dobson said. "It's not easier but more exciting. Guys have a certain expectation and knowledge in what you're trying to do. It makes it a little more fun and also more challenging."

I-back Quentin Castile has trimmed more than 20 pounds since Dobson arrived. He says he feels more comfortable playing at the new weight.

"It was kind of the goal, but not really," Castille said. "I guess it just happened with the conditioning and the weight lifting, but I feel much stronger and faster, too."

But weight loss isn't an across-the-board idea. Roy Helu Jr., who shared playing time with Castille at I-back, boosted his weight to 222 after playing part of the season last year at 198.

Helu said he feels more powerful and a stronger between-the-tackles runner after the weight gain and his spring work.

"I feel faster and more explosive," Helu said. "There's a lot more muscle than fat."

But Helu said the weight gain came with a price.

"It's kind of a blessing and a curse," Helu said, chuckling. "Every time I walk by a mirror, I look at myself."

The contrasting strategies with the two I-backs show that Dobson has to be malleable in considering different players.

"Our basic philosophy is that the more lean body mass, the better athlete you'll likely have," Dobson said. "You can be as big or strong as you want, but if you can't move it's going to be tough for you to be successful. We needed to get our work capacity up and move from there. We preached it to them and they started living up to it."

The contrast sizes and styles of Castille and Helu showed how adaptable Dobson has become with the Cornhuskers.

"You can't make it like a cookie-cutter approach," Dobson said. "We try to instill and build a relationship with people and you have to have mutual respect in what you are trying to do. But this work is about building relationships, first and foremost."

The next several weeks are a time that strength and conditioning coaches sometimes fear. Players have peaked through their spring work before they return home for several weeks and conditioning begins back at school in early June.

"There's always concern about that, but they need the time to get away from us so they can go fresh on some things," Dobson said. "When June comes around, we'll hit the road running. They know our expectations."

As such, Dobson doesn't expect much of a departure from their accustomed conditioning routines -- even if there's the temptation of an extra piece of Mom's apple pie back at home or a chance to get out with their old friends when they might be better suited by running or lifting.

"We've built the attitude and environment to work full time the year round," Dobson said. "I'm not too worried about them letting things slide too much. They'll be ready when they come back."