As promised, the Big Ten workout warrior series is back. Piggybacking off of colleague Bruce Feldman's annual "Freaks" list, Bennett and I will profile four Big Ten players who go above and beyond in the weight room.
We solicited nominations from every Big Ten school, and while a portion chose to abstain this year -- there are quite a few new strength coaches in the league -- we received some good options. Let's get things started with the lone Big Ten player to make Feldman's 2011 "Freaks" list ...
Loud music helps and so do the encouraging voices of teammates, but Jay Prosch rarely needs extra motivation in the weight room.
From the moment he started getting serious about lifting, Prosch has felt right at home in the iron jungle.
"I pump myself up," the Illinois sophomore fullback said. "Weightlifting always excites me, when I know I'm about to do something I've never done."
Prosch had the feeling this past winter in the Illinois weight room after defensive lineman Akeem Spence set the team power clean record at 372 pounds.
While Prosch excelled at various lifts in high school, he never did the power clean until his arrival at Champaign. No matter. He reached 352 pounds "really easily" and then matched Spence's mark of 372. As Prosch prepared to attempt the record lift, Steve Sigler, an assistant strength and conditioning coach, asked him for a musical selection.
"They put on some Linkin Park, I got really excited and everybody kind of huddled around me," Prosch recalled. "And I got it."
Prosch reached 382 pounds, setting off a raucous celebration in the room.
"Everybody was jumping around," he said. "Everybody was really excited, coaches were really happy."
Spence, meanwhile, wasn't pleased about seeing his record fall so fast.
"I think he’s coming for me this year," Prosch said.
Prosch welcomes the challenge. He always has thrived on competition in the weight room.
He first started lifting as an eighth grader at UMS-Wright Prep in Mobile, Ala. He quickly identified an older football player who was a bit stronger, and set a goal of surpassing him. Prosch became serious about lifting in ninth grade and had "made a reputation" around the school by his junior year.
By the time he graduated, he held school records for bench-press (440 pounds), hang-clean (385) and incline press (335). His squat total of 595 pounds, meanwhile, came up 10 pounds shy of the top mark.
"It was really disappointing," Prosch said. "I was pretty upset about it."
Prosch is setting his sights on Illinois' lifting records.
Illinois measures max totals different than Prosch's high school, but his bench press has improved 60 pounds from last year. He also improved his squat total by 45 pounds, his hang clean total by 49 pounds and his power clean total by 30 pounds. Prosch is most proud of his gains with the hang clean and power clean.
"In the past, we have had two football players hang clean 396," Illinois head football strength coach Lou Hernandez said. "Jay absolutely killed 401 this winter as well. He constantly excites the room with his work."
Prosch's weight-room success is translating to the field. After playing guard and linebacker in high school, the lightly recruited Prosch emerged as a fullback for Illinois.
He played in every game as a true freshman and started six contests. He served as Mikel Leshoure's lead blocker and helped Illinois lead the Big Ten and rank 11th nationally in rushing offense (246.1 ypg).
"At my position, explosion's very important, being able to come off the line and get almost to my top speed when I hit the linebacker," Prosch said. "That's why power clean and hang clean are such important lifts for me."
Prosch had no rushing attempts and only one reception last year, but he could get more touches this season after being more involved as a ball carrier in spring practice.
The 6-foot Prosch has increased his weight from 245 to 255 at Illinois but reduced his body fat from 11 percent to nine percent, a number that should continue to drop during the season.
"Many times we find ourselves trying to slow him down," Hernandez said. "He is constantly trying to get better."
Prosch is so enamored with weight training that he wants to follow Hernandez's path after his playing days.
"I want to be a strength coach," he said. "That's really where I like to be."