- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Workout numbers are always nice to look at, and he who wins the bench-press battle, usually wins a heap of respect.
But while cranking out the reps and stacking the weight might be the top priority for some athletes when they step into the gym, Ray “Rock” Oliver, who is in his first year with the Kentucky Wildcats as the director of strength and conditioning, likes to add emphasis to another area when the workouts begin.
The size he’s most concerned about is the girth of is athletes’ necks.
A neck doesn’t help you run faster, jump higher or throw farther, but it does provide some extra safety in the violent game that is football.
“The No. 1 mechanism that’s absorbing a lot of the shock is the neck, so we need to get that bigger,” said Oliver, who joined Kentucky’s strength staff after spending the past six seasons as the associate strength and conditioning coach with the Cincinnati Bengals. “We’re really proud of that. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have ever been talking about that. Ten years ago, I would have been talking about our bench [press] and our vertical jumps.”
But Oliver -- and the rest of his staff -- is more concerned with protecting his players during head-on collisions.
Kentucky’s staff makes the neck a gym priority by working it out every other day with lateral raises, shrugs and flexing exercises.
Oliver said his goal is to add one-half to three-fourths of an inch to each player’s neck in the span of a year. That might sound silly to some, but Oliver said there’s nothing foolish about wanting to strengthen and thicken the cylinder that holds the head.
“It’s the No. 1 concern of mine,” he said.
Oliver also prides himself on the amount of lean muscle mass his athletes have been able to put on each year during offseason training sessions.
“If you want to really want to find out if you’re doing your job, put 15 to 16 pounds of lean muscle mass on a kid in a year,” Oliver said. “That’s where me and my staff take great pride in.”
With a late bowl game, Kentucky’s football team started lifting together four weeks before spring practice began, Oliver said. But when spring ball began, he could tell the gym work was paying off.
Some examples include defensive end Collins Ukwu making vast improvements to his playing shape, running back Raymond Sanders adding some needed bulk and center Matt Smith has increased his weight in 75 percent of his workouts.
As a whole, Oliver said the Wildcats entered spring in much better shape. That was a good and bad thing to Oliver. He was both happy and irked by the fact that 95 percent of the team passed the conditioning test.
The good news was that almost the entire team was able to beat the time needed to pass a test consisting of 16 grueling gassers -- that’s 10 more than Oliver was told the majority of the team could get through a year ago.
The bad news was that the Wildcats were starting to become immune to Oliver’s rigorous training.
“I was pissed off because we only wanted 5 percent to pass,” he joked. “But we worked them extremely hard.”
The Wildcats are undergoing a lot of changes in Lexington, and Oliver wants to make sure he does his part by making this one of the most well-conditioned and strongest teams in the SEC.
“The most important thing for us is to get guys to buy into a certain way of working and take pride in everything that we do and to take pride into the others that excel, as well as yourself,” he said.
“We work extremely hard to make sure each individual gets his maximum full potential based off his varied potential.”