From team chemistry to work ethic and everything in between, many characteristics of the Wisconsin Badgers football team are shaped by what they do in the offseason.
The man who works with them on such things and actually spends more time with the players than head coach Bret Bielema is strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert. A former nose tackle at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez — despite being undersized at just 240 pounds — Herbert took over the position in the spring and has made a noticeable impact on the team in the past eight months.
And though he credits his predecessor, John Dettmann, as being the biggest influence in taking on the position, Herbert has made some significant changes to the Badgers’ offseason workout programs that have helped several players move up the depth charts.
Herbert’s key is always tying everything back to the sport and making sure the players understand how it relates to football.
“I tell the players, ‘I’m not trying to develop you into a world-class weightlifter or sprinter,'” Herbert said. “‘But the attributes that are going to make you successful on the field, from a strength standpoint, from a speed standpoint, and a mental toughness standpoint, those are what we have to address.'”
Taking over for Dettmann was no easy task for Herbert. Dettmann stepped down in January after 19 years with the program, the only strength and conditioning coach at UW since Alvarez’s first season as head coach.
To replace such a popular and well-respected coach like “JD” is never easy, but the players have quickly grown to accept Herbert as a coach and friend.
“It was a pretty smooth transition because Herb was there, for the most part, the whole time; he was really close with a lot of the guys and it really went well,” senior free safety Chris Maragos said. “The greatest thing that I love about Herb is he cares for everybody as a person and individual. He genuinely wants to see us get better. He’s a great resource and even a great friend.”
One of the most important parts of Herbert’s job is working with incoming freshmen and transfers. Because he is the first person they really get to know when they come in over the summer, he has a significant impact on the early development of the players.
While all players coming into the team have some level of familiarity with strength and conditioning programs, the intensity of collegiate level workouts is a significant departure from what they are used to. As a result, Herbert works to make all newcomers comfortable when they arrive in June.
“I think the biggest thing is a lot of these guys come in shell-shocked,” Maragos said. “A lot of these guys that come in during the summertime, Herb is the first guy that they spend a lot of time with. So, he comes in and he kind of puts his arms around the guys and he makes them feel welcome and acquaints them with all the guys.”
What Herbert also has done is motivate several players to have phenomenal summers in the weight room. In particular, he noted five players who had shone over the summer: freshmen Travis Frederick, Kevin Zeitler and Mike Taylor, sophomore Nick Toon and junior Isaac Anderson.
And while it may be coincidental, four of the five players are listed atop their respective positions on the latest depth chart and Frederick is second at center behind junior John Moffitt.
Herbert went on to add another starter to the list of those who impressed in the weight room this offseason.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Zach Brown,” Herbert said. “Zach had a ridiculous summer. One day we were doing linear speed drills and he’d been locked in. He just looked like he had another speed so I told him, ‘You had five gears and now you’ve got six.'”
Brown seems to have applied what he worked on over the summer, impressing coaches enough with his running ability to merit the top spot at running back.
Even Brown seems to think he’s gotten quicker this year thanks to his work with Herbert.
“I put a lot of hard work in this summer with coach Herb,” Brown said. “Going into the season, I just wanted to enhance everything. Get stronger, get faster; because if you do that, then the rest of your game increases by itself.”
When looking at all the players who have worked hard to move up the depth chart during fall camp, it is easy to see the kind of impact Herbert has on the program.
And as long as players like Brown and Taylor are earning starting roles after working hard with him over the summer, it is hard to argue against the importance of Herbert and the strength and conditioning program.
“It’s huge — I think that’s where we make our biggest gains,” Maragos said. “They always say the game is a game of inches. If you have that extra step, it’s huge. It translates over so much to the field.”