Dozens of strength gurus made him blow chunks; Zach Duval blew his mind. A good offseason was a 50-pound gain. A great one was 70. After his first winter with Nebraska’s new strength and conditioning coach, Jason Rae went from squatting 625 pounds at Christmas to topping 725 the very next summer.
“And trying to do 765,” the former Central Florida center recalls. “That was jumped in half a year. You had the one offseason. That was it.
“So I think they understand how the body works, and when to rest and when not to rest. With the previous staff, they always pushed us, they’d develop the arm stuff. But [Duval] really made the focus to get our legs stronger and our core stronger. And that showed.
“A 100 pounds in half a year — that’s insane, that type of weight.”
Rae doesn’t believe in miracles. Or shortcuts. But he believes in Duval. He believes in Scott Frost. And he believes Nebraska just slapped a great big bottle of nitrous oxide on an engine block that too often coughed, sputtered, or refused to turn over for too damn many autumns.
It all begins tomorrow at 6am 4pm and 6pm.? Our first opportunity to choose Championship effort, Championship Intensity,
Championship Attitude! No Talk Just action ! #Honor the N #BlackshirtWarDaddyUp pic.twitter.com/pqw7lkTRBb
— Zachary Duval (@zduval1) January 18, 2018
“War Daddy Up,” Rae chuckles, parroting Duval’s call to arms. The Florida native is in the aviation and aeronautics sales game now, but in the fall of 2016, he’d started all 13 tilts for the Knights in the first season of Frost’s UCF regime.
“He’s big into the military,” Rae says of Duval. “He’s an avid outdoorsman, so he likes all his toys. We got to see that part, which is fun, it’s cool — that’s away from football, away from everything else. We had barbecues at his house in the offseason. We spent most of our [free] time with them. I enjoyed my time with them. I wish I could’ve had two more years.”
‘It’s going to be a war zone’
Most of it, he misses the living hell out of. The circuit training over the winter, the lightning rounds at dawn, and the rows of trash cans next to the equipment, not so much.
“You know it’s going to be a war zone,” one of Rae’s former teammates, ex-UCF long-snapper Gage Marsil, recalls. “With my old workouts, you maybe threw up that first week you’d be back after winter break. But I’ve seen [it continue]. It didn’t matter how many times you did it — there were at least 10 guys throwing up.
“They’ll hear about the circuits pretty soon. It made its way around UCF real quick.”
January is when the fiscal football year 2018 gets off the mat, when a program’s spine is forged in iron, sweat, blood and bile. The rote before the reward, the groove before the glory.
“They would push us with love.”
— Former UCF center Jason Rae on Nebraska coach Scott Frost and strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval
“It was critical,” offers Kevin Ramaekers, a mainstay on the Huskers defensive line from 1991-1993 and a former All-Big Eight selection. “Lifting was as important, if not more, than practice.
“It was that intense. Guys were not ever screwing around in the weight room. And I loved it, man. I guess the word to sum it up? It was a freaking grind.”
The grind has always been serious business in Lincoln, ever since Boyd Epley set the bar for collegiate conditioning — literally and figuratively — in 1969.
Ramaekers holds the all-time Husker Power record for a Nebraska football player in 10-yard dash points with 866 and a time of 1.6 seconds (Former Big Red wideout Niles Paul holds the mark for the fastest football time, at 1.4). Although with Duval and Frost in town, the big lug doesn’t think he’ll be clinging to No. 1 for much longer.
“It’ll be gone,” Ramaekers laughs. “I can’t believe it’s still standing. For sure, it’ll be gone in a year.”
January is when records start to fall and champions start to rise, when the Frost Era pours the concrete for the foundation, Rae and Marsil say. When they start to convert the non-believers and weed out the rest.
“It means everything,” Marsil says of Duval’s offseason workout program. “This is where everybody’s going to be building that relationship. The quicker that they’re buying into everything, the quicker the turnaround is going to happen.
“When Frost came into UCF, there were some things he had to clean up and weed out, and it probably could have been a quicker turnaround. But the quicker everyone buys in and buys into applying themselves, the quicker the turnaround will happen. And January is when it can all begin and come into fruition. He’s definitely going to do a lot of team-building.”
UCF tight ends went bowling. Coaches hosted cookouts. Military types turned up to run the lot of them through Navy SEAL drills.
— Zachary Duval (@zduval1) January 1, 2018
“The coaches were like a part of your family,” Marsil continues. “It’s not one of those things where it seems forced. Everybody’s kind of your family and friends, and I think it’s something you’ll see with Coach Frost. He did a really good job of not only bonding groups together but all of sudden, I had never seen, in my five years, an offensive line being so close with, say, receivers — and just the whole team kind of coming together and gelling.”
“They would push us,” Rae says, “with love.”
‘Everything with them is genuine, from Coach Frost down’
Although neither Duval nor Frost love dawdling. The Knights ran 2.52 plays per minute last fall, according to CFBAnalytics.com, which ranked No. 33 nationally; the Huskers ran 2.26 per minute, which ranked 79th. The UCF offense averaged 14.2 possessions per game, which was No. 24 in the country; the Big Red averaged 13, which ranked 85th.
“He would tailor the workouts around being quick and working out quick like that,” Marsil says. “I’m not saying it’s not running all the time, although Frost wasn’t a big guy on ‘We’re going to run gassers at practice.’ That was more for punishment.
“But in practice, [it] was the hardest warm-up I’ve ever had. You’re going to start practice off with Nebraska … you’ll start off running 20 yards eight times; at the start of practice, you’re already winded before you even do anything. That was one of the hardest things to get used to. After a while, it’ll just become second nature. Practice is always at full-speed.
“As far as the weight room goes, you’re not just running your butt off. The weight room is going to have a fast pace. If they don’t already have a timer, they’re going to have a timer. And 30 seconds — rotate, rotate.”
Attention to time management, intensity and details ramped up, too. Rae and Marsil say the Knights got more work in over 75 or 90 minutes under Duval than they had in two-hour sessions under the previous regime.
“It was a totally different way of conditioning,” Rae says. “We went from doing long-distance running to short-distance running. They calculated how long a play would take and they simulated that short burst 100 times. So usually on a Friday or a Wednesday we would have just our conditioning, so we would take those days and just use it for conditioning, just 90 minutes, just short-distance running.
“And after a while, you wouldn’t get tired. You’d say, ‘OK, when’s the next one?’ And it turned into a game. You’d go against other players and you’d want to beat them, and it became a competition at the end of the day. We took it as, ‘Hey, we’re out here, we might as well have fun with it.’ And that’s what we did.”
— Zachary Duval (@zduval1) December 12, 2017
“When Duval came in … he took it to a different place,” Marsil says. “He knew so much about the body and what you could get out of it. And he knew what he could get out of you … and everybody maxed out in everything. All weights went up, because he knew how to utilize [you].
“Right away, he’s going to have nutrition plans for each individual player set up on an iPad. And you would track your sleep and stuff like that.
“Everything with them is genuine, from Coach Frost down. And that’s a huge reason why the turnaround happened at UCF so quickly, because we were in a different atmosphere. [Former Knights boss] George O’Leary was a completely different coach. Coach Frost became a dad and a brother to a lot of people, and with all the other coaches, it was just one big family. And I’m sure that’s what they’re going to be getting at Nebraska. And those guys have all the more reason to buy in quicker than we did.”
‘He treated me like I was his own son’
Rae misses the hell out of the brotherhood, the in-jokes, how shame and anger gave way to hope and pride. The satisfaction of getting that 0-12 ox cart out of the ditch and into the stratosphere.
“[Under O’Leary], basically, we lived in the weight room, so that was our way of having an edge over everybody else,” Rae says. “So with the new staff, I would say they were more like us. They looked after us. We came from a staff where they’d run us into the ground and that was it.
“This staff, they took care of us. In past seasons, even when we were playing, we would get hurt during the season and it would take a toll on our bodies. My senior season was the only season I did not get hurt, because they took care of us. I love our strength and conditioning staff.
“[Duval] really took care of us. He knew how to have fun and when to be serious. With the old staff, it was us against them. With the new staff coming in, [we thought] ‘He’s cool.’ We hung out outside of football. We never really did that before. That was really a culture shock. He treated me like I was his own son.”
— Zachary Duval (@zduval1) April 24, 2016
He misses the hell out of the steaks at Duval’s pad. He misses the pink stuff under the char, the way a perfect cut, done medium rare, bleeds on the tongue.
“I never liked anything like that before,” Rae says.
“So he’s like, ‘Trust me, you’re going to like it.’ And now all I have is rare steak. He’s definitely a killer on the grill.”
War Daddy Up.