Sitting here in his office looking out through the glass windows at the Heritage Hall weight room he designed nearly a decade ago, Aaron Ausmus is glad he's finally getting a chance to use it the way he'd always hoped.
Because the last time, after an upbeat 10-win 2013 season featuring a possible NCAA record of four different USC head football coaches, Ausmus thinks back to the last time he sat here, when he was packing up what was no longer his office to prepare for the arrival of Steve Sarkisian's new strength and conditioning director, Ivan Lewis.
"My wife Misty was helping me pack," he recalls "and she predicted: 'You're coming back'." And here he is. Back for a third time at USC. Back in his weight room. Back where he helped Pete Carroll win national championships. Back where he helped Lane Kiffin to one 10-win season and back where he helped Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton combine for another.
"Most of my friends in the business with 10-win seasons were getting raises," Ausmus noted. "Here I was packing." That's just the business.
And something the former NCAA shot put champ at Tennessee had done his share of. He'd started out at his alma mater, then came from Tennessee with his mentor Chris Carlisle to join Carroll at USC, then headed off to run his own shop at Idaho for former Trojan assistant Nick Holt, then on to Ole Miss with Orgeron then to Tennessee and USC again with Kiffin.
But then he stayed -- in Redondo Beach. His two boys were in school and playing sports and what's not to like about the beach. So Aaron ended up representing the Sorinex line of cutting edge weight equipment. And then USC came calling again two months ago and his wife said "I told you so, remember."
And now here he is working with a USC team that's trying to get itself back. It's a good time to be here, he knows. And not just because when they brought him here to give him the keys this time and started to explain what was what and where it was, he already knew.
He already knows University of Southern California football has to do better. Ask him how they'll measure that between now and the Fresno State opener Aug. 29, here's one way he says. "The stat of the day," for something he learned from the equipment guys.
"For last year's team going into August with 105 players, they ordered 63 T-shirts size large -- 63 of 105," he says incredulously. And sure, some of the guys are bigger than that and want the tight shirt look. But come on, 63 of 105? "I told the equipment guys I want that number down to 12 for this season. I'm personally challenged to change that." And to get there, they're measuring them and weighing them and testing them and doing body fat measurments and all the rest of it.
But one thing he's told the players: He doesn't want to hear them saying they're with the program. "You could buy a parrot to sit on your shoulder and say that," he tells them. Words don't mean all that much. "But the scales don't lie."
Which is why when starting center Brett Neilon came up to him the other day, it was a great moment for both of them. "I'm finally 300 pounds," Neilon said after his second season in the program. "I've been 292, 294, back to 292, 295 but finally I made it."
That's how it's going, Ausmus and has been an early sign that the players are taking things into their own hands -- as they must for this to work. "I came into a very humble situation," Aaron says. "They're wanting to be great, doing everything they can" after last season. "We're building a lot of momentum. There seem to be a lot of leaders."
But it's not about him, Aaron says. It's about them. "I tell them we have them for two-and-a-half hours, it's what they do with the other 21 1/2 hours that matters." For the time that he's in charge, however, he's got them moving iron. "We're a barbell-oriented program -- pull it, press it, clean it, snatch it, bench press it . . . "
But as a disciple of Carlisle's, he undertstands the benefits of the pliometrics part of this, the whole movement-flexibility part of things that Carlisle went to when he cut back on some of the heavy weight work on his arrival.
And now with the advent of the modified Air Raid offense of Graham Harrell, Ausmus said he doesn't plan to change what they do but the pace in how they do it. "I can see the reps coming quicker and shorter rest periods."
About 90 to 95 percent of the weight work they do will be done by everyone, he says. This won't be as position-specific as it's been. Everybody -- quarterbacks and wide receivers -- can benefit from stronger hands and correct foot placement and balance.
As to the position everybody looks at to measure strength and power, Aaron says he likes the way the offensive line is shaping up. "The guys were 320-325," he says of the guards and tackles who look to play and average 6-foot-5 1/2. "We thought they'd be better at 310-315." And so they are. "I like where this O-line is," he says. "They're showing great intensity."
That's the deal he's making them. "It's going to be hard," he tells them. "We're not going to waste your time. You're going to get better."
It's a theme here. "There's nothing worse than coming in here every day for a couple of months and feeling like you haven't gotten better. They're seeing their hard work pay off. That's why we measure everything."
So hold off on that T-shirt order just a bit, he says.
With exams this week, the players are on their own. And they work their way in as nickel-corner Chase Williams was doing the other day, getting a one-on-one tutorial with Ausmus on the snatch. "Doesn't it feel good to be able to snatch your own weight," he asks Williams as he does two sets of three each successfully. "Which one was the best?"
They don't agree as to which was but that's a good dialogue to have. The discussion is there. As is the confidence building.
Looking ahead to this summer, the players will report Thursday, June 6, exactly eight weeks before fall camp opens Thursday, Aug. 1. They're allowed eight hours a week -- two hours with the football coaches, six hours with the strength and conditioning guys.
In June, they'll go four days a week with Ausmus & Co., an hour-and-a-half a day, with days off Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday because of the higher-intensity weight work. Then when July arrives, they'll go five days a week with the S&C folks, getting them ready for the daily demands of August with not quite as high-intensity weight work.
His new staff has Aaron excited, he says. Darren Mustin played linebacker and captained a Nick Saban team at Alabama. He's been at Nebraska and UMass. "He knows the game," Ausmus says. "His biggest challenge is to find the leaders -- and the followers." Also hired in March were former Southern U. S&C director Ty Webb and former Idaho tight end Jared Klingenberg from San Jose State.
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