Many credit Dan Mullen with the resurgence of the Mississippi State football program.
Some may also note the jobs that his assistant coaches have done over the past two-plus years to get the Bulldogs back on track. But very little spotlight ever shines on the strength and conditioning staff headed up by Matt Balis.
Those usually unsung individuals play a vital role in the product MSU produces on Saturdays in the fall and Mullen has even stated that Balis is the second most important coach on the entire staff. Balis and his staff spend the entire offseason with the team when the other coaches are not allowed to work with them.
In his third summer heading the strength program Balis has had a new set of obstacles to overcome each year.
"This is a younger team so it's a challenge," Balis said. "Every year is a challenge. Coach Mullen made a comment the 2010 team died right when we won the Gator Bowl, it's finished. The 2011 team started. So every team to me is different. When you talk about the older guys that have been here since that first summer, they've grown tremendously, as you would think three years in. But, you still have young guys that just got here or haven't been here very long, they have to learn what it's about.
"So I think where we've grown the most is where you can take a guy who just got here in June; say, a freshman, and put him with a guy who has been here three years. That (older) guy can train him, mold him, and take him under their wing. That's the key to the program."
Balis began preparing the 2011 signees for their arrival into the program the day after signing day in February. He personally sent them a workout package to help aid their transition to what he had in store for them this summer once they arrived on campus.
"That's sent out immediately because it's imperative that they do their best," Balis said. "You know, I can tell who the guys are that took the packet and threw it on the couch or it was on the coffee table for three months. You can tell who the guys are that read it. We give them a DVD and everything is on that as well.
"But the thing is, in high school so many guys don't have to train as hard because they're so much more talented. But if they knew how much better they would be being stronger and better shape they'd come here so much more ready. Even your hardest-working guys in high school can't match the intensity of the college setting and the SEC. I mean, it's the highest level. You just can't match it."
Most of State's signing class got the upper hand by arriving in June which gives them a leg up when fall camp arrives in August.
"It's absolutely huge (arriving in June)," Balis said. "I can remember when freshmen were getting in in August. I remember at Utah half those freshmen weren't even at practice, they were in the 'pit' with us because they couldn't do anything. I mean, it just blows me away. So yeah, coming in June you get the legs in shape, you get the mind, you get the heart, the lungs, the body's ability to recover, learning how to eat, learning how to hydrate, learning how to go to class - it's huge."
Several of the newcomers are already catching Balis' eye with their work ethic in the weight room. While they have yet to strap on any pads for Mississippi State, Balis praised their effort with what he has thrown their way so far.
"I really like how this freshman class works," Balis said. "Preston Smith has come ready to work hard. Just got here, you have no idea what he's going to do with pads on but he definitely looks like he's ready to work. Kendrick Market has a great work ethic. Taveze Calhoun has a great work ethic. Zachary Jackson and Darion Arrington are two guys that are 6-1, 205 guys that can run and have no problem working hard. They're just so youngand you don't know. But I like the way those guys are working."
Also helping aid Balis and his staff this summer have been the veteran Bulldogs. Balis has been particularly impressed with several of the seniors that have mentored and led during workouts so far.
"Quentin Saulsberry has been phenomenal," Balis said. "He's really, really incredible - one of the best guys I've been around. He's a leader, hard worker, holds people accountable, loves the Bulldogs, wants to go out a winner and wants to go out on top. Chris Relf has done phenomenal from a leadership standpoint with the whole offense. His work ethic, his goals he has for his body, what he needs to do, he's done a great job.
"Marcus Green, a guy that didn't play much last year, he's had a great summer and a great off-season. He has done a great job. Charles Mitchell, you can never say too many great things about him. He's kind of the leader of that defense right now. He's working as hard as he ever has but also holding people accountable, making sure people are doing what they're supposed to be doing at the highest level they can. Those guys right there, that's your leadership that have done a great job."
One redshirt freshman that Balis is also proud of is offensive tackle Blaine Clausell. The 6-foot-7, 295-pounder graduated high school early and arrived in the spring of 2010 and has continued his emergence. Clausell is competing hard with James Carmon for the starting left tackle spot vacated by Derek Sherrod.
"(Clausell)'s done a heck of a job," Balis said. "He got here in January (2010) so he's had more of an edge. He's almost going into his second year. It's amazing that he hasn't played yet but really you feel he's been here a while and put on good size. He's just got to get tougher and become a great football player now. He's gotten stronger, bigger, faster and is a great worker. He's just got to become a great player."
Another newcomer Balis has had to get adjusted to his system is senior transfer Brandon Maye. The former Clemson linebacker arrived in June and was paired with Saulsberry in the weight room.
"I think because he's so much older it's good and bad," Balis said. "Good in the sense that he's older and mature and he's seen a lot of things so he can kind of fall in, it's not going to shock him too much. Bad in the sense that he's set in his ways and set in his habits with the old system. But our leadership here, he trains with Saulsberry every day and you have no choice but fall in with Quentin Saulsberry."
Balis and his staff also make sure that the other newcomers are always paired with an upperclassmen to help learn the ropes of what to do and what is expected.
"It's just really who is available," Balis said. "We have a certain number of guys, we'd rather not have more than 30 to 34 guys at one time in the weight room. So if a Zach Jackson is in there, a freshman that just got here and Marcus Green is there, I'm putting those two guys together. I've got a guy that's been here three years and a guy that just got here, what better way to learn how to train than that?
"Now our 1:00 group doesn't have as many young guys so it's more older guys with older guy. A three- or two-year guy with a one-year guy. And that 3:15 group is about half-and-half, so that's a really neat group to watch."
But Balis does not just keep the players in the weight room the whole summer. He has been known to use some pretty unorthodox methods to keep his guys on their toes.
"First off in June we changed it up and went lower-body on Monday and upper-body on Tuesday," Balis said. "We went lower-upper, lower-upper, just that switch. Then we did some different things with our speed work this year. We used a speed hill. We did some hill training. We had some weighted vests. We did some over-speed with different things. We had a sand pit put in, that was different.
"Then we'll go and do team building things. We went away last weekend as a team and different things. And tomorrow our 'protect the house' (stadium run) is different. We hang our hat on certain things in the weight room that you have to do. You have to run the gassers and the conditioning and all that. But we also like to do some different things. We hit the (punching) bag a little bit for a different kind of cardio with different punch sequences. We'll lock horns with each other, like Saulsberry will lock horns with one of our strength coaches just for a different way of doing cardio. So we do different things that way."