A good bit of publicity came Texas Tech’s way 14 months ago when Kliff Kingsbury hired Rusty Whitt, a former U.S. Army Special Forces member who served two tours of duty in Iraq, to be the Red Raiders’ strength and conditioning coach.
College football media and fans are ever curious about how Whitt takes what he learned in the military and incorporates it into his approach with college athletes.
Several weeks ago, during the Red Raiders’ six-week winter conditioning program, A-J Media sat down with Whitt for a wide-ranging discussion about his program, Tech’s personnel, what adjustments he’s made from year one to year two and his time in the military.
This is the first in a series from that conversation.
A-J: How is your program going this year since the players have had a year to get to know you and what you expect, compared to when you came in?
Whitt: “When we first came in, our first approach, my staff and I, was basically to set an accountability standard in everything we do and it was very different for a lot of the guys who’d been here for a long time. Strength coaches, if you talk to anybody in this profession, it takes about two and a half or three years to really establish yourself because once kids get set in a certain way, their work habits don’t really change.
“So we first got here and there were some older kids in the program that had been used to doing things a certain way. I’m not going to say they’re resistant to change. They just don’t really understand it and they’re ready to get their senior year going. I think we’re getting little things more, like attention to detail. If we tell the guys ‘10 minutes early,’ they’re here 15 minutes early, dressed and ready to go.
“The two things I tell these guys they can control is their daily attitude and their daily effort. That’s the only thing you can control about your day is your attitude and your effort. And I think we’re getting a better attitude when they walk in the door and a better effort from both standpoints. So I guess those two things, I would notice a distinct change in.
“Whenever you bring a new staff in … Counting myself, we have five instructional coaches and an intern and all of us working together and meshing with the team, it takes a little bit of while to really set a good standard. We let the players set the accountability rules, from academics to performance, and we’re getting a lot more team leadership from the players, which is so critical now. That was something Dabo Swinney talked about at Clemson and with Alabama is the player leadership being really, really important and we’re trying to really put a lot on the kids and let them control their destiny.”
A-J: Do they determine even punishment, if a guy misses a study hall or class?
Whitt: “We chose, the coaches chose, eight of our most consistent upperclassmen and we had a draft. We drafted like you would in the NFL draft, one through eight, eight through one, back and forth and they all chose champion teams. Once the selection committee did that, then we gave them every possible infraction you could have in our program and they set a standard – a behavioral standard – and the infractions that you commit, what the payback is. And so it’s all player driven now.”
A-J: Is that new compared to last year?
Whitt: “It is. Last year, it was more from the strength and conditioning staff. It was just so different and I’m not saying the kids pushed back, but it caught them by surprise. So now that the players are instilling it, it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, talk to your team leader about that.’ There’s less room to argue and less wiggle room.”
The eight team leaders are receivers Cameron Batson and Dylan Cantrell, running back Justin Stockton, quarterback Nic Shimonek, defensive linemen Broderick Washington, Eli Howard and Kolin Hill and safety Jah’Shawn Johnson.
A-J: Broderick Washington, that’s pretty good for a guy that young to be in that role.
Whitt: “I tell you what, now Broderick is a very determined young man. He is the role model in the weight room. He is constantly pushing himself. Constantly, if you’re within earshot of him, you’re going to hear him yelling at you to get better. He is very strong. He is going to be one of the strongest players in this conference before it’s all said and done. He’s already squatting in the 600 range. His bench is in the low 400 range and he’s going to power clean probably 330 from the floor, so I’m really impressed with his work standard.”
A-J: Eli Howard must be pretty impressive, too, to be a player who’s only been here for a short period.
Whitt: “He’s very articulate. He speaks well in front of the kids, and kids respect his approach and he’s very consistent. His mood is the same every day, very determined and he’s not afraid to jump on a guy about anything.”
A-J: How big is he now?
Whitt: “He’s probably in the 270 range. He needs to gain a little bit of weight, but he looks pretty good for that (defensive) end spot. Maybe 265. He had a knee issue a year ago that he’s pretty much … We haven’t heard any kind of grief about it. So he’s overcome that.”
A-J: Any of those other captains you have observations about?
Whitt: “I can go on about all of them. Shimonek has a lot of moxie, a lot of self-confidence and there’s not enough time in the day for him. He wants to work so much, we almost have to tell him, ‘Hey, you’re good for today. Let’s start back tomorrow.’ You know, he pushed Pat (Mahomes). He pushed Pat and made Pat a better quarterback, so I feel really good about him from a leadership standpoint.
“Cam Batson, he is an excellent student. Cam’s determined. We race once a week on our short linear day, and he never loses a race. He won’t. He refuses to lose a race. He won’t lose.
“Stockton has been really consistent of late. He got hurt late in the season and I think he has a lot to prove. He has that kind of attitude where he wants to get back on track. He had a really good summer last year and we had really high expectations for him. I think he’s wanting to really redeem some things.
“Dylan Cantrell is one of the best athletes I’ve probably ever coached. I put a video out of him doing a ball-under-the-leg, slam dunk in the rec center. His vertical is going to be somewhere in the low 40 (inches). He can really jump. He’s got some exceptional jumps.
“He and Shimonek are very similar in their work quality. You couldn’t ask for a better guy. I was interviewed last summer about Dylan and he’s the first guy in the door, he’s one of the last to leave and he’s also trying to bring guys with him. We’re going to have an open gym, a non-mandatory workout, on Saturday and he’ll probably be the first guy in the door and one of the last to leave. He’ll be catching jugs, running routes, encouraging his teammates.
“Hill is … Someone who leads by example is basically doing their job, and he’s an exceptional guy as far as leading by example. Not really too vocal, which is fine by me. I’m not looking for a bunch of guys to give speeches. So he’s a good leader, a defensive lineman, and showing guys how you’re supposed to approach your day.
“Jah’shawn has played probably more defensive snaps than anybody on our team, and he had a really good game versus Baylor. He’s a very confident kid, and I think he can really help the young guys, the true freshmen and the juco transfers we’ve brought in expecting these guys to play. We have a lot of mid-semester transfers who we expect to play in September, and I think Jah’Shawn will be a good role model for those guys. So I think it’s a really good group of leaders.”