NORMAN – A big reason Brent Venables brought Jerry Schmidt back to Oklahoma is because the Sooners’ new (old) strength coach knows the body.
But the bigger reason is “Schmitty” knows the mind.
“He’s the best in the business,” said DeMarco Murray, who trained under Schmidt as a player at OU and now sees the benefits as the Sooners’ running backs coach. “Schmitty is a guy that knows the body but more importantly knows the mindset and to be able to come in and help change a lot of guys’ mindset.”
That helps, players say, when they think they’ve reached their limit. Schmidt has taught them that their limit lies somewhere beyond.
“Are coach Schmitty’s workouts tough? Yes, absolutely,” said defensive end Reggie Grimes. “That’s what he’s known for, his reputation. However, he wouldn’t give you anything that you can’t do, OK? And you’re never as tired as you think you are. I think that’s what we’ve all learned throughout this summer, was we can go so much farther than we have before, as long as you just get rid of the mental game. If you focus and train your mind to understand that, again, he would never give us something that we couldn't do, then you’ll be alright.”
“Jerry's been amazing,” Venables said. “Up to this point, he's had the same kind of impact that he had when we all got here in 1999.”
Schmidt trained Sooners for 19 years before Lincoln Riley replaced him with Bennie Wylie. Schmidt spent four years building at Texas A&M, but when Riley went to USC and took Wylie with him, Venables wasted no time bringing Schmidt back to Norman.
Venables called it “serving the players in all the right ways” and “challenging and taking guys to some tough, dark places.”
Current players heard all about the history of Schmidt, from Malcolm Kelly’s 2006 postgame freestyle, where he references “messin’ with Schmitty, in the summertime…” to the horror stories former players colored social media with after his return.
“Oh yeah, I heard all the stories,” said wide receiver Marvin Mims, “all the stories you could hear.”
Now, through a grueling winter and demanding summer, they look around three days into training camp and they see their own physical gains – physical gains that came as a result of mental gains.
Justin Broiles, a sixth-year senior safety, is one of just two players on this year’s team who went through a whole year of strength training under Schmidt in 2017 (long snapper Casey Kelleher is the other).
“It’s been a grind,” Broiles said. “The best way I can sum it up is demanding, in terms of what he’s asking of us, in terms of how hard he’s asking us to work, how hard he’s asking us to push ourselves day in and day out.”
When Bob Stoops was hired from Florida on Dec. 1, 1998, the very first person he called to join his staff was Schmidt, who was the Gators’ strength coach. It’s no coincidence that Steve Spurrier’s Gators won the 1996 national championship with Stoops as the defensive coordinator and Schmidt as the strength coach.
“The guy’s won a national championship at Notre Dame,” Stoops said in December. “... Here at OU. He won one with us (at Florida) and been in two or three others. Schmitty brings great experience. He knows what championship teams look like. He knows what championship teams work like and how they react to the work. We’re very fortunate to have him back.”
One thing the Sooners needed is to get bigger and stronger. Everyone says that, of course, and players do that naturally over the course of their college career. But to compete for a national title – to compete in the SEC down the road – Venables knew the size and the mass of the offensive and defensive lines he’s taking on at OU don’t look like the ones he had as defensive coordinator at Clemson. So the effort was implemented early to bulk up, and fast.
“It was definitely a change,” said center Andrew Raym. “A complete 180. As an o-line, we’re stronger in six months than we got in two years in the past.
“We're stronger than we've ever been, and that's definitely gonna help our physicality.“
It took a mindset for players to embrace the new level of intensity.
“You know he’s going to be hard,” said left tackle Anton Harrison. “But you know he cares and he wants the best out of you so you just have to take it how it is and keep going.”
Offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh can appreciate the layered work that Schmidt has put in, and the results he’s produced so far. Bedenbaugh was the Sooners’ o-line coach from 2013-16 under Stoops and remains just as impressed today.
“He’s the best,” Bedenbaugh said. “And I’ve said that. He does a great job with everybody, but I think – at least with me, and that’s what I pay attention to the most — is the offensive line. Just the mentality, how you have to work, the physicalness, the toughness, all those things that he brings to those guys is, to me, the most important thing. Because they’re all talented guys. But it’s those things that put you over the top. So he’s done a great job doing that.”
“For the PG-13 side, he lights a fire under you,” Harrison said.
Harrison, who started 12 games last season, said working with Schmidt has given him a different perspective on his role up front.
“When we first started winter workouts I knew that I was going to have to step up my role,” Harrison said. “So he really has been pushing me into more of a leader role. Even on days when I’m feeling down and I just want to show (up) instead of speaking, he makes me speak up and have that more vocal role on the team with the offensive line.”
“Everybody benches and does all that stuff,” Bedenbaugh said. “But it’s more of a mentality in how he attacks every day and the message he brings every day — and getting through to those guys. I think that’s the most important thing.”
Every position benefits from the tactics Schmidt and his staff employ. And the coaches have a deep appreciation for how players evolve in their winters and summers under Schmidt.
“He’s always on 10, man,” said safeties coach Brandon Hall, who watched Schmidt work as one of Stoops’ aides from 1999-2005. “What separates the good ones from the great ones is their ability to set the bar, set the standard really high and then never deviate from that and get the expectations in such a way that guys know that they’ve got to be there five minutes early, that they’re going to run through the line and they’re going to do every rep.”
“Guys got great respect for him,“ Venables said. “He's tough on them, but he's fair. Incredibly demanding, and never satisfied and he's always at 10 every day.“
Another OU assistant who worked previously with Schmidt is offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, who came to OU as a 4-star offensive lineman and quickly settled in as a student coach. Watching players go through workouts this offseason has brought back memories for Lebby.
“It’s been incredible,” Lebby said. "You get around our guys in the summer, you get around Schmitty in the summer and you automatically get inspired. You can’t help but be in that room and be inspired by the way guys are working and sweating. We talk about sweat equity all the time. Schmitty does an unbelievable job reaching these guys every single day and giving us the ability to when we walk down that tunnel, man, our guys are going to be prepared and ready to go to war.”
Venables has talked about an “alignment” he shares with Schmidt for what that preparedness looks like and what it takes to get there.
“I think that position has always been valued for developing toughness,” Venables said. “Certainly, (for) getting your guys in shape and getting them stronger and getting them to buy into the value of weight room and nutrition and now, you know, all the other areas of player wellness, elite recovery and sports science, things of that nature, tying all that together.
“But he’s incredibly important — he and his staff.”
Venables said he appreciates the way Schmidt always finds a way to reach a new standard. Players simply say they have a different level of accountability under Schmidt.
“A lot of high expectations,” said defensive end Ethan Downs. “Big standards. A lot of accountability. Touching every line. Two yards past every line. Building a lot of discipline, a lot of morals, values with the team and what we stand for. It’s been good.”
Even quarterbacks are not immune. Actually, some quarterbacks embrace the physical and mental taxation Schmidt puts them through.
“The intensity definitely rose once we hit in June,” said QB Dillon Gabriel. “I think we came back in and everyone knew the mindset was to take it to another level. And I believe we did that.”
“He puts a lot of weight on my back,” Mims said. “He didn’t let me slack at all. No matter what the day is, if I’m feeling sore or anything, he couldn’t care less. So that’s how Coach Schmidt is and I love it. I love every second of it.”
On Thursday, the day before preseason camp officially got started, players took part in a unique “Elite Weigh-In” event. Instead of a dull, muted, boring session of stepping on a scale and recording everyone’s body weight, this year the team roared through a hyped up, music-and-lights sideshow that resembled the pre-fight weigh-in of a heavyweight championship boxing match.
Afterwards, players lifted Schmidt onto their shoulders – appropriate treatment for the coach who spends more time with them than anyone else on staff.
“I just want to congratulate all the players; thank them for all their hard work this summer,” Schmidt said in a post-weigh-in video. “Unbelievable, their commitment and (willingness) to go over the top with the training. And I want to thank all the coaching staff for their support. I want to thank my staff as well. Wouldn’t be able to do it without those guys.
“But, our players are special. Just got great leadership across the board, starting with last January, and we’ve just been building ever since. I wish the best of luck to our players as they go through camp.”
Schmidt’s methods might be new to the OU players, but they're all too familiar to those who worked with him for nearly two decades – or more.
“There’s not a better strength coach in the country,” Stoops said. “Our guys will be lucky to have a guy like that to work with every day, who is going to maximize their ability and their talent. He’s going to develop our guys in the right ways.”
“I love everything that we've seen so far from him,” Venables said, “and I think that the players will be the best ones that will be able to testify to their own experiences.”