Arizona State freshman running back Kalen Ballage arrived on campus last summer oozing with raw, explosive potential -- just the material that Sun Devils sports performance coach Shawn Griswold specializes in working with.
"He was built like a Greek god," Griswold says. "And that was without touching a weight in high school."
Still, plenty of development was necessary. Griswold says Ballage's natural strength came with a lack of flexibility that contributed to a lower back injury. This plagued the early part of his ASU career.
It also provided the impetus for an overhaul designed to turn Ballage into a sturdy star at the Pac-12 level.
"We rebuilt him from the ground up," Griswold says.
Ballage surged to a 148 all-purpose yard performance to close the season in ASU's bowl game and carried the momentum over to 2015 spring practice, where he dazzled head coach Todd Graham with 16 more pounds of muscle and newfound running power.
From Ballage's perspective, it'd be safe to consider Year One developing in Griswold's system a success. But there isn't much time to rest: ASU begins anew with its rigorous nine-week offseason training program on May 26. All college football programs labor through a similar summer phase, an often underappreciated part of the year that's absolutely critical to a team's success come September.
We'll spend the next couple of months checking in with various Pac-12 programs to see how they're faring through their arduous recipes this summer. Griswold, the man in charge of the grind in Tempe, is first on the list.
"Once we start on May 26, those nine weeks are my season," he says. "First game to last game."
ASU's stated goal is to "create a fifth quarter" in games. Griswold is aiming to build a conditioning advantage that gives the Sun Devils a significant edge down the stretch, when opponents are prone to be worn down after three hours of blur-paced action.
"We're trying to run more plays," Griswold says. "We're trying to be more explosive. We're trying to be better late."
To that end, the Sun Devils have put an emphasis on using their summer conditioning to reflect the dynamics of an actual football season. Every Friday, ASU will play a "game," but in workout fashion. There'll be exercises tailored to different position groups -- linemen, for example, will push sleds -- and they'll all mimic the pace of how the Sun Devils plan to operate on Saturdays come Fall. Coaches will flash instruction cards for six seconds, the same amount of time it takes ASU to communicate and set up offensive play. The staff estimates that a snap happens about every 27 seconds on game day, so Sun Devil linemen will grunt into their sled pushes every 27 seconds, on the dot.
"By the time we get to fall camp, we've basically played eight intense games already," Griswold says. "We run through 80 plays in 45 minutes on Fridays with two-minute quarter breaks. In an actual game, it's about 100 plays in three-and-a-half hours."
The Sun Devils are coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons. They've seen solid results ever since Griswold came with Graham from Pittsburgh prior to the 2012 campaign, and there's been more reported individual success this offseason. Linebacker DJ Calhoun is at 217 pounds now after playing at 202 last year. Griswold says that defensive back Lloyd Carrington has made "tremendous" gains in explosiveness already this offseason, and the main work period hasn't even arrived yet.
Both players are integral components of an ASU defense that was young and inconsistent last season. That youth, though, has actually been the generator of excitement in Tempe.
"They're like pieces of clay, ready to be molded," Griswold says. "They're improving each day, and we've still got a lot of room to grow, just because we are so young."
From the performance staff's perspective, the most malleable Sun Devil pieces will be the true freshmen. ASU trains in small groups in the summer, and the youngsters will be the lucky recipients of the 6 a.m. workout slot once they all arrive.
"It's a good opportunity for them to get on a sleep schedule," Griswold says. "We're trying to build a team within a team. One day, that freshman class will be our senior leadership. So this will get them into the routine of getting their butts into bed, getting up, and being diligent."
That'll be just the beginning of an intricate, sweaty process meant to serve as the backbone of ASU's championship hopes in 2015 and beyond.