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Rock-solid: Assessing the impact of Rock Oliver

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Rock.jpgAs soon as Ray "Rock" Oliver was announced as director of strength and conditioning on Joker Phillips' first staff in January, he developed somewhat of a mythical reputation around Lexington. Fans were buzzing about his experience, including his most recent stint with the Cincinnati Bengals, and saw him as a guy who could help take Kentucky football to the next level.

Fans often don't get to see the results of a strength and conditioning program until the season kicks off but UK players and staff have seen and felt - often painfully - the impact of Oliver in offseason workouts and practices. 

The impact is visible in more chiseled frames, better performances in conditioning drills and improvement in the weight room.  However, Oliver's impact is most palpably felt in the sense of confidence that no team Kentucky faces this season, Southeastern Conference or otherwise, will be better physically prepared than the Wildcats.

"Our body comps have changed," Phillips said at Media Day on Friday. "That gives our team confidence and a positive attitude, a winning attitude that we think will help us." 

While in the NFL, Oliver noted that he encountered players from every school in the SEC.  Oliver failed to notice any substantial difference among those players, whether they were from Florida or they were from Kentucky.

"If we (in the NFL) couldn't tell the difference, then we (at UK) better understand that that's how it is," said Oliver, who does not buy into the notion that name on an opponent's jersey carries any weight. "We're going to line up against them and find out what they're about." 

That confidence has not come without an offseason price of hard work and dedication - and small dose of fear.

Like fans, players felt a buzz upon Oliver's arrival, but more so because they were not sure what was in store for them. As those outside the program were excited about the impact that Oliver could make, the reality of stepping into the weight room for the first workout with their new coach set in.

Senior quarterback Mike Hartline described the mood of the team as nervous. 

"You could see that all the guys that talk a lot in the weight room weren't," Hartline said. "They didn't say a word."

Sophomore defensive end Collins Ukwu wanted to know what he was getting into. 

"I had no clue," Ukwu said. "I heard different rumors. I heard he killed players."

It turns out that the rumors of Oliver "killing" players would be prophetic, though not literally true. 

"I'm not going to lie," junior wide receiver Randall Cobb said, "that first workout killed us. I remember being laid up in the locker room for about 30 minutes afterward."

But the players embraced the workouts from day one. Rarely a day goes by without one of the players taking to the social networking avenues of Twitter of Facebook to rave about the workouts of Oliver. The results, as UK works through its first week of fall camp, are evident.

Every year we hear players are bigger, stronger, faster and leaner. That's not just smoke this year.

"I think we've lost a lot of fat," Phillips said. "We're a leaner team, we're a stronger team. I think the way we look now will help us through injuries. If you saw us in the spring, knock on wood, we didn't have any issues with injuries, and I think it's because of us being a lot leaner. The bigs got small; the ones who needed to lose weight lost weight; the ones who needed to gain weight did gain weight."

Oliver used that willingness of the players to work along with his wealth of experience at the highest level of football to gain the belief of the team. 

As the only SEC strength coach with his level of experience in the NFL, Oliver brings something to the Kentucky program that will pay dividends on the field and on the recruiting trail. Multiple players mentioned the contacts that Oliver has at the next level. All were thankful to have Oliver on their side.

"At one point or another, every guy who plays in college wants to play in the NFL," Oliver said. "Everybody wants to know what those guys are doing."

What Oliver does, in addition to your typical weight lifting, might surprise you. Hydro-pool workouts and boxing are an Oliver staple, and Oliver is more than willing to jump right in there with the players in sparring sessions. 

On the job for seven months now, the results are apparent on the field. When Oliver first got his hands on the players, most of them were barely able to get through 10 gassers.

That wasn't going to cut it for Oliver, who was previously at UK from 1989-92, when he worked with the UK men's basketball team.
 
Oliver mandated that all players on the team must be able to finish 16 gassers, a hurdle the team has cleared and then some.

"It turned into something where we kept doing it," Oliver said. "Every Friday we would have a team run and we just kept going. It built confidence."

Now, when UK goes for a Friday team run, players are finishing 24 wind sprints.  Oliver said that the number stacks up very favorably compared with college teams throughout the country.

"He guarantees you that afterward it will pay off," Hartline said. "We're going to come out exploding against Louisville."

When asked about whether this offseason revealed a conditioning issue in previous years, Phillips said "no, I just think we're in better condition this year." 

Regardless of the past, the team's conditioning is now clearly a strength.

"In the past, we weren't in shape to finish some games," Cobb said. "Now we're in shape to finish those games out."

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