Rusty Whitt might not have been born to be a strength and conditioning coach, but the love for weight training grabbed him during childhood. The 45-year-old wound up making a career out of it, pausing from 2003-09 to join the U.S. Army and twice go serve in Iraq.
Whitt’s time with U.S. Army Special Forces gave him a few more insights with which to administer his program and motivate struggling college athletes.
Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury hired Whitt in January 2016, and he’s already made some changes in his program from year one to year two, detailed earlier in this A-J Media’s series.
In the last installment of the five-part series, Whitt revealed the story behind his start in weight training, some ideas for motivating players and some of the Red Raiders whose physical skills stand out.
A-J: Regarding your background, you were born in Azle, correct?
Whitt: Fort Worth. Fort Worth, Texas, and I grew up in Azle. I played football, ran track. I grew up a baseball player and then I gravitated toward track and field and football. In seventh grade, I started football. I guess my appreciation for weight training (came from), when I was born, I had an infection of bone marrow and it basically caused me to be a very thin, lean kid. I was very thin, tall, skinny.
“When I was 11 years old, my mother and father bought me some weight sets. Arnold Schwarzenegger was kind of my inspiration and Joe Weider magazines, so I started lifting weights early on, and I was one of the few guys who really got into it in high school, as far as nutrition and diet and formulating your own programs and all that. It became an early passion of mine.”
A-J: How big were you at your largest and what size are you now?
Whitt: Six-2, 215, right now. I’ve been up to 240. In the military, I was 240. I played football my senior year at Abilene Christian weighing about 210, 212. I was a strong-side linebacker. The strength coach for the track and field program here (Cliff Felkins), he was my very first strength coach and he taught me how to run fast and really appreciate the importance of movement and speed.
“Some strength coaches get so wrapped up around heavy this and heavy that, they forget the importance of movement. Movement is sports. So the first thing that we’d do every day, we’d just have a movement skill, and so I never did lose the importance of being able to run fast. I think that’s an important blend that I have is, at some point you’re strong enough to play the game. You’d better be able to move from point A to point B and make a play.”
A-J: What time of day do you normally have the guys here during the offseason period?
Whitt: “We have a 6 a.m. group, about an hour before their 8 o’clock classes. We have a 1:30 group. We have a 3:30 group. We allow a lot of time to work on our mobilities, hips and ankles and shoulders and then we get into lifting weights. We’re going to run today at 5.
“We have an eight-hour rule we have to follow very closely. Our compliance coordinators, they’re tasked with keeping us within NCAA regs. So we do eight hours a week (in winter conditioning). Wednesdays, we have a team run at 6 a.m. and that’s all they do, and Wednesday’s kind of a day they can catch up on academics and rest, take some pressure off of them.”
A-J: You mentioned that one stage of your military training involved a run in which you had to be in the top 50 to pass. Do you incorporate some of that, the competitive aspect, within the team?
Whitt: “Oh, yeah. These guys, like last year, I don’t care what our record was last year. Of course, I do care, but what I’m saying is, I can reflect on the training we instituted and I’m proud of it. We did some team stuff with eight-man teams, with 12 guys on each team and, we’d say, ‘Hey, these top four are going to get these points, and these bottom four are going to get additional work.’
“We’d pit it where it was team versus team and you see how a guy works in a teamwork environment. Maybe you and I are holding a rope with a weight on it, and you’ve got to walk every step in Jones (Stadium). And you see what guy’s suffering and what guy’s body language is terrible under stress and what guy is trying to push. You can really expose and give kids a chance to exhibit leadership in that.
“So yeah, we incorporate it all the time — team versus team, individual versus individual — and watch their leadership mechanics at work. See who wants to communicate, who wants to just get it over with, who’s suffering. You can really tell a lot about a guy, about our team dynamic.
“My goal is to get more guys resilient. We lost some games because we just weren’t resilient enough. We just weren’t tough enough. We’re going to work on that, and we’ll to continue working on that.”
A-J: You obviously know what it’s like to push through that mental barrier and go beyond what you believed you were capable of. How do you try to convey that to your players?
Whitt: “Well, I might tell them a quick story or show an example on television of resiliency, because these guys (athletes) do grow up in a pretty nurturing environment. With any kind of stress, there’s going to be a complaint. ‘Aw, my first instinct might be to complain or let everybody know this is miserable.’ ‘Hey, these guys didn’t do that.’
“Or in this situation, ‘Don’t be a distraction. What is understood need not be discussed. We’re all tired. We’re all sore. We all can’t wait for this day to happen. Don’t distract others with your misery.’ There’s the old saying, suffer in silence. Let’s be a more resilient individual.
“Here’s an example: Like Miller. I was telling you about Miller, a friend of mine. (U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robbie Miller, who died at age 24 in Afghanistan, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2010.) He walked into a near ambush and decided to run into it and get into a gunfight with these bad guys. And he went into it and Afghani forces turned and ran away from him. But he chose the hard way. He chose the bravest path. And he charged into it with hellfire and fought into it. He chose the bravest path.
“I tell these kids to wake up and make the bravest decision. What’s the bravest thing you can do today? And then when they gain confidence – that’s the huge thing for me is for a team to get confident. When they get confidence, it’s going to spread. Against Baylor, we had some early settings of confidence. What happens, it spreads like a wildfire. I try to get our guys to understand the importance of that.”
A-J: Do you ever compete at times against the players you’re coaching, to say, ‘Hey, I can do this … .’ ”
Whitt: “I do. I’m pretty good at deadlift, and I like to tease our younger kids about it, what I can pull off the floor, ‘and if I can do it, you should do more.’ ‘I’m 45 years old and if I can do this, you should be able to surpass this.’
“I used to be able to compete against our skill athletes when I was in my 30s, late 20s. I could do the run test and pass with the skill players. Then I could do the run test and pass with the linebackers. Well, now I’m at a point after some surgeries and age, that now I’m with the linemen. (Laughs).
“I do like to compete against our younger players, but once they get to be around 20 years old, they blow me away. They stay in a program like we have and they’re consistent, they’re going to get so strong that I just can’t compete anymore, but the freshmen I can pick on a little bit.”
A-J: Who would you say are the fastest players on the team or some players who are fast that maybe people don’t realize?
Whitt: “Quan Shorts is fast for a big body. Jonathan Giles is fast. Of course, I’ve mentioned Cam (Batson) numerous occasions. Cam’s the fastest guy from 30 on in. J-Stock (Justin Stockton) might be able to beat him 40 on out.
“I think (defensive tackle) Joe Wallace is probably our fastest lineman. He’s got a lot of quick twitch. As far as outside receivers go, it’s probably Quan. Dylan (Cantrell) is a good 4.5 for a big body, which is good. Our linebacking corps is very young. He’s rehabbing his shoulder right now, but Jordyn Brooks is a fast kid. He’s probably 4.6 fast at 230, which is good.
“Offensive linemen wise, they’re all tall, long kids. Terence Steele runs well for a big kid. Madison Akamnonu runs well for a big ol’ kid. I think Terence probably, his mechanics, he runs probably the best of the returning offensive linemen. Haven’t really seen the new kids stretch it out yet. It’ll be interesting to see.”
A-J: How about functional strength? Who does the best job of taking it from the weight room onto the football field?
Whitt: “Well, Dylan (Cantrell), with his blocking … . If you ever watched Dylan Cantrell block … . Dylan bench pressed 225 22 times (this offseason), so he takes his strength into his position really well. Joe Wallace, he’s squatted over 600 pounds. I think Joe exhibits that, how he can plug a gap. Cam Batson’s very explosive, obviously.
“It’s just a natural transition for me. When I see a kid moving weight properly, I know they’re going to move well on the field. (Jonathan) Giles is a good weight lifter. Giles is a good Olympic lifter. He can squat well and he’s got good mobility so, boom, it transfers. There’s always going to be a transfer if you do stuff correctly and they have good mobility.”
A-J: You mentioned Joe Wallace several times and Broderick Washington. It sounds like you think the defensive tackles’ ceiling is going to be pretty high?
Whitt: “That’s one of our … I guess outside people say, ‘Oh, we have no D-line.’ We have a young corps of D-linemen that are working really hard, that are strong and I feel really good about. When you combine coaching with what we have and the incentive and the desire, I’m really optimistic about it. I feel good about it.
“Big Mych (Thomas) is doing a good job. He’s got one year and he understands that, so his urgency is through the roof. You should have seen him run yesterday. He was moving at a whole new gear. Nick McCann did really well. He’s starting to grow up.
“These kids see opportunity. (When) these kids know there’s a spot for them to play in the Big 12, you start seeing a light come on a little bit. When a kid knows he’s redshirting, they get subdued a little bit. But now, these young guys see the opportunity, you’re starting to see an all new energy about it. It’s very exciting to be a part of.”