Friday, May 18, 2007

Mike Elgin impresses at minicamp

Quincy native Chris Doyle a builder of men

May 18, 2007

Mike Elgin may not be the world’s strongest man, but he sure seemed to be the strongest of the three New England Patriots offensive linemen at last weekend’s rookie minicamp.

While fifth-round tackle Clint Oldenburg of Colorado State and sixth-round tackle Corey Hilliard of Oklahoma State labored through their drills under the all-knowing eye of line coach Dante Scarnecchia, Elgin, a seventh-round guard/center from Iowa, looked right at home.

That’s a tribute not only to Elgin’s impressive work ethic - further evidence: he carried a 3.9 grade-point average as a mechanical engineering major - but also to the countless hours of instruction he received from strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle in the Hawkeyes’ weight room.

"You’ll get a kick out of this," Doyle said. "In Iowa, we have these little summer, weekend festivals. They have one called Beef Days, and they actually have a hay bale-(throwing) contest. Each year, all the big guys go to this hay bale contest and they kind of razz each other and it gets kind of competitive to see who can throw a 60-pound bale of hay to height."

Noted Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz with a chuckle: "They probably didn’t do that one in Foxboro, I’m guessing."

Anyway, Doyle said Elgin won last summer’s event with a toss of 15 feet straight up.

"Some people call it ‘functional strong’ or ‘country strong,’" Doyle said. "This guy grew up on a farm doing chores."

Doyle didn’t. He grew up in Quincy. A star offensive lineman for Boston College High School and the now-defunct Boston University program, he started on the football coaching track before turning his lifelong love of squats, bench-presses and the like into a second career. Since 1999 he’s been helping Ferentz, a former Bill Belichick assistant in Cleveland, mold raw, corn-fed Midwestern kids into Big Ten pile drivers.

Helping fulfill pro ambitions

Over the past five seasons, 20 Hawkeyes have been drafted into the NFL. Five of those, including Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark, came to Iowa as walk-ons - a stat that BU strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle says demonstrates just how proficient Doyle is at his craft.

"In terms of really developing players and getting guys to become the best that they can be," said Boyle, who took Doyle under his wing at BU 20 years ago, "he’s widely regarded as one of the best guys in college."

Agreed Ferentz: "I can’t imagine there are a lot of strength and conditioning coaches who do a better job than Chris."

Ferentz said Doyle, 38, is "in the forefront" of Iowa’s recruiting pitches and is the backbone of Iowa’s player development. Ferentz acknowledges that the Hawkeyes won’t win many recruiting wars with the big dogs like Florida, USC, Texas, Ohio State and Michigan. So the key to Iowa’s survival is making sure that its lower-profile recruits - such as Elgin, who was the last player Iowa took in his recruiting class - maximize their potential.

"All that starts with the work that Chris and his staff do," Ferentz said. "That’s where it all begins."

Doyle’s program at Iowa is built around what he calls "speed power."

"If you look at football," he said, "there is a time limitation. It doesn’t matter how strong you are; it’s how fast you can apply that force. Our training is geared toward developing a player’s ability to apply force rapidly. The harder you push against the ground, the higher you jump and the faster you run. We’re going to focus on developing ground-based power, our ability to push against the ground explosively.

"In every movement that we do - squats, bench-presses, clean, snatch - we actually time bar speed. We’re more concerned with power output than we are with absolute strength development - how many plates you can put on a bar. It’s how fast you can move that bar with those plates on it that really, truly matters."

Elgin moved one particular 45-pound plate very well at the rookie minicamp. In a grueling drill near the end of Sunday’s one-hour workout, the three offensive linemen held the plate at chest level and punched out and back with it while shuffling from side to side to mimic pass protection. Oldenburg and Hilliard got sloppy at times. They would shoot the plate out just fine but then would dip it down as they brought it back to their body. Elgin went straight out and straight back, and his footwork looked much more natural as well.

"We do similar drills," Doyle said. "To the casual observer, when they see that drill they say, ‘Oh, they’re developing the ability to punch.’ But what you’re really evaluating is the athlete’s ability to maintain torso stability and to stay in a good blocking position. That’s more critical than the punch itself. That’s an area where you’ll see Mike’s core strength, through his torso and his legs, is pretty good."

A familiar look

Doyle grew up a Patriots fan and idolized Hall of Fame guard John Hannah, who, coincidentally, was a surprise visitor at Saturday’s practice. Not surprisingly, he spent the whole time with his gaze fixed on Elgin, Oldenburg and Hilliard. Doyle, who had Hannah speak to his offensive linemen when he was the position coach at Holy Cross in the mid-1990s, said what he admired most about Hannah was "how much pride he took in being good at what he did."

Doyle sees Elgin taking a similar approach, both on the field and in the classroom. While it won’t be as easy as chucking a hale bay into an Iowa summer sky, Doyle thinks Elgin can carve out a place for himself in the pros, even though 246 players were picked ahead of him in this year’s draft.

"The end result is what matters - do you block people and do you block people consistently well over a period of time?" Doyle said. "Mike is a three-year starter in the Big 10, both at center and guard. He’s a brilliant guy. And no one will outwork him. ... I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anybody that he looked decent (at minicamp)."

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